There’s a certain irony to the fact that the BBC decided to name their Xerox X Factor ‘The Voice’; the voice is the one aspect of contemporary popular music that has been effectively eradicated from the airwaves – that is, the distinctive voice that once acted as instant identification when heard emanating from the radio or turntable. Pop in the second half of the twentieth century was peppered with a plethora of distinctive voices that remain unmistakable – Roy Orbison, Frank Sinatra, Frankie Valli, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, James Brown, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Karen Carpenter, Rod Stewart, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Johnny Rotten, Kate Bush, Boy George, Morrissey – the list goes on and on. None could ever be confused with another, for strength of personality radiated from such voices; these were personalities who could be both fascinating and intimidating, but you couldn’t ignore them.
Some of the most distinctive voices of the pop era were unconventional and untrained; one thinks of, say, Russell Mael from Sparks or Billy MacKenzie from The Associates – those voices didn’t emerge from voice coaches in stage-schools, adhering to manuals that followed tried and tested guidelines; they came from somewhere without rules or regulations, natural and original to the unique individuals who produced them. Think of the way in which Dylan’s raw, rasping vocals cut through every convention of the time or the way in which Marc Almond’s early recordings with Soft Cell often veer perilously out-of-tune as he injects his theatrical electronic epics with wonderfully camp melodrama. There’s as much genuine soul in ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ as there is in anything by Aretha Franklin.
Various factors brought about the marginalisation of the distinctive voice. The increasing influence of the TV talent show was one, with every participant encouraged to model their vocals on the safest and least challenging mainstream style; but the so-called Fame Academy graduates were no better. They may be able to play instruments and write their own material, but they’ve essentially been taught how to sing in a musical equivalent of a creative writing course, submitting to a system that churns out students whose work is indistinguishable from each other, as bland and unoriginal as any of their talent show contemporaries. But the one element above all others that has changed the game is the invention of the insidious Auto-Tune effect.
The record-buying public’s first exposure to the audio processor that can fix every bum note and ensure every vocal to which it is applied is pitch-perfect to an unnatural degree was Cher’s 1998 chart-topper ‘Believe’. Since then it has become the default mechanism of every pop, R&B and Hip Hop act to have attained success in the twenty-first century, ironing out the last semblance of individual personality in the process. Whereas there had occasionally been big hit records in the past that comprised anonymous session singers and musicians operating under a group name and usually promoted on TV by a fake band that had nothing to do with the recording, Auto-Tune has taken this to a frightening new level. Its widespread, almost compulsory use today has rendered every pop act the modern-day equivalent of The Archies.
I was buying some tuna for the cat in a cut-price supermarket earlier today and found my ears exposed to the local commercial radio station; I entered the shop midway through one record and exited it midway through another; but there was nothing to distinguish either. Granted, at my age there’s no reason why I should recognise who the ‘artist’ was, but I’d hazard a guess most twenty or twenty-five years my junior would probably struggle as well. The watered-down, lowest-common-denominator 90s Dance derivative musical backing was identical, which tends to have a ‘white noise’ effect on me to begin with; but the vocals were Auto-Tuned into castrated android perfection. The voice was as pre-programmed as the music. Hack songwriters and producers have effectively found a way to reduce the human ingredient to the same synthetic cul-de-sac as the sampled instrumentation, making the voice a veritable click-track of soulless uniformity.
There has been an evident reinvention of the old Tin Pan Alley school over the past decade-and-a-half, whereby the majority of the big hit songs come from the same stable and are consequently impossible to tell apart. A small coterie of songwriters and producers have assembled a production line that makes Stock, Aitken and Waterman resemble Crosby, Stills and Nash – dispensable and disposable, cold, clinical fast-food music designed to be consumed and regurgitated like an iPod Big Mac. Any regular reader will know I’m no fan of Adele, but one reason why the flame-haired foghorn has achieved such mammoth success in the past four or five years could possibly be due to the fact that she does have at least one factor in her favour: her voice is undeniably distinctive. And it’s hard to think of many who could lay claim to that discarded distinction in this execrable era of identikit audio processed cheese.
© The Editor