clap clap blog: we have moved

Tuesday, May 20, 2003
Ah, this is why we read the NYT arts section: for exegesises on the (over)use of the melisma in current pop music. The melisma is that "Iiiii-eeeiee-ii-eee-EEEEEE!" packing of multiple notes into one syllable that you hear Mariah and Whitney use a lot, and which American Idol has apparently decided is the epitome of vocal talent. It's not, obviously, which the article points out adroitly:

Soul innovators like Mr. Charles and Ms. Franklin were capable of melisma that could singe the false eyelashes of divas like Ms. Carey and Whitney Houston, but they used the technique more sparingly, and more meaningfully — as fevered expressions of emotions beyond words. Listen to Mr. Charles's "Come Back Baby" (1954). He employs all kinds of vocal flourishes, whooping and growling, lagging teasingly behind the beat and sliding into an unearthly falsetto. When he does break into melisma, he does so in the service of his song: in his vocal hiccups we hear the pain of a spurned lover.
It is worth remembering that good popular singing is less about technical polish than personality amplification. Many of the greatest pop singers are freaks, cranks and technical ill-adepts; the bona fide American idols who would likely flop on "American Idol" include not just vocal eccentrics like Bob Dylan, Chet Baker and Billie Holiday, but even the definitive modern soul diva, Mary J. Blige, whose occasionally imperfect pitch is more than compensated for by her charisma and large lungs.

I would add that the worst example of this trend would be the way the national anthem seems to get sung these days, i.e. as a goddamn melisma-fest. I mean, I love American Idol, but I liked it more before, I think, when it was more honest in using strictly commercial standards. First season looks obviously mattered, while the rhetoric this season is that "talent" will win out. Well bull-shit. No one who's as nervous on stage as Reuben seems to be (to say nothing of his, er, questionable looks) is anything like an Idol, at least not without a few years of working crowds, and if you're going to put the emphasis on vocal "talent" then you're going to have to have a lot better musical arrangements to back them up, you know? It's fun and all, but I think I might have liked it better when it seemed to have more of a connection to the weird and evil standards of the music industry. Mmm. Yeah, I'm all for instant fame, but instant celebrities are only compelling in their downfalls. Although maybe that's the point. Justin, where's your arrest for snorting coke off a dead hooker when we need you in these troubled times?