Oh say (better not!) can you see?

Christina Aguilera and the Hideous Cult of Oversouling

By John Eskow, February 8, 2011 11:48 AM

To me, the horrific part of Christina Aguilera’s rendition of the National Anthem — and “rendition” is an apt term for it, because she kidnapped the song and shipped it out to be tortured — was not her mangling of the words, but her mangling of the tune itself: to paraphrase the great Chuck Berry, she “lost the beauty (such as it is) of the melody until it sounds just like a (godawful) symphony.”

This is the same grotesque style — 17 different notes for every vocal syllable — that has so dominated the pop and R&B charts for years. Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston are relatively minor offenders, but singers like Aguilera — who admittedly possesses a great instrument — just don’t seem to know when to stop, turning each song into an Olympic sport as they drain it of its implicit soul, as if running through the entire scale on every single word was somehow a token of sincerity.

It’s called melisma — the bending of syllables for bluesy or soulful effect — and what’s creepy about the way it’s used now is that it perverts America’s true genius for song, as evinced by its creators in the world of gospel and R&B, like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.

You will hear more of this tonsil-twisting insincerity — to your eternal sorrow — if you watch any episode of American Idol.

The great Jerry Wexler — who produced both Ray and Aretha — coined a great term for it: “oversouling.” He described it as “the gratuitous and confected melisma” that hollows out a song and drains it of meaning. Wexler, who knew more about soul than any producer before or since, said:

“Time and again I have found that flagrantly artificial attempts at melisma are either a substitute for real fire and passion or a cover-up for not knowing the melody… Please, learn the song first, and then sing it from the heart.”

And Christina, he wasn’t referring to the words.

POSTSCRIPT: I was lucky enough to know Wexler a bit, near the end of his life, and I can hear his raspy, streetwise voice in my ear, insisting I clarify his point: the problem is not Melisma–which I believe is also the name of Joan Rivers’ daughter–it’s Oversouling. It’s like those corny educational films I saw in grade-school: “Fire can be our greatest friend…or our worst enemy!” The same goes for melisma. Without melisma, no Ray or Aretha, and also no Sam Cooke, no Waylon Jennings, no B.B. King, no Charlie Parker. It’s rare for a singer or instrumentalist to disdain melisma completely; Miles Davis and Merle Haggard come to mind, but even they employ it, sparingly, at times. The nightmares begin when–as several posters have wisely pointed out–singers practice Melisma Abuse in order to draw attention to themselves and away from the song. Then it becomes, as Jerry Wexler said, that “gratuitous and confected melisma” that has driven so many of us to the point of shrieking, Aguilera-style, in despair.

CODA: Racism is heartbreaking, in all its permutations. After I wrote this piece, a friend half-jokingly predicted that I might be accused of anti-white racism for attacking Aguilera in favor of Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. Then, as comments started flooding in, I was concerned that a few of them were implying–whether the commenters realized it or not–that the National Anthem should be kept simon-pure, unsung except by white Europeans. That was disturbing, and it provoked me into writing the Postscript above, to clarify the original point about the abuse of melisma.

Then–and, granted, it was only from a few trolls, whose endless repititions made only them seem like an army–we began to see another face of racism take its ugly shape. I was accused of “touting” Wexler–whatever the hell that means–over the black singers he produced, a nonsensical charge belied by the piece itself. Then it became: how could I write about this subject, since I “clearly” didn’t sing myself? And once that charge was refuted, suddenly trifling matters like “credentials” and “experience” in R&B didn’t matter. Then, finally, any attempt at subtlety was dropped, and the problem was revealed to be”guys like me”–guys who, I was sternly admonished, had shown–by their love for Sam Cooke and BB King–that they “used to” prefer Mozart to Jelly Roll Morton (huh?) As the goading campaign collapsed into total incoherence, and other commenters tried nobly to reason with the trolls, the whole thing just got sadder and sadder.

