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In defense of bad singing

How could you be so heartless...

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.

--August Brown

Photo: Kanye performing in New York on Dec. 12. Credit: by Evan Agostini / Associated Press

Comments () | Archives (23)

There is no reason to bring race into this, August Brown. It is wholly appropriate for the audience of a high-profile television program to criticize a musical performer who sings off-key. It is not racism. You say: "When someone lobs that same complaint at Britney Spears, it rings more as a general indictment of the pop star-making system." No, that is not true. And if Chris Martin sang off-key on SNL, you don't think listeners would make the same criticisms? You're not being honest. 808s has a couple of great songs, but even the lesser songs that more heavily rely on AutoTune are not grating in the way they were on Saturday Night Live. It was quite simply a weak performance.

I just wrote a book that has a plot and characters, but the sentences are incoherent. I'm brilliant!

Oh, by the way, I can't do a reading because I'm illiterate. I'm even more brilliant!!!!

what a bad article, your sentence structure was horrible, the diction you used was garbage i mean all together this just sucked. 1 star.

What a terrible terrible article. I hope this writer is a free lance writer who isnt getting paid to spew such garbage on a daily basis.

As soon as you said it was racist to make fun of him for not being able to sing you make a fool out of yourself. He cannot sing, he went on live tv and tried to sing his own song and it did not sound good. Race has nothing to do with it. Next time if you want to make a name for yourself and get on tv making wild statements about race pick a topic that isnt a joke.

Give me a break. There's NOTHING there. Just because you have to write about something, doesn't mean you have to like any of it. Most of it today does, indeed, suck. In your heart of hearts you know this to be true. But the point is: this guy is merely Puff Daddy with some hang up about being taken like REALLY seriously, yo. The fact of the matter is: he's realized that it's much harder to write, sing, perform and produce something anywhere near as good as, say, Curtis Mayfield, than it is to take something written, sung, performed and produced by Curtis Mayfield as A SELF CONTAINED WORK OF ART FROM like 40 YEARS AGO and (of all things) SLOW IT DOWN and yell over it. This crap is not worth effort I've put into typing all this, nuff said.

I know in my heart, everything you are saying is wrong. It's an intellectualized acceptance of mediocrity and a completely ridiculous pull of the race card. Your proximity to a public music writing forum is unfortunate. I wish sleepless nights and a swift, negative turn in opportunity for whatever writing endeavors you pursue. On second thought keep writing if you want to bolster the opposition. You are really bad at what you do.

This article is a joke. Take your personal bias and shelf it for the duration. Why not try writing something productive. Here's a sample of some critical thinking on the subject, not random blathering:

Challenging our musical standards, and pushing the boundaries of what our ears are designed to appreciate is one thing. Musicians and artists alike have been challenging their listening audiences since the times of Beethoven. Teaching people to appreciate a new style, form, or approach to music is something that persists through out history and a significant portion of our musical landscape. There are always people operating at the fringes of "acceptability" in order to change the shape of the sounds we enjoy hearing.

My problem is that while Kanye West may be doing just that, he's doing it while depending on studio electronic modulation, synthesizers, auto-toners, and distortion turned up to 11 to make it sound remotely palatable because when you get right down to it: he can't sing to save his life.

Does this make him a revolutionary? Does it make him ahead of his time? Perhaps. Technology changes music all the time. But I still contend the a quality musician is someone in control of their instrument. Someone who intentionally manages the sound they produce, and effects the tone, pitch, modulation, distortion, what have you---in an active performance capacity. As an artist you are responsible for the art you produce: be it live, or in a studio. Dancing is great, but it's not a required component of any musical form. I would be willing to let Kanye "get away with" what happened on SNL if it had been intentional, but it wasn't. The auto-tuner hooked up to his microphone failed to be properly pitched and tuned to distort and modulate his voice properly so what came through was Kanye West in all his glory. (Or lack there of.)

Compare Kanye West to the fringes of heavy metal, or the extremes of punk rock at its prime. I'm fine with these comparisons. But Metallica, The Sex Pistols, Pantera, the Clash... these are bands that exhibited a purposeful sound that they exhibited direct control over during performances. As artists and musicians they destroyed their various instruments to the exact degree they saw fit at every performance. Kanye West left his fate in the hands of a sound board operator. The lack of control on the part of the artist makes his performance one of chance, and not purpose.

You are responsible for your instrument. Be it your voice, guitar, auto-tuner, sound board, drum, dulcimer, or dog. Whatever your hitting, switching, flicking, plucking, or screaming is your responsibility. Kanye's performance reminded me that we live in an age where it's become OK to suck, so long as you have a good vocal back track behind you.

Musicians like Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin are allowed to have their personality, vocal cracks, and pops included on their albums because their producing those sounds, and they are a part of the beauty of their instrument. Instruments they both keep in their throats and control at all times they are performing. We appreciate the complexity of these artists work because they challenge us, and show us their humanity. Kanye simply showed us his lack of singing ability, and his dependence on a sound board operator. I've got an idea: How about we let the guy making a million dollars or more a year, who produces all his own albums, set down at the mixer board, set himself up properly, and control the auto-toner while he's performing. Why in god's name would you leave your fate in the hands of a man who makes SCALE from the Union that runs the sound stage at 30 Rock. (Seriously?!) Take a page out of Imogen Heap's hand-book. She's a user of the auto-tuner, modulators galore, and vocal layering. And in performance she manages all of these devices LIVE ON THE FLY. This is an appropriate comparison to what Kanye West is doing on his most recent album. The difference is that Imogen Heap can sing. Kanye can not sing.

