- Five Keys, “Dream On,” 1959
- Ray Charles, “That Lucky Old Sun,” 1963
- Macy Gray on her On How Life Is album, 1999
- Elvis Costello, “Sleep of the Just” from King of America, 1986
- Jerry Butler, “He Will Break Your Heart,” 1960
- Mother Earth and Tracy Nelson, “Down so Low,” 1968
- Them with Van Morrison, “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” 1966 and “Madame George” from Astral Weeks, 1968
- Otis Redding, “Try a Little Tenderness,” 1966
- Rhianna, “Stay,” 2012
- Amy Winehouse, “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” 2006
- Aretha Franklin, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” 1967
- Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” 1965
- Al Green, “Look What You Done for Me” in 1972 and The Belle Album 1977
- Sly and the Family Stone, “Everybody Is a Star,” 1970
- Chet Baker, “My Funny Valentine,” 1956
- Etta James, “I’d Rather Go Blind,” 1967
- Sinéad O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U,” 1990
Anyone could make their own list of records in this line that talk to each other, that listen to each other. Most often there’s a thick tone—the tone of voice, a heaviness, a sense of high stakes—but also a tone that’s thick in emotion—desire or regret—that you can hear even when the tone is musically thin, as in Chet Baker’s “My Funny Valentine.”
Music that has at its heart—what you can hear and feel viscerally—the wish and the will to reach out—to a loved one, to a listener, to an audience, to the whole world. Isn’t that what Solomon Burke means when he says before he starts singing “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” “I believe if everybody would sing this song it would save the whole world”?
The thickness is depth. There’s a way in which the performer, no matter how great, disappears inside his or her song, into the story it tells, into its fiction. The singer becomes the song’s subject, its actor, its victim. The singer surrenders his or her autonomy to the song, to its performance, so that the song has room for anyone who hears it, as he or she listens, to become that subject, actor, victim.
The singer performs a ceremony of complicity. The premise is that this is everyone’s story—that full, thick voice, that well of emotion, has infinite room. Because it’s the wish that is the source of the music—the wish that life could be like that, the wish that life was not like this—no one is excluded.
It’s no accident that soul music and the Civil Rights Movement go hand in hand. The aspirations of millions of people across hundreds of years are in these songs, like air is in them. This music seeks its own democracy. In its great moments, in some of the songs I’ve mentioned, the music makes that democracy. As the performer disappears, and the listener is called to speak for herself or himself, even they’re only talking to themselves. The singer is making an argument: this is already your life, whether you know it or not. Some people, listening, respond directly. Others may realize that they haven’t yet felt anything as deeply as the singer in the song—and that can be terrifying. What if I do feel that deeply? What if I never do?
There is, sometimes, melisma in these performances but often not. When it is there, it’s a sign that the singer so means what he or she says that they can’t actually communicate it in ordinary speech. They are overcome, they are struggling desperately to tell you what they mean, struggling desperately to tell you how much they want to tell you what they have to tell you—and this can be so powerful that it doesn’t seem like a performance of being overcome with desire or regret. In the moment, the precise moment when Otis Redding or Jerry Butler is in the recording studio, cutting the sixteenth take of “He Will Break Your Heart” or “Try a Little Tenderness,” the feeling is overwhelming that they are overcome, and you’re hearing that unrepeatable moment—which is no longer a performance but an event.
In American music melisma comes from gospel—it’s a way for the gospel singer to tell you she has been taken out of herself, that she is close to God, that her voice is no longer really her own, that, as the words bend and bend, as they slip and turn, as they reach higher—as they dissolve words and hint at glossolalia, at unknown tongues—it is almost God that is singing, the singer only a messenger, or even less than that, a vehicle—in the ecstatic moment, a vehicle for truth.And of course this is a form of speech, a way of singing, that is taking place in a church, with the singer part of a congregation, its voice, the voice of the congregation, not someone the congregation celebrates, but someone who is performing that ceremony of complicity, calling it into being.
Across thirty years of melisma as a primary language of pop music—what, according to David Ritz, as far back as the early 1960s the Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler, later Aretha Franklin’s producer, was calling oversouling (“when he thought certain singers were leaning on extravagant melisma as a contrivance”)—it’s clear that a new language is being spoken. And it’s no accident that the rise of oversouling goes hand in hand with a celebrity culture in which performers—whether in art or politics—can be experienced as if they were gods. A celebrity culture in which performers can present themselves like gods, and get away with it.
In melisma across those years—in Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Destiny’s Child, Kelly Clarkson, Christine Aquilera, Joss Stone, Beyoncé, dozens more, and countless singers on American Idol and The Voice following in their wake—this mode of singing—or, as it signifies in gospel and soul, of being—is technique. It is meant to be appreciated as technique—it communicates as technique—and, as Manny Farber wrote of what in 1957 he called “hard-sell” art, it communicates as the art of someone who “has the drive, patience, conceit, and daring to become a successful non-conforming artist without having the talent or idealism for rebellious creation.” He named Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck in jazz, Franz Kline and Larry Rivers in painting, Salinger, Bellow, and Cheever in the novel, and Elia Kazan, Delbert Mann, and Paddy Chayevsky in the movies.
These people and so many like them, Farber said, threatened to replace “the whole idea of ‘felt,’ committed art”—and he put the word “felt” in scare quotes, as if the very idea was outmoded, sentimental, embarrassing—but he had no other way to say what he wanted to say. Getz and Salinger and their like, he said, were “basically blacksmiths who have acquired expedient techniques through long hours of insensitive hard work.”
