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John Eskow

John Eskow

Posted: February 8, 2011 11:48 AM

To me, the horrific part of Christina Aguilera's rendition of the National Anthem -- and "rendition" is an apt term for it, because she kidnapped the song and shipped it out to be tortured -- was not her mangling of the words, but her mangling of the tune itself: to paraphrase the great Chuck Berry, she "lost the beauty (such as it is) of the melody until it sounds just like a (godawful) symphony."

This is the same grotesque style -- 17 different notes for every vocal syllable -- that has so dominated the pop and R&B charts for years. Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston are relatively minor offenders, but singers like Aguilera -- who admittedly possesses a great instrument -- just don't seem to know when to stop, turning each song into an Olympic sport as they drain it of its implicit soul, as if running through the entire scale on every single word was somehow a token of sincerity.

It's called melisma -- the bending of syllables for bluesy or soulful effect -- and what's creepy about the way it's used now is that it perverts America's true genius for song, as evinced by its creators in the world of gospel and R&B, like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.

You will hear more of this tonsil-twisting insincerity -- to your eternal sorrow -- if you watch any episode of American Idol.

The great Jerry Wexler -- who produced both Ray and Aretha -- coined a great term for it: "oversouling." He described it as "the gratuitous and confected melisma" that hollows out a song and drains it of meaning. Wexler, who knew more about soul than any producer before or since, said:

"Time and again I have found that flagrantly artificial attempts at melisma are either a substitute for real fire and passion or a cover-up for not knowing the melody... Please, learn the song first, and then sing it from the heart."

And Christina, he wasn't referring to the words.

POSTSCRIPT: I was lucky enough to know Wexler a bit, near the end of his life, and I can hear his raspy, streetwise voice in my ear, insisting I clarify his point: the problem is not Melisma--which I believe is also the name of Joan Rivers' daughter--it's Oversouling. It's like those corny educational films I saw in grade-school: "Fire can be our greatest friend...or our worst enemy!" The same goes for melisma. Without melisma, no Ray or Aretha, and also no Sam Cooke, no Waylon Jennings, no B.B. King, no Charlie Parker. It's rare for a singer or instrumentalist to disdain melisma completely; Miles Davis and Merle Haggard come to mind, but even they employ it, sparingly, at times. The nightmares begin when--as several posters have wisely pointed out--singers practice Melisma Abuse in order to draw attention to themselves and away from the song. Then it becomes, as Jerry Wexler said, that "gratuitous and confected melisma" that has driven so many of us to the point of shrieking, Aguilera-style, in despair.

CODA: Racism is heartbreaking, in all its permutations. After I wrote this piece, a friend half-jokingly predicted that I might be accused of anti-white racism for attacking Aguilera in favor of Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. Then, as comments started flooding in, I was concerned that a few of them were implying--whether the commenters realized it or not--that the National Anthem should be kept simon-pure, unsung except by white Europeans. That was disturbing, and it provoked me into writing the Postscript above, to clarify the original point about the abuse of melisma.

Then--and, granted, it was only from a few trolls, whose endless repititions made only them seem like an army--we began to see another face of racism take its ugly shape. I was accused of "touting" Wexler--whatever the hell that means--over the black singers he produced, a nonsensical charge belied by the piece itself. Then it became: how could I write about this subject, since I "clearly" didn't sing myself? And once that charge was refuted, suddenly trifling matters like "credentials" and "experience" in R&B didn't matter. Then, finally, any attempt at subtlety was dropped, and the problem was revealed to be"guys like me"--guys who, I was sternly admonished, had shown--by their love for Sam Cooke and BB King--that they "used to" prefer Mozart to Jelly Roll Morton (huh?) As the goading campaign collapsed into total incoherence, and other commenters tried nobly to reason with the trolls, the whole thing just got sadder and sadder.

So, for the record (literally as well as figuratively): oversouling does not mean "too black." Quite the opposite: oversouling, whether you like the term or not, is a kind of vocal minstrel-show, a theft of real feeling in the service of corny show-biz. It is a failure of artistic taste. It can be committed by rock-and-roll guitarists, opera singers, actors, and painters, but these days it's most spectacularly--and frequently--thrust into our consciousness by singers. We all enjoy what speaks to us, so if you prefer Christina Aguilera to Aretha Franklin--or Michael Bolton to Otis Redding--Godspeed. But don't defend it by trying--feebly--to police the word-choices of those with other opinions.

Finally, I thank God I've spent so much of my life among musicians, black and white, who are inspired solely by their love of the groove, no matter the color of the person who's laying it down--whether it's Paul Butterfield or James Cotton playing harp, Charley Pride or Merle Haggard singing country, Mitch Ryder or Wilson Pickett screaming R&B. Brothers and sisters: keep making that joyful noise--and, as Sly and the Family Stone sang, let "all the squares go home!"