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Christina Aguilera, The National Anthem And Melisma


I meant to post this piece last week -- but of course never got around to it. From John Eskow, a very fitting rebuttal to Christina Aguilera's, errr, singing of the National Anthem at Superbowl XLV:
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.
Eskow adds a postscript and a coda to his piece, in which he talks about race -- because some trolling on the part of commenters forces his hand.

But, I think that the overall tone to his article is spot-on. Too often in today's popular music, singers overuse melisma (Eskow refers to it as "Melisma Abuse") to highlight themselves, rather than the music that they are singing. Normally, I would shudder a bit and turn the channel or turn off the radio. However, Aguilera was singing the National Anthem -- not a cover of an old Doors tune...

...not to mention that she botched the lyrics.

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Photo: Reuters