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David Finkle

David Finkle

Posted April 23, 2009 | 02:50 PM (EST)

Real Good Pop Singing, American Idol-Style


If there's a single television series that's never gone begging for coverage, it's American Idol. Were the column inches devoted to the annual reality TV competition laid end to end, they'd undoubtedly stretch from here to Alpha Centauri.

Yet it seems to me that most of the compulsive typing focuses on one two-pronged aspect of the show: which contestant is pulling ahead (currently Adam Lambert) and which has fallen behind (Allison Iraheta bottom-threeing again!?). Much of the blah-blahing centers on the voting and predictability (or shock) of the successive eliminations. Much of the yammering also revolves around how the judges are trending -- if you can decipher what they're saying.

The caustic Simon Cowell is always clear, if often wrong-headed. What Paul Abdul means is anyone's guess, as Cowell loves mentioning. Randy Jackson can be totally obtuse, since his (woefully dated) slang seems all but entirely limited to "yo," "check it out," "dawg," "dude," "pitchy" and "da bomb." This year's newcomer Kara DioGuardi apparently knows a thing or two about recording (so does Jackson, but you'd never realize it) but also has trouble articulating complex thoughts.

Nonetheless, there's one AI facet I don't ever recall being discussed by viewers and that -- you're reading it here first -- is how the reality enterprise has redefined what constitutes high-quality popular singing at this point in our checkered culture.

Good popular singing -- as American Idol has it -- is the following:

1. For commercial purposes, today's pop tooting requires melismas. What are melismas? They're those bent notes -- sometimes termed "riffs" -- that repeatedly crop up. Just about every singer who enters the AI competish hoping to get anywhere understands he or she better shove a sufficient number of notes up and down the scale for some time before moving on to the next note, which also can be tortured until it cries "Uncle!" Riffing is crucial because it virtually guarantees vociferous audience response.

2. Belting is obligatory. What's "belting"? It's dynamically raising the chest voice several decibels either from the song's outset or at the very least somewhere midway through the song. Raising decibel level -- like riffing -- also begets cheers and applause. One problem here is that if belting begins to approach shouting or, worse, bellowing, the judges might diss it. When that happens, the in-house audience may boo, but you never know how a judge's negative assessment will influence at-home voters.

3. Vocal pyrotechnics applied to melodies are far more important than attention paid to lyrics. Truth to tell, much as the judges reiterate the importance of "making a song your own," they're not suggesting rethinking how the words affect personal emotion -- or at least aren't understood to mean that -- but are talking about modernizing musical arrangements. Why stress words, the AI policy seems to ask, when that might provoke audience members to listen to sentiments being expressed and consequently forget to raise their arms and mindlessly wave them to the beat?

Wait! Before you get all teed off and start acting snarky towards me, understand I'm not saying none of the singers at present or in the past are any good. Many of them are. The list is long and includes, in my opinion, Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daugherty, Carrie Underwood, Melinda Doolittle, Blake Lewis, David Cook and this year's Lambert and Iraheta. But also to my way of thinking, these and several others intuited that use of the above techniques must be judicious. Some -- like Underwood, in particular -- have matured after the competition, as is expected, of course, of any performer who realizes that growth is part of artistry.

Something to remember about this year's singing, as implicitly prescribed by American Idol (especially by Cowell, who listens for what he thinks will hit charts based on what's currently on the charts), is that it's only part of an evolving notion of what popular singing is.

Remember, for instance, that in the '20s the advent of radio and the microphone also redefined singing. Singing softly was possible, and crooning was not only born but dominated pop chanting until the late '50s and '60s when teenagers rebelled against the sound via adult-defying rock 'n' roll. In quick time, robust, sometimes ear-splitting chirping led to gospel-trained Aretha Franklin and the magnificent Patti LaBelle and to Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, who could be called the progenitors of today's melisma-infused warbling.

In an ever-changing world, who knows what's next -- although we might have gotten a taste of it these past weeks with the astonishing advent of Susan Boyle on Britain's Got Talent. Even the normally butter-wouldn't-melt-in-his-mouth Simon Cowell was reduced to holding his head in amazement when 47-year-old Boyle sang "I Dreamed a Dream." And notice that throughout her triumph -- surely bigger than will dog (dawg) this year's Idol winner -- not a melisma was uttered.