sing softly to me: why crooning is a revolution

I want to describe to you a revolution you’ve never cared about.

Lucy turned me on to ∆ (Alt-J). At first I was only listening because she’d given it to me, but by the fourth time through I’d actually come to find it fascinating. I won’t go into details about the music itself, but on the way home from Target, just having bought my first batch of krill oil pills, and completely terrified of taking one, one of their songs ended up playing, and I began thinking about the singer’s voice. And this is where it led me:

I don’t see how a review can skip over the singer’s voice. Period. But unless you’re hanging out on sites like gearslutz.com, which I usually am, people who write about music tend to stick to a few nondescript adjectives, as if they’re reviewing wine. It’s next to impossible to find mentions about the Beach Boys harmonies, for instance, as if they just happened  naturally. People like words like “urgent” or “introspective” or “weak” to describe vocals in their entirety. I won’t even try. Alt-J’s singer has a weird voice–but it’s intentional, because while it generally bears comparison to Jethro Tull

he at times moves into more of a Peabo Bryson–and all within a single line. I can’t understand a single word he says. It’s like everything I’ve ever been criticized for all in one award-winning album. Maybe I just need to listen to other people less?

But here’s what I find most exhilarating about it: I connect to the singer. Why? I think it’s his voice. The voice is nearly inhuman, but it’s not robotic, it’s not demented, it’s possible to identify with the voice without attaching it to a face, without attaching it to a person. The lyrics are quite the same. Somehow the whole package defies individuality, and thus becomes universal to me. George Michael’s music will always be George Michael the person, the Police is always Sting, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is always Karen O. But this? This might be the whole universe singing to you.

But we take this for granted.

Many of the earliest popular music recordings were of, of course, not just popular songs, but of popular singers of the day. For the past year or so I’ve been listening to a lot of pop music from the 1920s, and a little bit from before then. The earliest that I’ve come across falls into two categories: first, songs made for groups to sing; second, song made for vaudeville stars. What both have in common is that the amplification is human. A group can sing loud, so in recordings of drinking songs, everyone can sing along. 

As for vaudeville stars, think Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson, they had to be heard, so they had to sing loud. Belting, it what it’s called.

Live amplification wasn’t possible yet, so “belting” out songs made complete sense. And here’s the revolutionary bit, because as always, technology dictates art: one day somebody realized that the audience at a performance is completely different than the audience that is a microphone. You can sing quietly, up close, to a microphone, and your voice can reproduced much louder. This is obvious to us now–but at the time it was completely new. And that’s why Bing Crosby falls into the category of “crooner”–because he wasn’t a belter. Here’s how Rudy Vallee dealt with a quiet voice and loud performances: with a self-made megaphone.

And this is where you begin to find the personality in vocals. That may even be why Rudy Vallee was the first of the teen-pop idols that girls would scream and faint over. Here, finally, was the voice of someone you might here beside you in bed, not from ten blocks away. “Whispering” Jack Smith fell into this category. And not entirely by choice: he couldn’t sing very loud because of the lingering effects of poison gas from World War I.

Think about that. You go into WWI with soldiers marching and singing “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary” …and you emerge from WWI with Whispering Jack Smith, in desperate need of a microphone, often not even singing his words.

And that is, in music, from what I can tell, the birth of a vocal personality, the movement from “song” to “singer.” No longer is it just the piece of sheet music you buy and play after dinner with your family, it’s now the sound of Rudy Vallee singing to you alone. The sound of someone’s voice intimately. When Ke$ha wants to be sexy, she doesn’t belt, she croons.  Seriously, listen to what she does with her voice that just can’t be pulled off loud.

or, how Helen Merrill moves seamlessly between soft and loud, and the effect being the difference between any ol’ chorus girl, and the way you feel about Doris Day when you’re on ecstasy:

The truth is, nearly everyone sings beautifully when singing softly. There’s something so natural about it, so intimate, so sweet.

The point is, without a microphones, where would we be? We wouldn’t have Alt-J because we couldn’t capture vocals in a way that they creep into you, and you must listen.

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