The Curmudgeon: Questioning the Assumptions of Popular Music

Music Features

According to the Nielsen SoundScan, the best-selling album of 2012 was Adele’s 21, which sold 4.4 million copies, followed by Taylor Swift’s Red, which sold 3.1 million. I find this very good news, not only because I admire both albums but also because their commercial triumph might end the reign of the divas. For nothing has damaged pop music more over the past 20 years than the cult of diva singing.

By this, I mean the proliferation of female singers who look like magazine models and sing like air cannons. The diva cult transformed pop singing from emotional dissection to athletic competition. No longer were singers valued for the drama of a whisper or a sigh; now they were judged by how high and how long a note could be sung, by how many melismatic shivers and superfluous curlicues could be added to a single line, by how much portentous tone and how many grace notes could be shoved into a single syllable.

Singers came to resemble Olympic athletes, assessed by numerical scores to the second decimal point, based on the difficulty of the program and the cleanliness of execution. While it is impressive to see an ice skater perform a triple axel, it doesn’t tell us much about romantic relationships, and it’s the latter that we want from our pop singers. But belting out a showstopper as if spinning in the air over a rink doesn’t tell us much about romantic relationships either.

The American Idol television show is rightly blamed for the spread of the diva cult, for the on-screen judges and phone-in voters favored cute, young singers with big, booming voices decorated by countless embellishments. The show has given us such over-singing divas as Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Fantasia and Jennifer Hudson as well as their male equivalents in Daughtry, Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken.

But the cult got started long before the program first screened in 2002. In the 1990s singers such as Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Beyonce and Christina Aguilera (and such male counterparts as Michael Bolton, Brian McKnight and Richard Marx) got the cult rolling by deciding it was always better to sing two or three notes where one might do.

It was all based on a misunderstanding of Whitney Houston. Houston possessed the most thrilling vocal instrument of her generation, but her great records were never about showing off that instrument or stuffing her lines with extra notes. Whatever her personal problems, she was all about applying the lessons of African-American church singing to pop songs; she would sing a song straight through the verses and choruses until it reached a climax where the spirit would take over and she could just improvise on what she had already sung.

The exhilarating coda of “I Will Always Love You” has nothing to do with calculating the best effects and everything to do with letting go and allowing a lifetime of hymn-singing instincts to take over. She opens the floodgates and lets the waters flow. Her diva followers couldn’t or wouldn’t do that; their climaxes are all strain and no freedom.

Adele and Swift are the anti-divas. The hefty Adele and the scrawny Swift, now 24 and 23 respectively, are handsome in their own way, but neither has the conventional beauty of the diva as pin-up model. Swift doesn’t even have the voice; in live situations her soprano is thin and unreliable as to pitch. Adele has a huge instrument, but she doesn’t use it in the diva fashion. Listen to her records and you will find they are scrubbed of the diva cult’s gingerbread ornamentation; Adele delivers her lines with a clean minimalism—and her songs are the more powerful for it.

Swift too sings with little fuss. She may not have much of an instrument, but she uses what she has quite effectively. By singing not as a goddess on a pedestal but as your best friend in a diner booth, she doesn’t overpower you into submission but lures you into intimacy. Even on her new album when the backing tracks are booming away, her voice always has an inviting vulnerability.

It helps, of course, that both women are terrific songwriters. They don’t need to load up their songs with a lot of vocal gimmicks to compensate for the generic platitudes and predictable melodic movement as one might with a song by Diane Warren, house writer for the diva movement. Because Adele and Swift can trust their material to carry much of the emotional weight, their vocals don’t have to be the whole show. They can sing not as superheroes trying to save the world from a mad scientist, but as real-life women in a common predicament.

When Adele, for example, sings about the unreliability of love on “Rumour Has It,” she doesn’t have to rely on the diva tricks of wailing and warbling like a victim, because Adele doesn’t consider herself a casualty. She’s as untrustworthy as the man—and just as tough—so she can sing the lines cleanly, without frills. The song begins with an industrial drumbeat, and soon Adele gets up in her ex-lover’s face, whispering to him with a snake-like hiss, dismissing her rival as a made-up, diva-like fantasy: “She, she ain’t real; she ain’t gon’ be able to love you like I will.”

That rival sure won’t be able to sing like Adele, all restrained anger and reined-in menace. Adele doesn’t have to over-sing, because her understated threats have more impact. On the chorus, she starts blasting out the title line as if her voice were an R&B trumpet repeating a descending riff. She has the tools for divadom, as she proves on the song’s bridge, where she croons agilely over the melody from Elton John’s “Your Song.” But the stomping drum pattern returns, and Adele blows away her romantic rival, her ex-lover and her diva contemporaries as if they were all so much cigarette smoke and returns to her ominous, reptilian snarl, too laser-focused to have room for trimmings.

And when Swift sings about the dangerous temptations of lust on “Treacherous,” her vocal has even less need for diva clutter. Over the clipped rhythm of two guitars, she begins in a quiet, reluctant whisper, “Put your lips close to mine as long as they don’t touch,” a phrase that perfectly captures the dilemma of wanting and not wanting to be kissed. That ambivalence is not just in the lyrics but in Swift’s voice, which keeps opening up and closing down, like a young woman who’s tempted but wary.

But each time she draws back, she’s not as guarded as before, and by the time she reaches the bridge and declares, “Nothing safe is worth the drive,” her vocal throttle is opened full. But even then she resists the temptations of divadom, forsaking the overwrought twists of melodrama for the straightforward delivery of drama. So when she draws back to a timid whisper on the final chorus to worry, “This slope is treacherous; I, I, I like it,” the effect is devastating.

One can only hope that the example of Adele’s and Swift’s success—artistic as well as commercial—will inspire other singers to turn away from the narcotic allure of the diva path and embrace the sobriety of vocal restraint. Maybe then pop singing will stop being an athletic competition and once again become the realm of art—will stop relying on dogma of romantic certainties and resume the exploration of romantic ambivalence. Maybe Beyonce—a superb vocal talent and not a bad songwriter—will kick the diva habit and finally become the singer she was meant to be.

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