Tuesday, February 2, 2010

tin ears and tin mines

or Reason #2,317 why I'm not a musician

When I watched the telecast of the Grammy Awards Sunday night, Taylor Swift's performance was actually my favorite of the evening. Yeah, it wasn't studio perfection, but Ms. Swift exuded lots of charm and enthusiasm, seeming genuinely glad to be on stage not only performing bits of two original songs, but exuberant that she got to sandwich them around Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon" with Stevie Nicks herself joining Ms. Swift onstage. (And, for that matter, Stevie Nicks sticking around to contribute backing vocals and tambourine to "You Belong With Me.")

So after the broadcast, when I did what any self-respecting person does immediately after a major TV event - check my Facebook live feed - I was shocked to see comment after comment about how Taylor Swift cannot sing. This was particularly common among my many musician friends, who responded en masse like dogs gathering around the source of a sound that only they could hear. "Pitchy." "Butchering 'Rhiannon.'" "Atrocious." Status after status, comment after comment, the pros and accomplished amateurs had nothing but bad things to say about Hendersonville's Own and the pain that her attempted warbling had put them through.

But really, was Taylor Swift's performance that horrendous? My own initial impression, as stated above, was favorable. Sure, I didn't think she was note-perfect, but I thought she was well within acceptable parameters for live singing. But suspecting that over 50,000,000 musicians on Facebook can't be wrong, I watched the performance again today via YouTube, listening with very critical ears this time.

And... ok, she was perhaps more off than I thought she was initially, but no way was it even close to the crazy bad disaster that I keep hearing about. From all the commentary, you'd think this was a trainwreck on the level of Roseanne Barr or Carl Lewis attempting "The Star-Spangled Banner." Even after relistening, I think Taylor Swift's performance was not only genuine, open, and fun, but was hardly the affront to professional singing that everyone else seems to think. In fact, I think she got stronger as the performance went on, and she brings things home in fine style with suitable shadings of vulnerability during "You Belong To Me."

But then again, I'm almost certainly not the best judge. Even though I love music beyond almost anything else, I have known since at least junior high that I lack the natural skills that real musicians exhibit without even trying. In umpteen years of playing piano and trumpet (I abandoned both when I graduated from high school), I was always a slave to the sheet music. I rarely could play anything by ear. To this day, I can't tell you what chord is being played, or what key a song is in. If you asked me to sing a "middle C," I probably couldn't. I'm not tone deaf, at least according to the definitions I've read and the online tests that I've taken, but I'm pretty sure I'm not musician material.

Nevertheless, I still opine that this is a good performance. And thanks to YouTube, you can be your own judge:


PCarino said...

I will take her imperfect but spirited singing and disingenuous songwriting over a roomful of glissando-crazy and American Idols. This was far from a disaster, people are just weird and mean.

PCarino said...

Uh, that should read "glissando-crazy American Idols"

Miles said...

Paula: I had meant to say something in the entry about how maybe people should be celebrating that someone performing at the Grammys didn't use Autotune. If people ought to attack a Grammy performance, why not Jamie Foxx's all-Autotune-all-the-time nonsense?

Anonymous said...

I will grant that Swift's singing, live and imperfect as it may be, is far preferable to yr "glissando-crazy American Idols." And, allowing for creative uses of AutoTune (i.e., where it becomes its own thing rather than just a device to correct bad pitch), I'd also agree that it's preferable to blatantly AutoTuned performances (which communicate chiefly that the singer cannot be trusted to be anywhere near in tune).

But as I said: Sorry, her singing at points is just *painfully* off. I have a pretty high tolerance for non-traditional vocalizing (as in: like 50 albums by The Fall) but, sadly, here Swift is trying to sing in a traditional way but failing rather dramatically.

I also have a number of live recordings (unreleased and actually released) in which well-known singers exhibit a seriously "woodsy, call-of-the-wild relationship to pitch" (in the immortal words of Charles Bissell of the Wrens) - but here's the thing: all of those singers otherwise exhibited the ability to sing, most of the time, more or less in tune.

The problem with the studiobound world of today's singers is that we really don't know whether Swift was just having an off night or whether she just plain can't sing.

