On The American Singing Voice: American Idol, Glee and The Sing-Off

by Thomas Brett

If you’ve been paying attention to popular TV shows you might have noticed how important the singing voice is to the North American popular culture moment we’re in.  Three shows in particular highlight the singing voice: American Idol (Fox), Glee (Fox), and The Sing-Off (NBC).  All of these shows remind us how powerful the singing voice is as a site for representing and constructing personal identity, social group cohesion, and a means of generating emotion, desire and affect out of the aether.

The mother of all singing competitions, American Idol, has been running for 10 years now, chronicling the discovery and manufacture of aspiring American pop singers.  On American Idol, the singing voice stands in boldest relief in the early days of each season, as singers audition a cappella for the judges.  Here we hear the unvarnished voices rendering parts of famous songs without the support of a backing band.  We hear voices trying to render a musical style–a rock voice, a gospel voice–through phrasing and dynamics and timbre (or tone “color”), this last quality being somewhat out of the singer’s total control.  In his book Image-Music-Text (1977), French literary critic Roland Barthes speaks of the “grain” of the voice to describe its particular quality and more:

“The ‘grain’ of the voice is not–or is not merely–its timbre; the significance it opens cannot better be defined, indeed, than by the very friction between the music and something else, which something else is the particular language (and unwise the message)” (185).

One the best ways to understand what makes a good singer is to hear a really bad one, or even just an average one.  The voice is such an infinitely flexible musical tool that when we hear it used in a compromised, less than optimal way, it reveals–or at least points towards–those intangibles that make for a great singing voice.  The differences are usually more than simple matters of intonation (Randy Jackson: “Uh, That was a little pitchy for me…”).  There is rhythmic phrasing, for instance, something not easy to do with only one’s own internal clock to go by.  And there is always that mysterious quality–Barthes’ “grain” of the voice?–which may in fact be the result of a whole bunch of qualities put together: the quality that lets us determine after a moment or two whether or not we’re moved enough to care.  Is this an authentic and true singing voice?

Put a bunch of singing voices together a Capella (sans backing band) and you have the premise of The Sing-Off, an American singing competition which made its debut in 2009.  Glee clubs date back to the Harrow School in England in the 1870s and have been mainstays on some American college campuses since around that time.  “Glee” refers not to the generally “happy” sound of these singing groups, but rather to the glee, an English part song popular from 1650 until about 1900 in England.

Because there is no band on The Sing-Off, some of the singers must fulfill an instrumental role–singing a bass part, beatboxing a drum kit, and so forth.  Here, musical blending is key, but so is the arrangement–that is, the ways in which the singers decide to render their song and divvy up the parts and divide their harmonies (not to mention the orchestration of the harmonies themselves: there are a lot of ways to voice a chord!).  In the midst of an electronic music-based popular music industry, the singing on The Sing-Off invigorates because it is so live, so acoustic, and so dependent on the performers listening closely to one another.

But if synthetic is your thing, look no further than Glee, a musical drama that also began in 2009.  In the Glee world, every singing voice is pristine, auto-tune perfect, and otherwise enhanced.  The Glee singers also benefit from a real world impossibility: whenever they sing in the classroom or onstage, a lush band sound magically arises behind them.  This is high-tech karaoke at its most highly mediated: you watch real singer-actors lip-syncing to their own pre-recorded vocal tracks of show tunes and contemporary hits.  The auto-tune and other sonic enhancements have reached the point of rendering the singers close to cyborgs in their perfection: not a note is out of place, befitting the airless milieu of the fictional high school where the show takes place.

The Glee recipe has revived many older pop songs, and Glee versions of them are released on the Apple iTunes store the week they’re featured in an episode. Thus, in an age of ever decreasing music sales, Glee recordings have sold many millions.  This is not just a function of mass marketing (though it is certainly that too), but rather a pandering to our collective memory/nostalgia for songs that have receded into the past (even if that past is a few months ago).  In this regard, Glee, The Sing-Off, and American Idol all have something in common by being elaborate apparatuses for reviving and giving new life to old music.