“The new jazzmen,” he says, “are unbelievably deft and crisp in their run-on gimmicks with instrument and composition. But,” he says, what they have really done is to remove “everything in accomplishment that gets in the way of technique.” The result is that “without the human involvement and probing of Parker’s sax playing—the pain-wracked attack, as well as the playfulness and sudden spurts of facetious slang—Getz turns the baritone sax into a thing that can be easily mastered, like a typewriter.”
This is what I’m trying to talk about with melisma, with what is now a form of common speech—a bizarre inversion in which what was once a way of performing sincerity has become a way of performing insincerity—and the sign is flipped. What is meant to appear as a sign of a loss of control becomes its imposition—and signifies that the singer in is absolute control. It is a technique, and its performance shows only that the singer has mastered it. The performer communicates that he or she can perform a performance of emotion. Actual emotion—or the simulation of emotion in a manner so powerful that you cannot believe the singer is not feeling what she is telling you she does feel—would get in the way of performance—and when once a voice seemingly getting away from a singer, notes bending and sliding, communicated how much a singer felt, how much he or she meant what they said, singing driven by melisma is now a way of communicating that the singer feels nothing—that he or she does not mean what they say.
The singers may be communicating with stupendous virtuosity—but what is it worth? “The dedication the blues demands,” Stanley Booth once wrote, “lies beyond technique; it makes being a blues player something like being a priest. Virtuosity in playing blues licks is like virtuosity in celebrating the Mass, it is empty, it means nothing. Skill is a necessity, but a true blues player’s virtue lies in his acceptance of his life, a life for which he is only partly responsible.”The political writer Rick Perlstein caught this—what you could call both the politics and the art of technique—as well as anyone in 2012, writing about how, for Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate, lying—baldly and directly presenting incontrovertibly false statements about, say, inflation, the national debt, employment, deportation, terrorism—had changed from a mere political trick into an actual form of discourse—a language.
“It’s time,” Perlstein said, “to consider whether Romney’s fluidity with the truth is, in fact, a feature and not a bug: a constituent part of his appeal to conservatives. The point here is not just that he lies when he says conservative things, even if he believes something different in his heart of hearts—but that lying is what makes you sound the way a conservative is supposed to sound, in pretty much the same way that curlicuing all the way around the note makes you sound like a contestant on American Idol is supposed to sound.”
You can’t get a better description of present-day melisma than “curlicuing all around the note.”
What happens when technique becomes a substitute for soul—for that ceremony of complicity, created by the deep soul voice, between performance and audience—is that the commonality, the democracy that you can hear in “Stay” or “Dream On” is replaced by a voice that is completely self-referential. It is self-congratulatory. It celebrates nothing but itself. It is a performance of solipsism—no one but the singer really exists—and no voice other than the singer’s needs to be heard. It’s a performance of self-importance, where art becomes primarily a form of self-promotion. Donald Trump doesn’t engage in melisma, but he speaks the language.
For me, the apotheosis of what this means as a national discourse, as a form of politics, came when I watched Jennifer Hudson’s excruciating performance of “Let’s Stay Together” at Barack Obama’s 2013 Inaugural Ball. Her curlicuing around the note, one after the word, so that it seemed every word was bullied into ten, was so total, so overwhelming, so oppressive, so absolute, that it made any other kind of singing seem momentarily impossible. Her performance was so complete it suddenly made any other way of singing the song or any song, unreal—and it made anything President Obama said, as he and Michelle Obama took the first dance at the ball, sound just as fake.
But I only understood Jennifer Hudson’s signing this way because I’d already seen how the contradiction between the democracy of the deep soul voice and the Republicanism of the melismatic voice really works—on the final show of the 2009 season of American Idol, when Adam Lambert sang Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.”
“If you ever hear me sing that song,” Rod Stewart once said, “you’ll know my career will be over”—he meant that if he ever tried to sing “A Change Is Gonna Come,” the only question would be how completely he failed to live up to it, and he would have to slink away in shame, to never show his face in public again. Adam Lambert didn’t have that problem.
Lambert began as if soul music were a picture in a magazine; every note and gesture was a referent to a referent that the picture had rendered invisible. So much alienation was built into the performance, where according to Idol precepts all emotions are absorbed into I want, that Lambert became his own impersonator. After thirty seconds of curlicuing around the notes, a reversal of Sam Cooke’s direct address, or maybe more deeply the way he communicated how deeply he wanted to address whoever might hear him directly, a reversal a friend struggled to find words for as we watched—“Not singing, or vocalizing,” she said. “Vocaling”—after thirty seconds, Lambert screamed, to show that he could really hit a note, and the performance went to a rank hysteria, which was meant to stand for actually hearing one’s own words, for being moved by what one was singing about. And then the coup de grâce, as Lambert turned a song about a change that had to come because it would affect a whole people, a whole country, perhaps even the whole world, into a pitch for votes, magically replacing a common history with that Republican solipsism.
“I KNOW MY CHANGE IS GONNA COME,” he sang, leaving Sam Cooke’s inescapably shared “a change is gonna come” in the dust—making the song his own, the ultimate Idol phrase, in the most absolute way, erasing everyone, dead or alive, that the song truly contained. The song became a statement about career validity.
The judges were beside themselves, but Lambert lost to Kris Allen.
Talk delivered April 16, 2016, at the 2016 EMP Pop Conference in Seattle