To suggest that criticism of a performance is racist simply because of the color of the performers skin is patently absurd. How about we try doing some legitimate journalism here, and not just throw crap on the wall and see what people respond to... If Kanye can't handle the critique he should get off the stage.

Agree with EVERY comment above. I read this article as it was referenced on the Pollstar.com site today. I happened to watch SNL this past Sat. and it was horrendous from start to finish. I thought Kanye West was unbelievably bad, I had never seen him 'perform' or 'sing' before. NO need for the race comments whatsoever. That is NUTS! The guy was just pathetic, period. I don't care if he was green or purple.

I found this opinion article both different from the norm and very enlightening! I dont necessarily agree completely with everything, but some of the points you made were very interesting. In particular, those regarding vocal imperfection double standards that exist between the various musical genres.

I've never commented on an article in my life. That performance, Mr. West's pathetic existence as an "artist", and this attempt at a substantial article are all products of the sad state of the new commercial music industry. What's sadder, is the fact that there are many far more talented folks who deserve a shot, but will never be heard due to the current climate of the major label system. To Mr. West's credit, he has figured out a way to pull the wool over the eyes of the general public through his team with a hype machine and has executed the most important aspect of today's music industry which is rare; the task of making money. jrl

Elvis, I think not.

Can Bob Dylan sing?

Does it matter to his legion of fans?

Your article is ridiculous. I suppose not studying and earning poor grades is not being a lazy student but challenging society's perception of academia. A doctor amputating the wrong leg is not malpractice but radically challenging the concept of left and right. I mean what is "right" anyways?

I should enter body building contest and I can challenge people's preconceived notions about what a muscular body is. People and their preconceived notions, how arrogant and selfish - they are keeping me from being amazing at everything! and that's not fair because I am the golden boy! Give me attention!

Cultural and stylistic biases inform all judgments about quality in music and all arts, and rarely are they shared.

If he were trying out for American Idol, Simon Cowell would justifiably snap "Keep your day job! Next!"

And at least American Idol is admirably colorblind. You focus so much on race that perhaps you have some clinical disorder. Try forgetting race as a concept. Kanye can't sing. Period.

basically, that was not a real piece of journalism, that was nothing but an apology for the crimes to music that kanye west has committed. not even a defense of bad singing, but a general defense of kanye west and his apaulling new album, and lets face it, it really is apaulling.
your 'review' shows just what the music industry has become, 'make someone famous, keep pumping out album after album regardless of quality, journalists write nice things (beacause god forbid they actually criticise a celb's album) ,hope that people are stupid enough to buy rubbish just because its by a "celebrity"'.
kanye west is just another classic example of how people will do/listen/buy anything a celebrity says, just because it is somehow 'cool'.
and the sad thing is, this album will sell for all the reasons above, despite the fact that it is devoid of all musical talent and originality (because being bad doesnt count as being original, unless you're brutally honest and say "well, it is original in the sense that it is the worst music i've ever heard!" which it is).
kanye west, shame on you. same for you august brown, for encourging people to actually view this as creativity at it's best, because unfortunately some people are incapable of a) forming their own opinions tastes, b) actually accepting that fools like kanye west aren't god's gift. and will have actually took what you wrote as real informative journalism.

that was a bit frantic.....thank god i'm not gonna release it as an album....actually, that might be more original than kanye west :)

I actually really enjoyed the article and for those people who only want pitch-perfect singers singing predictable songs, there's a lot to choose from. I'll take the warbled artificial contradictions of Mr. West any day.

Who in the writer here? Kanye's cousin? Bad writing falling over backwards to justify bad singing. And bringing in the racial element? Geez, waaay over the top.

"in Kanye's hands it's a new and arresting sound for pop and rock alike,"

Are you serious?

I'll be honest, i'm a singer/prodcuer/engineer and i respect Kanye's style and uniqueness to music, also his production skills are genuis, but as far as this guy writing the article goes..... I hope you got paid good money to write such garbage as this, either you have no clue what good expression is (it should still be in a key) Prince isn't the best singer in the world but he's in key and can express himself in all sorts of colors. Kanye was plain old awful without the help of tuners. I'm actually astonished the the LA Times would publish you, my 5 yearold nephew would be the only one who shares the same views.

First of all, I've read every word on this page. Secondly, I agree that Kanye is not much of a singer (yet) but he has heart and he puts on a great stage show (body movements / dancing / lighting). I personally do not care that he can't sing very well, because he has so much authenticity in his delivery. In this instance, the second song he performed on SNL, "Heartless", was truly full of emotion. I enjoyed it. I felt it. More importantly, I believed it. I'd much rather hear someone who is really "putting it out on the table" over someone who just whipped up another pointless pop song and spits it out on stage robotically. Show me something. Art is supposed to be a window into its creator's soul, and I feel Kanye bears his soul in his delivery. I love the new album and I am looking forward to seeing which direction Kanye goes next. Lastly, I feel the comments in the article claiming this issue has anything to do with race are entirely off-base, hollow, and really make the author look as though they were "reaching".

funny all the people who love Bob Dylan, who can't sing a lick, are jumping on the writer of this oped piece. And another thing, who's more qualified to talk about race, then an African- american? Obviously this article struck a nerve! Stick to sipping your soy lattes and listening to John Mayer!


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