Thursday, November 17, 2016

Soundbreaking, Episode 3: The Vocal Track (Higher Ground, Show of Force, PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the third episode of Soundbreaking, which focused on singers and said that, regardless of how creatively instrumental tracks are produced, the vocal is still the heart of a song and in some ways the hardest to get right. The list of singers presented in brief clips is itself evidence of how eclectic this show is: Bessie Smith, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra (surprisingly not Billie Holiday, though if the point is how much difference the use of microphones made in the ability of a singer to be expressive on records instead of having to rely on sheer power the way Bessie Smith and her blues-singing contemporaries — including Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith, not mentioned — a reference to Billie would seem de rigueur), Amy Winehouse (whom I never really liked, at least partly because I found her biggest hit, “Rehab,” so socially irresponsible — as I’ve parodied it, “She said she’d never go to rehab, and now she’s dead! Dead! Dead!”), Neil Young, Tom Waits, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Ben Harper, Roger Daltrey, Suzanne Vega (who gave an interesting sound bite to the effect that she’s never got used to how her voice sounds coming at her over headphones as she’s recording instead of singing in a live space with an actual band in the same room), Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Smokey Robinson (relatively recently), Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty (doing their great duet “Stop Dragging My Heart Around”), Imogen Heap (the singer from the previous episode who’s worked out ways to do sampling, overdubbing and other studio effects in live performance), Harry Babbitt with Kay Kyser’s band (illustrating an early vocal filtering device called “Sonovox” which anticipated AutoTune and some other modern gimcracks), Roger Troutman and Kanye West (depicting their deliberate use of AutoTune to create a soulless electronic effect), Christina Aguilera, Freddie Mercury and, in one of the brief tag scenes this program has done on each episode, Rosanne Cash and Annie Lennox. (One of the things I’ve always liked about Annie Lennox is how soulfully she sang even when backed by exclusively electronically generated sounds, though she was done more justice in the previous “Painting with Sound” episode in which she was shown adding her impassioned vocals to the icy, iridescent soundscapes her former professional and personal partner Dave Stewart created for her as part of the duo Eurythmics.) This Soundbreaking wasn’t as interesting as the first two because there’s surprisingly little you can do to the human voice and still maintain the originality and distinctiveness that the various interviewees insist is the key to success as a recorded singer (more than one person on the show commented that there are people with plenty of vocal technique who don’t sell records because their voices aren’t unique and don’t have the quality that “grabs” an audience), and at least one of the people interviewed acknowledged that the last thing you would have wanted to do with a singer like Janis Joplin (or Billie Holiday, Judy Garland or Maria Callas) is AutoTune her voice into perfect pitch, carefully undoing the artful shadings of pitch by which she created some of her most stunning and moving performances. I remember going to see the D. A. Pennebaker documentary on soul music, Only the Strong Survive, about the surviving performers of 1960’s soul, just after I’d read a Los Angeles Times Calendar article about AutoTune. When I wrote my review I made my revulsion at that sort of technology quite clear:

If you want to know why today’s pop music sounds so soulless and bland, especially when compared to the soul records of the 1960’s, watch the new D. A. Pennebaker/Chris Hegedus documentary Only the Strong Survive on the same day you read the May 7, 2003 Los Angeles Times article, “New software sweetens singing, sours skeptics.” (May 7 was the day Only the Strong Survive was screened for reviewers in San Diego.) “Using increasingly common studio software such as Pro Tech,” Times reporter Maureen Ryan explained, “flat notes can be fixed, off-key vocals can be spruced up and entire performances can be cut and pasted together from different takes.”
It’s hard to imagine a greater difference between the attitude towards music behind today’s technically perfect, emotion-free pop records, carefully pitch-corrected with this bizarre technology; and the edgy, intense, dramatic singing done by the soul-music veterans depicted in the film: Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla, Wilson Pickett, Sam Moore (the “Sam” of Sam and Dave), Isaac Hayes (who co-wrote most of the Sam and Dave hits before becoming a performer himself), Jerry Butler, the Chi-Lites, Ann Peebles and Mary Wilson (from the Supremes). One can imagine how a man like Wilson Pickett (as explosive off-stage as he was on, we’re told in this film) would have reacted to the suggestion that his recordings be “pitch-corrected” before they went out — something like, “What the f--k? Don’t you think I can sing? That’s not a flat note; that’s expression!