Friday, February 11, 2011

Singing The National Anthem

Oh Say Can You See?

I don't have a TV and I don't care about football. During the Super Bowl I was at a meeting of our local Bad Film Society meeting watching a hilariously funny bad movie. I had a blast.

Anyway, I heard some people complaining about the National Anthem the next day on facebook so I checked it out on youtube.

I thought it absolutely horrible. Putting aside the fact that Christina Aguilera got some of the lyrics wrong, the actual singing was a Celine Dion-esque nightmare. I hate all this pseudo-soulful gargling, screeching and embellishment. I hate it because it has nothing to do with the feelings in the song or the singer. To my ear it is a bunch of just vocal pyrotechnics that call attention to the singer, but nothing else. Whitney Houston's version, I find equally atrocious. Just a bunch of show-off wanking, devoid of feeling.

I think, if you don't trust the material, don't sing the material. This song has been a "hit" for over 200 years now. I say, just sing it. Not absolutely flat, but with minimal embellishment. Let the song speak for itself, or shut up and let someone else sing it.

The most moving version of the song I've ever heard was while watching a routine baseball game on TV. The singer, who's name escapes me, (it was a long time ago), was not a big star, but he was a noted soul singer. He sang it mostly straight, but the minimal embellishments he added were heartfelt and always served the song. It actually brought tears to my eyes.

I hear this song not as a big uplifting rabble rouser but as more of a slightly melancholy battle hymn, where you thought you'd lost but no, through the smoke and rockets, you see that you indeed are still in the game. It should, in my opinion be sung with gratitude and humility.

Look, anyone can forget the words to any song. I've forgotten the words to songs I wrote myself! I don't care that much about that, although I don't believe she was "overwhelmed". I think she just didn't rehearse as much as she should have.

hat I object to is embellishment that has nothing to do with the meaning of the song or the feelings of the singer.
They can sing, no doubt about that, but to my ear, Whitney and Christina have no feeling or soul whatsoever. All I hear is technical riffing and showing off.

This song does not need "pimping", it is powerful and stands on its own. Sung straight, with a hint here and there of genuine feeling and embellishment, it can be breathtaking. Cranked through the nozzle of thousands of little scales and gospel tricks that were once, long, long ago, genuine expressions of emotion, but are now mere gestures aping real human feeling, it is boring at best.

I feel this way about all singing: I like embellishment that is inspired by feeling, not embellishment for its own sake, or to call attention to the singer's vocal chops. Sometimes the tiniest variation from standard, if it's emotionally inspired can be breathtaking. When it's just the gestures of emotion, which I think these divas all are great at, I am unmoved at best, bored and pissed off at worst.

And yet this kind of singing is what so many singers do. I like singers who are about the song first and everything else has to either support that song or it has to go. All their skills and style are there to serve the song. I call it "wankless" performing and it is my favorite kind. Alas, though, the trend is towards songs being merely a structure or platform for the singer's ego.

I like to do what little I can to toss my two cents on the other side of the scale.

One of my facebook friends had what I consider a great idea. How about just the fans in the stadium singing the song and we give the Diva's the night off?

1 comment:

  1. Nicely said, Gene. I really like the idea of the songs as a melancholy war song - it is, isn't it. And I have hated all that warbling garbling embellishment crap for a long time. Enough so that I had the sound off by the dawn's early light, so I escaped the full punishment.