Everyone else is doing it…

I feel bad for Katy Perry today, as embarrassing footage of her lip sync fail has gone viral.  (If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s all over the internet, here’s one post on Gawker)   And then there’s this clip of a terrible performance on X Factor UK.  Everyone wants to talk about how awful she is, how disappointing, etc.  How her “real voice” is so much worse than what we hear in her recordings.

The thing is, most pop stars’ actual singing voices do not sound the same as the processed final product that we hear on the radio.  Autotune seems to be a requirement these days, even if the singer doesn’t really need it.  Most pop singers are so heavily processed in their recordings that the voice sounds like a machine to me, not like a real singer.  REAL VOICES DON’T SOUND LIKE THAT.  I have to explain this to my pop-singing students all the time: you can’t make your voice sound like that recording, because the voice in that recording has had all kinds of digital effects and processing done.  That’s not a real person’s voice, it’s an effect.  There are only a handful of pop singers whose real voices sound like their recordings (Beyoncé and Emeli Sandé are the first to come to mind), because, unfortunately, the majority of consumers don’t care about the singing.  They care about the image.

And the other thing is, almost every pop star lip syncs for at least some performances.  That’s just the way it is.  When you’re singing with in-ear monitors to hear yourself and your band, it’s hard to hear anything clearly.  If the mix isn’t right, you may not be able to find your pitch.  If it’s a particularly large venue where getting the right sound balance will be tricky, if the focus is on elaborate choreography and putting on a spectacular show, live singing is not the point.  It’s by no means impossible to pull off a good live performance under these circumstances, and there are singers that can do it, but many can’t.  And it unfortunately comes down to the fact that sometimes live singing is too hard and would take away from the “performance.”  It’s about the spectacle.  It’s about the image, about putting on an amazing show, about special effects and costumes and lights and dancers.  It’s rarely about the singing.

People get all worked up when a malfunction like this draws are attention to the fact that our beloved pop stars are not the greatest singers.  The truth is, talent doesn’t sell the way that a carefully crafted image does.  There are some really great singers out there who are truly talented and whose finished recordings sound like their natural voice, but those great musicians rarely become mega-stars.  In fact, I think that valuing your music and your voice is not very compatible with having a career as a pop star.  You either choose to be a great musician or you let yourself be made into a celebrity.

And another thing: pop singers are often on rigorous and very demanding tour schedules.  Heavy pop belting can be really tiring on the voice, especially if it’s not done carefully.  Yet the singer is rarely in a position to say, “wait a second, I need a day off in between shows so that I can rest,” because the singer is rarely the one making the decisions.  So, do you sing even though maybe your voice is thrashed and you know it won’t be your best performance, or do you take a night off and lip sync?

I’m not saying that I agree with the way things are, I’m just saying that it’s a complex situation and I’m more surprised when I discover a pop star who can actually sing well then when I find out that one is not as great as they appear.  If you look at other Katy Perry performances where she is clearly singing live (the minor pitch problems are the giveaway), they are not nearly as bad as the ones that have surfaced in the past few days.  She’s not a terrible singer, she’s just clearly had a bad couple of shows.  She obviously doesn’t sound the same live as she does in her recordings, but very few mainstream pop singers do.

Maybe someday the focus will be on the music instead of the spectacle, and singers will be able to concentrate on giving awesome live performances without all the dancing and special effects and nonsense.  But until then, mainstream audiences will continue to expect unrealistic levels of showmanship and excitement (and then turn vicious when their pop idols reveal that they are, in fact, only humans), and singers will continue having to compromise in one way or another to deliver what’s expected of them.

Teacher vs. Friend

As teachers, we learn that it’s important to have boundaries.  Don’t get too attached to your students, you can’t save everyone, you’re their teacher and not their friend, etc.  I knew from the start that this would be a bit of a challenge for me.  I am a person who cares too much.  Getting attached is what I do, and even though I understand rationally that I can’t save everyone, I still wish that I could.

I also know that I would not be where I am today if my college voice teacher had not gone far beyond what was required of her as my teacher, because she knew I was struggling and wanted to make sure I was ok.  I had a particularly rough patch during my first year of college.  My boyfriend at the time talked to his teacher about it, who shared his concern with my teacher, who summoned me into her office for a serious talk.  She was there for me when I desperately needed some level-headed guidance, and she continued to be there for me during the next four years.

I can’t even count the number of times I went to her office, crying, distraught over some boy who wasn’t treating me well, or friends who weren’t treating me well either.  When I was having relationship problems, she’d shake her head and tell me, “I’m sure glad I’m not young anymore,” and try to help me understand that the boy who kept hurting me was not worth my time.  When I had a falling out with a group of friends, she reminded me that the actions of other people should not determine my self worth.  I was an emotional mess, and she was a rock that kept me grounded and pulled me back when I’d start to get lost again.  She was so much more than just my teacher.  And she is one of several amazing music teachers I had who inspired me to become a teacher myself.

I know that I can’t get that involved with all of my students.  It wouldn’t be appropriate, and it would be emotionally exhausting.  It’s important to maintain that boundary of professionalism, because after all, I am the teacher.  It’s not my place to get involved.  With my younger students, it’s easy to stay in the role of teacher, because they see me as an adult.  It’s a little harder to maintain a professional distance with my older teenagers, because they see me as closer to their age (even though I’m older than I look), and a few of them want to treat me more like a friend than a teacher.  So I build up walls and boundaries and call it professionalism, I try not to care about them too much, because that’s how it has to be.  I am the teacher.

But if there’s one student that just really seems to need someone to talk to, if I can be there for her, then maybe I should.  When this student comes along who is so talented but doesn’t seem to believe it, all I want to do is make her believe in herself a little.  If I might be able to help her become a little less shy and a little more confident before she goes off to college next year, then why shouldn’t I?  I know what it’s like to be that student who just needs a little extra encouragement, and I can only imagine where I’d be if I hadn’t gotten that help when I needed it.  

On the dumbing down of art

I watched The Sound of Music Live on NBC last night.  Well, part of it.  At 10 I had lost interest so I switched over to Scandal…

Every time I see a “mainstream” TV or movie production of a musical, I’m disappointed.  Every time a celebrity is cast in a leading role that they lack the skills to perform, and “real musicians” of the world can’t stop talking about how awful the performance was, I’m disappointed.  

I’m disappointed that musical productions that try to reach a mainstream audience feel that they need to resort to these kind of stunts.  Why can’t a production be exciting because it is filled with talented performers who do an excellent job of bringing the show to life?  Why is it so inconceivable that an American audience might appreciate art without it being dumbed down and celebrity-filled?  Why is a mediocre performance by a superstar more marketable than an exceptional performance by a skilled musical theater singer/actor?  

This is why people think musical theater sucks.  This is why opera is considered a dying art form.  Because the general assumption is that the public is too stupid to appreciate truly great art.

It’s also disappointing how many of my singer friends have felt the need to jump on the “Carrie was awful” bandwagon.  Now I’m not saying that she did a great job as Maria.  Her acting was lackluster, but honestly she did better than I thought she would.  Her singing, in spite of the tendency to inappropriately slip into heavy pop-style belting, wasn’t terrible.  Considering that she totally lacked the skills to succeed at what she was attempting, she did just fine.  Those of us who have worked hard to hone our skills as singers/actors/dancers/performers should be supportive of others who are trying to do the same.  We shouldn’t have to destroy each other to feel better about ourselves.