So, for the record (literally as well as figuratively): oversouling does not mean “too black.” Quite the opposite: oversouling, whether you like the term or not, is a kind of vocal minstrel-show, a theft of real feeling in the service of corny show-biz. It is a failure of artistic taste. It can be committed by rock-and-roll guitarists, opera singers, actors, and painters, but these days it’s most spectacularly–and frequently–thrust into our consciousness by singers. We all enjoy what speaks to us, so if you prefer Christina Aguilera to Aretha Franklin–or Michael Bolton to Otis Redding–Godspeed. But don’t defend it by trying–feebly–to police the word-choices of those with other opinions.

Finally, I thank God I’ve spent so much of my life among musicians, black and white, who are inspired solely by their love of the groove, no matter the color of the person who’s laying it down–whether it’s Paul Butterfield or James Cotton playing harp, Charley Pride or Merle Haggard singing country, Mitch Ryder or Wilson Pickett screaming R&B. Brothers and sisters: keep making that joyful noise–and, as Sly and the Family Stone sang, let “all the squares go home!”

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-eskow/christina-aguilera-and-th_b_819979.html or http://huff.to/h1BEm6 or http://tinyurl.com/6zjapm4

Related Posts

An alternative vision of capitalism The Self-Made Myth: Debunking Conservatives' Favorite - And Most Dangerous - Fiction By Sara Robinson, April 25, 2012 ... The self-made myth ...
Climate change in Arkansas http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aunab1wtUfY http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aunab1wtUfY ... The following was just emailed to John Lowery, a Democr...
Burying it in doo-doo Why Anyone Should Care that Bill O’Reilly Calls Me A Communist By Robert Reich, Monday, April 23, 2012 ... Bill O’Reilly, the tumescent persona...
Flammable pool of toxic paranoia The Ghost of Joe McCarthy in Today's Republican Party By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, April 26, 2012 ... We’ve talked at times about George...
Coordinated, systematic racial discrimination Christians of the Holy Land By Ben White, 26 Apr 2012 06:36 ... A recent report by CBS show 60 Minutes on "Christians of the Holy Land" has r...
Indistinguishable from the lunatic fringe Satanazis III: Night of the Satanazis By Fred Clark, April 25, 2012 ... Don’t imagine you’re safe just because Pat Robertson, Demon Hunter, is ...
Our crime was looking like the people We Japanese Americans must not forget our wartime internment By George Takei, Friday 27 April 2012 15.15 EDT ... Seventy years ago, US soldiers...
Third-rate wingnut talkshow host This supremely Republican supreme court By Scott Lemieux, Friday 27 April 2012 15.41 EDT ... The 2008 elections represented a decisive repudiat...
Calling to America A (redacted) poem for the torture report By Brian Turner, Wednesday 10 December 2014 13.54 EST           &...
Brobdingnagian quantity of evidence “Oklahoma City”: The Bubba job By Laura Miller, Sunday, Apr 22, 2012 03:00 PM CDT ... In the hours after the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal...

Permanent link to this article: https://levantium.com/2011/02/10/oh-say-better-not-can-you-see/

1 comment

  1. The necessity of John Eskow’s follow-on postscript and coda illustrates the tightrope we all walk when we try inject a modicum of reason into entrenched positions. Even absurd ones.

    Christina Aguilera’s recent National Anthem mistakes opened a door and Mr. Eskow boldly walked into taboo territority. Good for him! Sometimes you’ve just got to say, “Polite conversation be damned!”

    We (who care) must likewise exploit every opportunity to expose both Western hypocrisy and Eastern shortcomings when circumstances focus the world’s attention (however briefly) on ugly realities that are normally off-limits.

    Like racism and apartheid. Like illegal wars and military occupations. Like puppet tyrants propped up by foreign powers. Like dangerous theology. What is happening in Egypt right now is such a moment, ripe with opportunity to shine a light into a murky darkness no one dares venture into for fear of being called an anti-Semite, or un-American, or (shudder) part of an “ilk.”

    Sure, you’ll have to come back with postscripts and codas to refute the babble of flummerous buffoonery that is certain to ensue, rhetorical flying spittle from rabid cretins cornered by their own illogic and fascist passions. But it is high time to cleanse this American temple, to drive out the money-lenders and high-tiders, to remember that all people yearn for their certain unalienable Rights, and that the truth will set them free.

    Vive la Revolución!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.