Here’s a question for you: Remember when pop singers could actually… sing? You turn on the radio today and you’d never know it, but there once was a time when vocal ability was actually a requirement for success in the world of pop music. It may be difficult to believe in the midst of our current obsession with Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, and the like, but it was not so long ago that the singers who made it actually did so on the merits of their voices.
Admittedly, most of the music I listen to and sing is centuries old anyway, so perhaps I’m a bit biased. But I also listened to a lot of great music growing up—particularly in the car with my mom on the way to and from school—and I can definitely hear some major differences between the pop music of thirty or forty years ago and the music of today.
Of course, music changes rapidly and we should expect to see some differences even from one month to the next. But it would seem that something as simple as high-quality voices ought to remain constant over time, even if everything else musical develops around it. However, to me the contrast in vocal quality between then and now is quite clear.
For instance, take a look at this list of the top ten billboard hits in 1970:
1. Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon and Garfunkel
2. (They Long to Be) Close to You, Carpenters
3. American Woman/No Sugar Tonight, The Guess Who
4. Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head, B.J. Thomas
5. War, Edwin Starr
6. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Diana Ross
7. I’ll Be There, Jackson 5
8. Get Ready, Rare Earth
9. Let It Be, The Beatles
10. Band of Gold, Freda Payne
Just look at that all-star lineup! Simon and Garfunkel, the Carpenters, Diana Ross, the Jackson 5, the Beatles… and every one of them could really sing. Looking at this list now, I can hear their distinctive sounds—and I wasn’t even alive in 1970 (far from it). Moreover, I recognize eight of these ten songs by name and could hum them for you right now if you asked. If it’s hard to believe that it was forty years ago that these were the most popular songs in the country, it’s even harder to believe that they’ve remained with us for so long.
Now compare that to this list of the ten most popular songs of 2009:
1. Boom Boom Pow, The Black Eyed Peas
2. Poker Face, Lady Gaga
3. Just Dance, Lady Gaga Featuring Colby O’Donis
4. I Gotta Feeling, The Black Eyed Peas
5. Love Story, Taylor Swift
6. Right Round, Flo Rida
7. I’m Yours, Jason Mraz
8. Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It), Beyonce
9. Heartless, Kanye West
10. Gives You Hell, The All-American Rejects
Interestingly, I only recognize seven of these songs by name, but that probably says more about me than it does about the quality of the music. And I’m not such a snob that I think all of the music on this list is bad. In fact, a number of the songs are really catchy and fun. They’re fun to drive to, or dance to at a party. (Note: I don’t actually dance, for fear of hurting others in my immediate area, but I’ve seen others do it.) I’m not going to say that these songs don’t represent a lot of creativity and effort on someone’s part.
More to the point, though, I can fairly confidently predict that no one will remember any of these songs in the year 2049. And my theory is that this is because most of the singers on this list don’t have truly memorable voices. With the notable exception of Jason Mraz (#7), whose voice is outta-the-pahk (as we’d say in Boston), and the possible exception of Taylor Swift (#5), who seems to have caught everyone’s attention for good reason, most of these singers’ voices are fairly unimpressive and some of them hardly have what could be called voices at all.
Not to pick on Lady Gaga, for example, but if I wanted to listen to a voice looped through a synthesizer until it was almost unrecognizable as belonging to a human being, I’d just ask my computer to sing to me. Is her music fun to listen to? Definitely. But did she climb to the top of the charts due to sheer vocal prowess alone? Most definitely not.
I guess what I’m getting at is that quite a bit began to change when we began to watch music instead of listen to it. I will admit that growing up, I was never exposed to MTV (which was probably for the best), so the idea of music videos still seems somewhat strange to me. But when I watch them now, I can see why we flock to watch pop stars to whom we’d probably never listen if they didn’t give us something to see. Digital remastering of vocals hasn’t helped matters much, but in the end I think it really comes down to sex appeal.
Not to sound like a total prude (I’m really not), but does anyone seriously think that Britney Spears would have made it to the top without that little plaid skirt? Does Lady Gaga really think that if wearing an outrageous enough costume or distorting her hair beyond all recognizability can fully hide the fact that she doesn’t have much of a voice?
And the same goes for the men. Did all of those boy bands of the late 1990s—Backstreet Boys II Men N’Sync with No Authority in the 98-Degree Savage Garden—really gain stardom because they could sing like angels, or because they looked like them? To this day, I can’t tell any of them apart by listening (though I probably wouldn’t do much better if you showed me pictures).
If you can’t recognize a singer’s voice when you hear it, is it really that special?
Think of Frank Sinatra, Carole King, James Taylor, Billy Joel, John Denver, Aretha Franklin… these are the voices of the greats, and some of them are still with us today. To be fair, there are also some amazing singers at the top of the charts these days: Josh Groban, Norah Jones, and Michael Bublé, just to name a few. By and large, though, the best singers of today are hiding in the backwoods of indie, folk, and other alternative music, not climbing to the top. By and large, we seem to value other “skills” in our singers today, and I think that’s very sad indeed.
In other words, video didn’t so much kill the radio star… it just told her that if all she had was a beautiful voice and a microphone, she ought to go sing somewhere where people don’t have electricity.
Because here, Pop Culture seems to have reached the conclusion that singers of the twenty-first century (like children of the eighteenth) ought to be seen and not heard.