The Stupid 365 Project, Day 67: Aria da Poppo

December 6th, 2010

I hold Whitney Houston responsible for the destruction of American pop music.

Back in 1992, she took a modest little country song by Dolly Parton, “I Will Always Love You,” and turned it into popera (cute, no?  pop+opera= oh, skip it).  Since then, it’s become essential for every halfway-catchy tune to be transformed into the triumphal march from “Aida.”

The trend has been exacerbated by the vile “American Idol,” where lung capacity is regularly confused with talent.  (Yet one more reason — as if one were needed — to give Simon Cowell the Julian Assange treatment.)

See, the problem is that Houston, back in  those days, was good.  She was so good that she could turn that boom on the kettledrum (or whatever it was) and the modulation that followed, and ride it straight into the stratosphere.  Her gazillion imitators ride it straight into louder.  And then louder.  It’s as though the dread Streisand virus, long predicted by musically-inclined epidemiologists, has struck at last.

It’s given rise to what I think of as the “sink” school of record production.  That’s when, weeks after the production is finished, the producer hears the song on the air and says, “Oh, shit, we forgot to throw in the sink.”‘

Not to mention syllable blight.  Every syllable that falls on a long note is turned into a polysyllabic scale, turning perfectly good words into meaningless la-sol-fa-ing that does nothing for either the song or, if I’m the listener, for the listener.  For an example of this at its most excruciating, tune into a baseball game and see what the resident “American Idol” semi-celebrity does with “The Star Spangled Banner.”  It’s already an ugly song, but it’s never been this ugly.

I bring this up because I’ve finally stopped listening to Arcade Fire day after day and moved on to Sara Bareilles’ “Little Voice” and “Kaleidoscope Heart.”  She’s providing the entire soundtrack for the Madison sequences of PULPED, and boy is she fun to write to.  She’s an amazing singer (pipes, muscianship, taste) and a first-rate songwriter.  “Little Voice,” the first collection, is stripped back to showcase the voice.  “Kaleidoscope” is more bombastic, but I have to say that the songs are stronger.

And although she has the pipes to oversing everything, Bareilles blessedly resists doing it, with one tragic exception on “Kaleidoscope Heart.” Unfortunately, it’s “Breathe Again,” one of the most beautiful songs on the CD.  But it’s okay — the rest of it is so good it doesn’t matter.

For example:  02 – Uncharted

A little overproduced, but choice.

19 Responses to “The Stupid 365 Project, Day 67: Aria da Poppo”

  1. Suzanna Says:

    I have had to relisten to Sara Bareilles every day since I discovered her solo live performance of GRAVITY at the Fillmore. Really no wonder why you like her so much.

    The fa la la la la treatment that you attribute to singing divas like Houston and Streisand, and I would add Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, and, ugh, Celine Dion, must really make some people think they’re getting their money’s worth. More notes must equal better music right? Give me a strong clear voice with great tone and feeling and I’m there. My favorites: Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris. Angels every one of them.

  2. Gary Says:

    Doesn’t anyone like Espen Lind? (apologetically): I thought he was good. A little bit.

    And I know it’s been done to death, but they even manage to bring freshness to Hallelujah.

    (very small font): No, I didn’t think my opinion mattered very much. I’l just skulk away and hide in my cave. So sorry to have bothered everyone…

  3. Larissa Says:

    I’d like to hear the rest of that cd-it might be worth going and hunting down the samples on Amazon. I have a lot of friends who would really dig her music I think. You’re right though about turning every long note into scale practice. It’s a cop out for not being able to hold a steady note-that takes a lot of practice and control and all that jazz but maybe they could just try cutting the length of the note down…to something they could hold with integrity…instead of feeling compelled to put their “ABC’s” in the middle of a perfectly good song.

    And as for Simon Cowell-sometimes I have to applaud him and his willingness to tell the wanna be singers that they, well, suck. I’ll take a cue from Gary on this one and just use very small font for that little bit of opinion. Ahem. Any room left in that corner, Gary?

