brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: Quality

On Voice, Authenticity, And Not Being Fake

In a recent online interview excerpted in The Guardian, musician and Portishead member Geoff Barrow discusses the idea of singing with a “fake” voice. Leading the pack in Barrow’s view is the late Amy Winehouse, a white singer who sang, some people say disparagingly, like a black jazz or soul singer from an earlier era–or like someone doing an imitation of such a singer. (There is an excellent article on this topic by Daphne Brooks in The Nation.) Barrow just doesn’t buy Winehouse’s voice, saying that “her actual voice was fake. She had a real life with a fake voice”–a singer who “had become just a comic character of herself and how she sang.”

You can decide for yourself. Here is Winehouse singing her song “You Know I’m No Good”:

Out of curiosity, I read up on Winehouse on Wikipedia. I found a quote from the jazz singer Tony Bennett, who maintained that Winehouse’s voice was the real deal–not fake at all, but steeped in the jazz tradition: “she was the only singer that really sang what I call the ‘right way’ because she was a great jazz-pop singer. . . She was really a great jazz singer. A true jazz singer.”

In contrast to Winehouse, Barrow mentions a few other female singers—including PJ Harvey, Barrow’s Portishead bandmate Beth Gibbons, and Bjork–who “change their voices while remaining themselves.” Presumably what Barrow means by this is that each of these singers assume a singing voice which, while not their speaking voice per se (after all, whose singing voice is?) is nevertheless somehow true to who they are. But how can a listener make this determination?

I have always liked Bjork’s voice, mainly because it’s so unique–a flexible tool that can sing those unusual Bjorkian melodies. And come to think of it, Bjork’s singing voice is just like her speaking voice but louder and more melodic, arising organically out of the same Icelandic source. Bjork sings in a way that sounds like a heightened spoken voice–as if she’s singing-explaining some very cool things to curious elementary school kids and getting carried away. Her voice seems to be true to who she is.

Here is Bjork singing her song “Moon” (which, by the way, features some devastatingly good overdubbed background vocals):

As for that best-selling singer of recent years, the Englishwoman Adele, Barrow adds: “Strangely enough I think Adele sings in her own voice, I think it’s her trying to be a big voice and that’s her.” But again, how does Barrow come by his insight? How can a listener know Adele is “trying” to be a big voice? Maybe she just has a powerful, big voice.

Here is Adele singing her huge hit “Someone Like You.” One thing I noticed about it compared to the Bjork and Winehouse songs is how massive Adele’s recorded vocal sound is. This is due to her big voice but also to a pristine recording that really booms:

***

These are all interesting notions: What does Barrow mean by singing with a “fake voice”? How do we know when a singer’s or instrumentalist’s artistry is fake or authentically the real McCoy? And what does it mean to change one’s singing voice while remaining oneself?

First, being “fake” in musical terms usually means making use of a style or idiom or timbre that isn’t “natural” to you, isn’t authentically yours. In the case of Winehouse, her detractors feel that she wholesale appropriated her vocal sound rather than…Rather than what? Developed it in isolation, free of stylistic influence? You can see the can of worms this opens up: How do we hear the difference between someone authentically inhabiting a sound as opposed to just fakingly co-opting it in a tourist-y kind of way? Maybe with singers, their voices either ring true or not, although a lot of singing–from pop to opera–sounds affected anyway. With instrumentalists, judging authenticity is even more problematic because instrumentalists can to some degree hide behind their instrument’s sound. All this to say that it’s hard to ever really know how genuinely artists lay claim to a sound and come by their knowledge of its stylistic conventions.

Second, whether we’re talking about singers or instrumentalists, we judge fakeness or authenticity by listening and trusting our guts, and I suppose, our eyes: Does this sound make sense coming from this person? By this measure, Winehouse’s slurred slinkiness, Bjork’s wandering wide-eyed rapture, and Adele’s bellowing all ring true. Each singer inhabits her own kind of authenticity.

Finally, as for changing one’s singing voice while remaining oneself, I’m not sure I understand what this means. Why does it matter whether or not one remains oneself as one sings or plays an instrument? Hasn’t making music always been a kind of theater anyway, a way for performers to try on different hats?

On Reading Online Consumer Reviews

I’m fascinated by consumer reviews and I read them regularly on Amazon.com. You could even say that review reading is a hobby of mine. What’s fascinating about reviews is how they illuminate people’s thinking by expressing their passion and enthusiasm, a high level of analytical detail, and a steadfast belief in themselves. No matter what the product–books, headphones, salad spinners (yes, I’ve searched for all of these)–there’s a community coalescing around it, arguing over its magical merits or its serious shortcomings.

It’s remarkable how much detail people include in their reviews. They write about the product’s packaging, the ritual-like experience of opening it (!), how it compares to similar products, how it works (or ceases working) after a few hours, months, or years, the texture and feel of its design, and how it’s loved or hated for these and many other reasons. Reviewers go on for paragraph after paragraph rendering the product’s Quality–not so much how well it’s made, but quality in its holistic and philosophical sense (hence the capital Q): how the product has presence and enhances our lives. In the products we review we find our values manifest in tangible things. As reviewers we describe and rate the Quality of products to explain them to ourselves and alert others of what to expect.

Consumer reviewers also tend to be quite sure of themselves. In their single-mindedness and belief in their opinions, reviewers remind us that there’s no single right way to see the world. The same product can inspire a wide range of assessments from one to five stars, each convinced of its perspective. Over and over again you’ll find the same product both “great” and “terrible.” And, impressively, most of the reviews provide evidence for why the product is great, terrible, or somewhere in between.

***

Consumer reviews of music recordings are particularly insightful, especially if you read about music you already know well. In the course of thinking through music fandom, I’ve been reading a lot of reviews of familiar recordings and what’s most striking about them is how descriptive, impressionistic, and metaphoric the average listener is when trying to put into words the experience of listening to a particular piece of music. As with reviews of other products, music reviews achieve their analytical detail through floridly associative description. Thus, a music is never just good or bad, but usually about something–reminding the listener of something else non-musical.

In fact, if you read music reviews you’ll be convinced of music’s ability to communicate quite specific things with its communities of listeners. And different musics build their own kinds of consensus too. What I mean by this is that most people who take the time to review a music are fans of it and want to broadcast their fandom to others. So it’s not surprising that most reviews are positive rather than negative.

Consider a few of the Amazon.com reviews for electronic musician James Blake’s eponymous debut album released in 2011. In three of the twenty-nine reviews we see a cross-section of writing approaches that are by turns analytical, associative, and even advice-oriented. For example, Scoundrel (Sept 28, 2011) writes:

“Blake’s interest leans on the possibilities of the manipulation of his own voice [...] takes familiar R&B tropes and converts them into a quiet, creeping sadness that builds upon its silences while slowly filling the empty spaces with buzzing layers of sound.”

Then D. King (July 22, 2011) talks about how the music “evokes a mournful, elegiac feeling, as if it’s an album recorded by a soul in transition…mourning the loss and mistakes of one life, with a glimmer of hope for the next.”

And finally, G.Gillen (August 9, 2011) gets practical with some sound listening advice:

“Play this on a real system. With a sub. Otherwise, you’re just robbing yourself. You gotta have the sub on for dubstep.”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 111 other followers