Monday, February 26, 2007

"They're scream-in' in the rain...."

Once upon a time in America—more specifically, somewhere between the day when the streets were patrolled by two guys named Starsky and Hutch (the originals, circa 1975) and the day when the mere mention of David Hasselhoff began provoking reflex laughter*—what we now call a boombox was known as a ghetto-blaster. That's because it was usually found in America's inner cities, where it was carried by vaguely malevolent-looking kids who used it to play R&B or early rap at ear-splitting volume. (See under "Radio Raheem" in Spike Lee's classic, Do the Right Thing.) The term fell out of favor in part for PC reasons and in part because ghetto-blasters began showing up in the dorm rooms of pimply faced suburban kids named Irv. Well, today, a new era of ghetto-blasting is upon us. It has been on conspicuous display for the past month, during the preliminary phases of American Idol as well as in the rush to anoint Dreamgirls the winner of "Best Picture" (which it did not, of course, win). Then came last night, and the Oscars themselves, where we saw the phenomenon at its best/worst in Jennifer Hudson's vocal performance and her seeming coronation as not just "Best Supporting Actress," but also America's favorite new song stylist. Folks, maybe I'm out of my element—I don't think so, given my own substantial background in music—but I've literally and figuratively heard enough.

Screaming unintelligible lyrics at a constant decibel level that would probably be too loud even for civil-defense purposes is not singing. It is just screaming. Today's version of ghetto-blasting.

That's a provocative remark on its face, so let's be clear about a few things; consider these the disclaimers. First, I am using the term ghetto-blaster in connection with Hudson to be....cute. Comedic. (Had the term not first been used as explained above, I would not use it here, and I'm sure I wouldn't have even thought of it.) I am not implying that Hudson is from the ghetto, or that every singer who sings like that is from the ghetto, or even that every singer who sings like that has brown skin**—far from it, as we've seen already this season on American Idol. Pale-skinned people can screech just as unpleasantly as Jennifer Hudson does. Indeed, this is very much in keeping with a larger trend that I'm hardly the first person to notice; it's the substance of a fall-off-your-chair-hilarious bit by Robin Williams about "mall homeboys": the millions of privileged white teens who live their lives constantly in character as if they were members of urban street gangs***, affecting the lingo and mannerisms. Thing is, there's no question that the style of "singing" Hudson typifies emerged from inner-city churches and their Southern ancestry. Today's ghetto-blasting owes much to gospel in its cadence and overall inflection. That is simply fact.

In any case, it has been embraced into the mainstream and now seems to color our very feelings about what makes "good singing" good. Best as I can tell, here are those criteria, apart from the actual screaming:
* No sense of dynamics or nuance.
* No particular emphasis given to tone quality.
* No seeming consciousness of the way specific sections of the lyrics might call for a different vocal delivery.
* A numbing rhythmic predictability as well.
* All of it topped off by a tendency to mix in those grating "runs" (wherein every note is an excuse to surround it with 14 other notes that aren't in the basic song) that have characterized just about every Idol performance this season.

This would probably be the place for me to note who my own favorite singers are: Al Jarreau, Anita Baker, James Ingram, Patti Austin, and Stevie Wonder****, all of whom happen to have darkish skin. See, this isn't about race; it's about music. In further evidence of that fact, I should mention that I also (counterintuitively?) like and admire rap—yes, even when it's screamed, and even when the screamed words are almost incredibly vile. That's all part of the idiom in rap, which is a genre unto itself and serves an important social function*****, if people would only listen a bit closer. So maybe ghetto-blasting is a genre unto itself, not to be confused with genuine singing. If that's the case, we should say so. Maybe we need a category in the next Grammys, "Best Screamed Performance By Someone Who Considers Herself a Singer (Though We Know Better)." But we ought to do something soon, because there are millions of impressionable kids listening, who are bound to conclude—from the validation bestowed upon Hudson as well as the apparent front-running Idol contestant, Lakisha Jones—that this is what singing is about.

No it isn't.

* OK...maybe the Hoff has always provoked a certain amount of laughter.
** Or that all brown-skinned people live in a ghetto. that enough disclaimers for one basic thought??

*** Or at least, Eminem.
**** Yeah, I know: old, old, old, old, and older. At least I didn't say Tony Bennett.
***** I think of a song like Tons O Guns, by Gang Starr (explicit).


Cosmic Connie said...

Hey, I used to have a ghetto blaster, back when it was called that.

Boy, you hit a nerve with me, Steve. I may be out of my element too, but I am truly annoyed by the trend in "over-singing" (or "over-screeching"). How many superstar wannabes (and superstars, for that matter) have mangled "Amazing Grace" or "The Star-Spangled Banner" by screeching those "14 other notes that aren't in the basic song"?