  4. Robb Royer Says:

    I have to demur a little bit from any praise given to Simon Cowell grudging or otherwise. Seems to me his whole act (and joy) is eviscerating moderately or non-talented belters, sort of a musical Vlad the Impaler. Since he owns the show, if you want to sing on TV you automatically live in his bailiwick and you’re his meat. You wouldn’t have to listen to these sad sacks in the first pace if it wasn’t for Simon and his insatiable appetite for blood. He knows if they put on all good people he couldn’t go be Simon.

    No offense to any of my fellow posters, I just have an immediate aversion to any show that presumes that all talent boils down to some form of an Ethel Merman imitation.

  5. Larissa Says:

    Robb-True enough. It’s all part of the gimmick I know, however there is something moderately satisfying in watching someone get humiliated, even if it’s all just part of the game. Obviously it’s not a straightforward situation-idiots singing is considered “better TV” than actually talented people singing. It goes back to the whole mentality of wanting the guy to lose the bullfight or the gladiator battle just so we get some good ol’ fashion blood, guts and gore.

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    First, as much as I love all of you, and as sensitive as I am at this precise moment to issues regarding freedom of speech, there will be no praise of Simon Cowell on this site. Robb and I are in total agreement; he’s a sadist who was lucky enough to be born during the Spanish Inquisition, but I don’t have to watch him or allow him to foist his appalling taste off on me.

    So there. Although I still love you, Riss. In Peter Schaffer’s “Amadeus,” a king (I forget who) critiques Mozart’s music by saying, “Too many notes.” Where’s that king when we need him? I’d trade Obama for him in a minute.

    And I’m startled, Riss, that you like to see people get humiliated, especially by a callow bully like Simon. Actually, this is my fault; I’m the one who brought up “American Idol.”

    Gary, there’s no reason to be embarrassed, or at least not until people watch that video. But you, like Riss, are a good friend, and I will refrain from passing judgment until I’ve actually closed the lid of this laptop. Who’s next? Abba?

    (I actually like a lot of Abba.)

    Zanna, you should get “Kaleidoscope Heart.” It’s an amazing collection. And while I was listening to it today on my run, I realized where PULPED is going, and it’s absolutely nowhere I had imagined.

  7. Gary Says:

    Well, I thought if I said Bryn Terfel singing “Where’er you walk” from Handel’s Semele, that everyone would laugh at me.

    So I chose a pop singer.

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    “Semele” — That’s Handel’s Yiddish opera, isn’t it?

    And I love Bryn Terfel — it’s the only lawn foods I’ll use.

    Okay, your frame of reference is acres broader than mine.

  9. Larissa Says:

    Yes well, my halo has been looking a little tarnished lately, my wings a little tattered. 0:-) It’s really when people deserve it that I enjoy watching people get humiliated. Even by an overpaid bully like Simon Cowell. Blood and guts I tell you, it’s what our entire entertainment business is based on.

  10. Suzanna Says:

    Hello, Tim

    That’s wonderful that SB’s music has inspired a breakthrough for your story. I’ll definitely check out “Kaleidoscope Heart.” Maybe it’ll help me with my dreaded accounting chores.

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I’m grumpy today, Riss, or I would never be snappish toward you. Apologies.

    Zanna, you can use a calculator for accounting these days. The teacher won’t flunk you.

    The chunk(s) of PULPED that floated in today are enormous. The questions are (a) whether I can write them, and (b) whether there’s any way to put them all into the same book, without losing some of the emotional identification I’ve been building. But you know what? All the pieces are good, and I’ll just have to answer the questions as I write.

  12. Bonnie Says:

    It was emperor Joseph II who committed the “too many notes” gaffe, though I just skimmed an article claiming that was in fact the general consensus during his time. And that’s actually the name of a mystery written by Robert Barnard and Bernard Bastable, believe it or not.

