In defense of bad singing
After Kanye West's performance on "Saturday Night Live" over the weekend, the chattering classes are wringing their hands today over the gee-whiz revelation that, maybe underneath all that gratuitous Auto-Tune, West's voice might be a bit, as they say, "pitchy." We can go back and forth about the relative disaster-or-not qualities of his two-song set, but the hullabaloo over it begs for a few responses. First: hey, indie rockers, if you don't think that half your favorite beardo bands use things like Melodyne in the privacy of their own studios, I have an Illinois senatorship I'd like to sell you. But the second, and more crucial one, is this: What makes a "good" singer anyhow, and what does that changing value system say about the culture making it?
Technical ability has always had a weird relationship with pop and rock music. On one hand, the rock idea of "authenticity" is all about being human, embracing flaws, recording to tape and keeping the mistakes as signifiers that someone's creative mind is working too fast and passionately to go back and fix everything. In the case of Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin, both hugely adept vocalists, the idiosyncratic creaks and whimpers and yelps in their voices were part of the technical package -- we're amazed at the sheer range of their expressiveness in a different way than what we ask from, say, Dawn Upshaw. But there's another system that prizes the gosh-wow pyrotechnics and precision of Eddie Van Halen or Mariah Carey that we equally respond to.
Rap brought an interesting new twist on this value system -- the beats are often sample-driven and "inauthentic" in the sense that it's someone else's source material, and for many years it had to dodge complaints that rapping wasn't singing, and therefore somehow less real as music. But today we praise rappers such as Nas and Jay-Z for being technically adept rhymers who additionally come from an old school rap culture that values "realness" as a personality trait, not an aesthetic one.
Which brings us to this new Kanye record and his SNL set. "808s and Heartbreak" is all about the idea of feeling "fake" as an emotion as real as love, lust or loss, an idea further explored in Ann Powers' review of the album. It's a Warholian vision that Kanye surely embraces, but, to the spirit of "808s" as a breakup record, it's also true -- who doesn't feel like their true sense of self has been altered, revoked or depersonalized after a failed relationship? The fakeness of "808s" is also a response to the idea that musical authenticity is about mistakes: with one click of Auto-Tune, you never make one. But to our modern ears, that sounds more wrong than Bob Dylan's garbled verses or Kurt Cobain shredding his larynx.
So it's funny that as soon as Kanye lets down that protected plug-in shield, he allegedly sounds "wrong" in a wholly different, more uncomfortable way: he's out of tune, hitting wrong notes, slipping out of the rhythmic pocket. The people who called the set "bad karaoke" are calling him "fake" in a new way: that he's posing as singer but isn't a real one. In regards to the SNL set, you can make that complaint if you like, but I find it funny that such quibbles are coming from folks who think the first Pavement record is the height of production and performance quality. There's also something racially pernicious about the complaints that Kanye can't sing; it feels fraught with the racist meme that all African-Americans are supposed to be able to sing well. When someone lobs that same complaint at Britney Spears, it rings more as a general indictment of the pop star-making system. Whereas in Kanye's case that criticism seems to imply that he's not living up to the established traditions of black vocals in R&B and hip-hop, that the lack of expert rapping or singing somehow makes the record not "real" (read: "black") enough.
But let's first operate under the assumption that after four smash solo albums and production duty on scads of hit singles, Kanye is aware of the sonic qualities that make for interesting, compelling records. Fair? So while he may have a touch of the megalomania about him, I think he's fully aware of his technical vocal limitations -- he's not going to try and drop a hot mess of melisma on us. But the fact that he's all over the map on SNL without Auto-Tune is an arresting and conscious performance in its own right. True to form in a bad breakup, he can't even make the right mistakes, and when a girlfriend or audience is confronted with such, it feels ugly. But Kanye's Pop Art aspirations suggest he's probably wholly aware of this (notice how in "Love Lockdown" he programmed one particular high note he knew he couldn't reach), and reaffirms the idea that today's music is about so much more than hitting notes or conveying feeling. For Kanye, it's an ongoing conversation with the act of performing. "808s" offers plenty of gristle on that topic, from the title (a reference to a drum machine chastised for sounding fake in its heyday) on down, but whether he can sing or not is the old question.
By sounding bad in even the wrong ways on SNL, Kanye's arrived at something wholly new in the spectrum of vocal values: sheer charisma in place of both skill and authenticity. I certainly don't want most musicians to try this style, but in Kanye's hands it's a new and arresting sound for pop and rock alike, a willingness to put even the unglamorous mistakes (both on stage and off) high in the mix. In other words, he's the perfect frontman for a time in music where there is only an ever-changing front.
Photo: Kanye performing in New York on Dec. 12. Credit: by Evan Agostini / Associated Press