Many will argue with me here, but I think this lamentable trend really started with -- or at least got a major boost from -- Whitney Houston in the mid-1980s. ("No matter what they take from me / They can't take away my ugly screech.") My apologies to fans of Whitney (and lovers of rhyming lyrics, for that matter), but her voice has always grated on me.

But then, what do I know about good taste? I love reggae.

Anonymous said...

You can use as many discalimers as you want, this sounds like racism to me. You're attack an aspect of AFrican American culture, and a deeply entrenched one at that, that goes back hundreds of years to slave songs and joyous refrains that looked forward to a day when freedom would come. This is not just a style, man, but a cultural voice. Get with it.

Anonymous said...

I'm a trained/experienced singer, have been singing for 20+ years, and Steve is correct. It's over-singing - trying too hard, going too often for the loud or high notes, going for techniques meant to 'impress' the listener. It's style over substance (debatable style, at that). It makes my ear bleed - and it's going to cause many of these young singers to develop serious problems (throat nodules, etc.) that will hamper and likely shorten their careers, because that sort of poor vocal technique abuses your vocal cords.

Steve Salerno said...

Ok, so I'm attacking an aspect of the culture.... So? What's wrong with that? Where's it written that every aspect of someone's culture is beyond criticism simply BECAUSE it's an aspect of someone's culture? (Or are you arguing that certain cultures are "protected," and thus are off-limits for any level of criticism about anything?) If that were the case, am I supposed to be proud of the Mafia, which seems to be a significant part of my culture?

And hey, let's remember--"man"--that what we're talking about here is MUSIC, after all. I'm not talking about constitutional rights or Jim Crow laws or what-have-you. Why is it that, at a certain point of debate, every conversation somehow has to take us back to the era of the slave ships? As if that's always the hole card. I'm sorry if you're offended, but if we've lost the right to voice these kinds of criticisms, then America is in sad shape indeed.

RevRon's Rants said...

I, for one, have little patience for the the theatric affectations of many people in the public eye, whether such affectations be manifest as a New Wage / Airy Fairy obviously trying to come across as blissfully happy or wearing the appropriate "enlightened soul" garb, or the entertainer who blatantly oversings or gesticulates with all the subtlety of a silent film actor.

I'm a pretty laid back guy, but I sometimes want to bitch-slap David Caruso (CSI-Miami) for that very reason. And he's a white dude. Same feeling toward people of other races who play up the stereotypes that denigrate their race. And yes, that goes for the typical sit-com representation of the stupid white guy.

Face it... twits come in all colors, and if someone gets their BVD's in a bundle because someone noticed, then they're the one with a problem.

See Steve, you don't have a corner on the curmudgeon market. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

What a terrific comment, Ron, for my money. As usual, you said in about 90 words what it took me several hundred to get across, and with a wider lens, to boot.

Anonymous said...


Yes indeed, we see the same type of phenomenon here in Europe, where singing loudly is confused with strengh and passion...

But it started off with white singers as well... If you listen to some of Celine Dion's early songs, you may find that she pushes her voice too far though she certainly has nuance and subtlety in reserve;-)

Our equivalent of American Idol is "la nouvelle star" (the new star) or "Star Academy". The first is better to my eyes, since they select very different ypes of would-be singers, though I sometimes find their comments harsh and non-empathetic...

Vanessa Biard from Paris

Cosmic Connie said...

And this isn't in the "screaming" category, but on the general subject of folks who can't sing... I am reminded of a previous post here about a teenager named Cheyenne who is undeniably cute and perky but musically untalented. I've got one better (or worse): Hannah Montana, who isn't even a real person, but a sitcom character played by Billy Ray Cyrus's daughter Miley.

Country fans may remember Billy Ray, one-hit wonder from the early 1990s. (The hit was "Apey-Drapey" Heart. No, wait, that was "Achy Breaky Heart." The ape-drape, or mullet, was his hairdo.) His daughter is cute as a button but is not only a hammy actress, SHE CAN'T SING. Yet she played to a record crowd at the Houston Rodeo the other night (don't laugh, that's a pretty big event). I think she was opening act for the Cheetah Girls, who are more cute kids who can't sing (but sure can jump around and be perky!).

Apparently the sound system glitched and a bunch of folks had trouble hearing Hannah/Miley. So now the Rodeo is having to refund some $840,000 in ticket prices. I'd think it should be the other way around; they should have charged extra to those who were spared Hannah's vocal performance. I'd be willing to bet that the parents accompanying the pre-teen girls who came to hear her were secretly thankful, but their little pink-clad cowgirls probably weren't so happy.