Over the past months I've been watching the American hit reality TV show called The Voice. My wife has grown up singing and she's been watching the show with interest, and since it's been on in my small apartment, so have I (at least that's my story and I'm sticking to it!!). There's much that's cringe worthy about the show- such as the absurd product placements, the way they make the judge wait to announce who they're voting for (oh, so tense!), Christina Aguilera's tanned boobs falling out all over the place, and so on- but it's actually been fun to watch and quite interesting on a lot of levels.
Just a couple of quick points about the format of the show for context. Here's the first bit from the wikipedia entry on the show's format:
The series consists of three phases: a blind audition, a battle phase, and live performance shows. Four judges/coaches, all noteworthy recording artists, choose teams of contestants through a blind audition process. Each judge has the length of the auditioner's performance (about one minute) to decide if he or she wants that singer on his or her team; if two or more judges want the same singer (as happens frequently), the singer has the final choice of coach.Each team of singers is mentored and developed by its respective coach. In the second stage, called the battle phase, coaches have two of their team members battle against each other directly by singing the same song together, with the coach choosing which team member to advance from each of four individual "battles" into the first live round
The judges/coaches for the show are, as you see on the Rolling Stone cover, Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green, Christina Aguilera and country music star Blake Shelton, all of whom are quite good in their own way.
One of the things I've noticed is that the coaches are often asking their singers to find a deeper interior connection to the song, to the lyrics, and to sing from their emotional center. In other words, to really feel it in their bones. The singers often have a lot of talent, a lot of natural vocal skills, but many of the contestants seem to want to rest in this dimension alone. It sometimes feels like you're hearing a simulation of a singer, a copy of what a great vocal stylist would sound like, or rather, has sounded like. But it lacks heart. It lacks depth and fire and spirit and attitude, and thus it's not really very moving. And good on the coaches for themselves knowing this interior dimension well enough that they can ask their singers to connect more to it.
But this all got me thinking about the voice. How important is it? How important is it that one has a super skilled voice capable of doing acrobatics, hitting the perfect notes and tones, etc.? In the end, I'd say that the actual quality of the voice itself is not the most important thing at all, it's what's inside that counts. To make this point I chose to take things to the extreme and highlight four 'bad' voices, a whole lineage where the singer croaks and creaks and slurs the song out, but somehow manages to penetrate deep within the listener (at least that's my experience of these artists).
First up in the croak-off then is Keith Richards, singing his own composition You Got the Silver from the 2008 Martin Scorcese documentary Shine a Light. What can you say about Keef.
Next is Neil Young with his classic Tonight's the Night. Neil's voice changes depending on what type of music he's recording and what vibe he's going for, but on Tonight's the Night he took his shaky, ragged voice to the extreme. The Rolling Stone critic Dave Marsh wrote this about the whole album Tonight's the Night in his 1975 review:
"The music has a feeling of offhand, first-take crudity matched recently only by Blood on the Tracks, almost as though Young wanted us to miss its ultimate majesty in order to emphasize its ragged edge of desolation...There is no sense of retreat, no apology, no excuses offered and no quarter given. If anything, these are the old ideas with a new sense of aggressiveness. The jitteriness of the music, its sloppy, unarranged (but decidedly structured) feeling is clearly calculated".
There's women in this school of cracked and broken singing too, and there's perhaps no one as good as Lucinda Williams. Here's her on a song called Broken Angel.
Next, the king of the croakers himself, Mr. Bobby Dylan. Bob's voice has been a nasally, creaky, defiant concoction since the beginning of his career, and it's morphed into something even more gnarled and beaten as he's gotten older. But damn if it's not still so deeply moving. Here's Dylan from his 2006 album Modern Times with a heartbreaker called Workingman's Blues #2.
And lastly, I want to stress that I'm not saying that one has to be in the croaker tradition to sing a moving song, obviously this isn't true. For example, check out this live battle performance from The Voice where the two singers nail a combination of wild talent with passionate inner intensity. (video can't be embedded. lame!). These two guys bring it, and it's great. But I hope that what this box has shown, or at least tried to show, is that one's 'talent' and 'beautiful voice' are not really what counts the most. What counts the most is what's inside and how that's expressed into the music. If these creakers and croakers can make great art and move people, so can you, so can everybody. Iggy Pop once said in an interview that he was inspired to start singing by hearing Lou Reed. He heard Reed and said to himself, "I can fuckin do that". And his career was born.