So it's not really her problem, or fault. It's a symptom of a situation in which it's increasingly uncertain who's responsible for the sound of a recording: the nominal singer, or a battery of hightech equipment. I think her performance has become a lightning rod for this issue.

(Also: Flasshe-oriented repetition of CAPTCHA: bolysond! bolysond!)

Anonymous said...

Oh - super huge applause for Miles' Midnight Oil heading...

Tim Walters said...

In umpteen years of playing piano and trumpet (I abandoned both when I graduated from high school), I was always a slave to the sheet music. I rarely could play anything by ear.

This is true of lots of otherwise excellent classical musicians. I learned playing by ear long after playing from sheet music.

To this day, I can't tell you what chord is being played, or what key a song is in. If you asked me to sing a "middle C," I probably couldn't.

Most musicians can't do these things--they require absolute pitch, which can kinda sorta be learned but usually isn't.

Re Taylor Swift: I'm concerned that women may be held to a higher standard. She's not very good (judging by this clip, which is the only time I've ever heard her), but she's better than Conor Oberst, Jules Shear, Jonathan Richman, Carmaig de Forest, Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen (to name some guys who sing equally melodic material), and they don't seem to catch anywhere near as much shit. I'm willing to be convinced that I'm wrong, but my subjective impression is that the "out of tune = character" thing is largely reserved for men.

Anonymous said...

Tim - There's something to what you say...but I also think there may be non-sexist reasons for it, the same reason poorly played violins or oboes are more annoying than poorly played trombones: I think higher out-of-tune notes are more irritating than lower ones. Of the singers you mention (I don't know de Forest), Cash and Cohen sing in bass-baritone ranges. I'm not a huge fan of Oberst, but his intensity is what draws his fans to him. I like Richman's earlier stuff, wherein he's working in a sort of Dylan/Reed speak/singing thing in which pitch is gestured at and then dipped away from...but into speech-like tones, rather than out-of-tune singing per se. I will say that when Shear sings out of tune, it grates my ears quite a bit. Other irritating out-of-tune male singers (mostly in live contexts): both Elvis Costello straining for high notes and Robert Plant straining for higher ones are excruciating when they fail (which I think supports my "more irritating when high-pitched" theory).

Anyway, here's an article: . What's interesting (and re Paula's Idol comment) is that at least as presented, the Idol singers are actually singing, as opposed to being produced to be in pitch - so despite the overloaded style of so many of its contestants, being in tune at least seems to be a virtue.

Anonymous said...

Also: I think the AutoTune thing isn't really relevant...since, if you can tell AutoTune is being applied, most likely it's being used as an effect (just like reverb or echo or distortion) rather than as a corrective. It's possible, in other words, to use AutoTune subtly enough that for the most part only professionals can hear that it's being used...but the fashion is to use it in such a way as to produce obvious artifacts, which have been rather trendy for the past few years. At this point I don't think hearing AutoTune means the singer can't really sing in tune, any more than a singer using vibrato means they can't sing in tune. (Vibrato allows a singer a bit more leeway in centering around the correct pitch, and also in sheer accuracy...)

PCarino said...

Spanghew, I totally see what you're saying. At the same time, I don't think the vitriol and "controversy" surrounding TaylorGate is about the public's existential uncertainty about singers and their talent, it's more about arm-chair-snipin' on the pretty, famous blonde. It's what people love to do, cuz their lives suck and they need to feel superior to someone for a moment, and see the prom queen slip on a banana peel.

I agree with Tim that women are supposed "sang purty," while men are allowed to be characters (see: Bob Dylan as prime example), and that seems to be what people are getting in a froth about here--her messing up in public.

I don't want to over-defend Taylor Swift, either. I don't listen to her music. But I just wish we lived in a kinder world.

Anonymous said...

Vibrato is not about giving singer a leeway. It comes naturally if you are singing correctly, i.e. you are not shouting, straining, etc, and it will usually mean that you can carry a tune for however long as you want. Proper singing technique is precisely what Swift lacks and it shows on stage where she can't take a break or sing a line hundreds of times then cutting in down to a song. She just got worse and worse as she tires out and her vocal cords are strained.

Talented in writing maybe, talented in singing absolutely not.