    Oh, and speaking of quotations, you posted on a couple of days back about “no there there.” It’s actually about Oakland, and the phrase has been misused by countless people to trash the place. However, when Gertrude Stein wrote it, she was referring to the family’s Oakland house, which had been torn down since she went to live in Paris. Of course, with G.S., it may be impossible to understand exactly what she meant. But Oakland had the last laugh, I guess:

    Modern-day Oakland has turned the quote on its head, with a statue downtown simply titled “There.” Additionally, in 2005 a sculpture called HERETHERE was installed by the City of Berkeley on the Berkeley-Oakland border at Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The sculpture consists of eight-foot-tall letters spelling “HERE” and “THERE” in front of the BART tracks as they descend from their elevated section in Oakland to the subway through Berkeley.

  13. Bonnie Says:

    Oh, and when I originally meant to comment here it was with the thought that you and I seem to share a lot of pet peeves. My Whitney Houston rant is well known to my close friends, my ire being whipped to frenzy by the fact that, unlike the huge pack of talentless imposters out there, she can really sing! How dare she waste her talent on bubble pop?

    But she didn’t ever ask me, sadly.

  14. Larissa Says:

    Tim, it’s all forgiven. There was very little snapping actually. (c: I’m glad to hear that some huge bits of PULPED arrived. I have no doubt you can write them. And, if they are all good parts, well, they’ll find a way in to the story if they need to be there. So, good luck and well done on being open and aware enough to recognize good story bits while running! That’s tough. I’m usually just thinking about not dying while I run. Hehe.

    (recaptcha: from kruppol…perhaps the knock off designer brand of interpol?)

  15. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Bonnie and Bonnie — An Oakland habitue, huh? Meet Suzanna, also a child of the land beneath the oak. Or something.

    Thanks for the info dump, Bonnie. I’ve actually forgotten the context in which I used “no there there,” but I’ll accept that I did (it’s increasingly difficult for me to distinguish among things I wrote in blogs, things I wrote in answer to responses, and things I said to my wife.) I knew it was Stein, whose appeal has always mystified me, but I didn’t know she was talking about Oakland. I would actually have to agree with her, although I’m sure you and Suzanna would disagree vehemently.

    And thanks for the “too many notes” info. Very funny, and just tells you to take ALL criticism with a grain of salt.

    Hi Riss. Thanks for the congrats — pieces of PULPED continue to arrive at an alarming pace – there’s probably actually way more than I can use. We’ll see — at least it’s all pretty good, and I burst out laughing in the shower this morning when I figured out how Madison is going to come to believe that Simeon is actually fictional, as opposed to — you know — crazy. It’ll be one of the funniest moments I’ve ever written. Keep sending me light and encouragement — this is a really interesting part of the process on this book, something that I’ve actually only gone through once before, on BREATHING WATER.

    My Captcha: “you’ll Sitionah” which is totally bewildering.

  16. ShadoeBeverlyAmberChyna Says:

    Hilarious and brilliant observations as always…but for
    the ultimate in discreet use of tra la la oversing, I submit Twine Time:

  17. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Wo, Shadoe — “Twine Time!” Where DO you find these things? I mean, I know something about obscurity, having spent many years living in it, but this goes into an entirely new level of obscurity.

    And thank God for the cameraman’s union, because without them we wouldn’t have ANYTHING from the days of black-and-white live TV. They insisted on a kinescope, just a film record made by pointing a camera at a monitor, and that’s why we’ve got “Twine Time” and cultural artifacts of (arguably) even greater cultural value.

  18. Myriam Spencer Says:

    I’m so sorry. The lady was just one of my beloved musicians.

  19. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Well, I’ve been half-tearful myself since I heard the news. But I actually do try in the post above to say that Whitney was amazingly good and it were her imitators who took her style and — unable to do it as well as she did — wreaked havoc with it, ending up with Christina Aquilera, who has never sung a note without trying to turn it into a square knot.

    I loved Whitney, but in the hands of the less-talented, her approach has ruined a lot of good songs.

    (I actually thought about pulling this post on the evening of her death, but thought it would be dishonest.)

    Anyway, I share your sadness at her passing.

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