I am not a sports guy. I have enjoyed playing them at times, but I can't stand watching them. Never could, and likely never will. As such, I have always found it difficult to participate in the "Monday morning quarterback" discussions that take place each week at my day job. "I can't believe [insert athlete's name] threw that pass. He should know that [insert other athlete's name] always covers the seam on [insert type of play]."
I don't understand the fascination, the obsession, the enjoyment, the need to criticize the decisions and actions of people who are at the absolute peak of their sport. That said, I don't begrudge anyone their hobby. I just tune out as best I can.
However, there are similar discussions that I am unable to ignore. They happen less often, but with increasing regularity. I always have to throw myself into the debate when I hear people "Monday morning quarterbacking" celebrity vocalists after an isolated vocal track was released online.
"Did you hear [insert starlet's name] singing on that isolated vocal track? Oh god, without autotune, she's horrible!" I've heard conversations like this about Courtney Love, Beyonce, and Mariah Carey in recent memory.
No doubt, there is some element of the human personality that wants to drag celebrities off of their pedestals in the hopes of making one's own life seem more... meaningful? Or, maybe it has to do with making one's mistakes and bad days seem less painful. Hell, I'm sure some people just plain enjoy mocking other people.
But hey, anyone who can tell Eli Manning how to throw a football, and Mariah Carey how to sing, must be incredibly knowledgeable, skilled, and talented.
I'm certainly none of those things, but as someone who's been a vocalist for many years now, one who has bombed out on stage, who has sung through head colds and flus, crappy equipment, and incompetent sound guys, I feel that I can bring some level of insight to this subject.
Please pardon me if any of my statements sound a little agitated or defensive. I have a difficult time controlling my tone when people who have no idea what it's like to sing pass judgment on those who do it professionally or in the public eye.
Maybe I've rushed to judgment myself. Who knows, maybe you are a vocalist, and you've nailed the national anthem at a pro sports game. So let me back up a little. If you've ever criticized a vocalist in this way, let me ask you...
Have you ever sung? In public? On a stage in front of hundreds or thousands of screaming people? With multiple HD cameras staring you down, revealing every flaw in your skin, every aspect of your appearance that you're insecure about, and every bead of sweat on your face? With drums and distorted electric guitars assaulting your eardrums? With monitors blasting in your face, or even worse, monitors that have crapped out on you? With a sound guy who thinks you are loud enough and ignores your request for more of your voice in the monitor?
Singing in public causes children to wet themselves and adults to vomit. It's not as easy as it looks.
Do you understand the pressure a performer is under in those situations? For your average band, the audience is looking at the singer for the majority of the show. The instrumentalists get attention when they solo or perform some sort of antics on stage, but the rest of the time, the vocalist is under the spotlight.
It's enough pressure to routinely cause children to wet themselves in middle school plays, and adults to vomit before walking on stage. That kind of thing seriously messes with your brain, and guess where your sense of pitch comes from? (hint: your brain.)
What I'm suggesting here is that you try and have a little empathy with these people. They're famous, yes. They're likely very wealthy. They got where they are as a result of their fans. However, these are not excuses to belittle people. Celebrities are people, too.
Humans are not machines. We are not always precise, and we are never perfect. If you're a person who likes sports, consider the best ice hockey player on earth as an example (I'll leave it to you to decide who he is).
The best athlete might hit a target 7/10 times, but he's never going to hit 100%. But singers should?
When said hockey player shoots pucks at a target, he may hit it, (or at least near it) 7 out of 10 times, but something will always get in the way of hitting it 100% of the time. A nick in the ice, a muscle pull, the distraction of a 200 lb. defender rushing toward him at full speed.
This guy can train all he wants, but a million variables will inevitably get in the way of perfection. No pitcher can hit the exact same location every time he throws, no ice skater lands every axel, no singer hits pitch on every note.
So if perfection is literally impossible, where does this expectation of perfection come from?
Have you ever paid close attention to the way vocals are recorded these days? I'm not talking about autotune - we'll get to that in a moment. I'm talking about layering, effects, backing vocals, and harmonies.
The average modern radio hit is meant to sound like there's 1 or 2 vocalists, but if you put on a good pair of headphones and listen closely, or if you read an article on how the album was produced, you will often discover that there are not 1 or 2, but 3, 4, 6, or more tracks of layered vocals, especially when the chorus hits.
There's low, middle, and high harmonies, "ooh" and "aah" pad vocals, harmonizing instruments like keyboards, strings, or organs, and all of these tracks are run through a massive effects pipeline including reverb, delay, limiting, compression, etc.
This kind of production is largely why people come back from live performances disappointed that "____ artist didn't sound at all like they do on the album." Yeah, well, no surprise... they didn't have 14 professional autotuned vocalists supporting their melodies.
Every listener has had their brains rewired to think every note should be 100% on pitch
Good or bad, thanks to the invention of autotune, we must realize that every listener in the average audience has had their brains rewired over the last 20 or so years to think that every note a singer vocalizes should be 100% on pitch. They've had machines and software filtering any bad notes from ever reaching their ears. Everything always sounds great.
Imagine if your favorite sports channel edited every game so you only saw the shots where your favorite player scored. Given enough time and repetition, you would begin to think that this player was flawless. Then, when you go to a live game, you would be quite disappointed, or at least surprised to see not 1 or 2, but several misses.
That sounds preposterous, but when people listen to radio, smartphones, CD players, or records, they hear perfect pitch. The missed shots have all been edited out. If they go to large-scale live concerts, they hear more autotune, padded by layers of backing tracks, or even lip syncing to pre-recorded tracks. Then they turn on TV, and watch a New Year's Day parade or a XXXXbowl halftime show where everyone is quite obviously lip-sycning.
So, okay, we've been conditioned to expect perfect pitch all the time, but in a live setting where autotune is not used (I think it's safe to say that we'll be hearing autotune used in live settings more and more in the future, but for now, it's somewhat sporadic), what kind of variables can get in the way of a trained vocalist hitting pitch?
If you have never seen a vocal monitor, or worked with one, it is something that allows the performer to hear what they're singing. It's a speaker or a headphone that allows the voice to be amplified over the other instruments.
Pro musicians can pretty much ignore this section, but if you're a total n00b (which is fine! That's what I'm here for!), and have no idea why a monitor might be needed, let's give a practical example.
Don't do this experiment in real life - it would be dangerous and could cause injury.
Just imagine sitting in a car, and turning on your favorite song as loud as the radio can go. Like, painfully loud. Now imagine trying to sing along. Now imagine recording what you're singing. When you play it back, through the process of acoustic science, magic, and stuff, you hear only your voice... no other music behind you. Do you think it would sound good? (Hint: it would sound like crap.)
A dozen or more things can get in the way of a good performance, none of which you will see.
That's basically what happens with these celebrity vocal tracks. The stage volume, the monitor mix, or some other variable gets in the way, and the singer can't hit their pitch. Then, the sound guy makes a recording of only her microphone, with all the other music turned way down or muted, and bob's your uncle... everyone is now mocking her for being a talentless hack.
Now you know what monitors are for. The tricky part is, monitors are often quite difficult to get working just right. They could be too loud, too quiet, too much high (treble) or low end (bass), not enough reverb. They could be squealing or causing some other kind of feedback that interferes with what the singer is trying to hear.
It's also frequently the case that sound guys view monitors as a low priority, and/or don't know how to work them properly, so the singer ends up getting too much guitar in his monitor mix, or not enough voice, something like that. As a result, he can't hear what he's singing, and he goes off pitch.
Have you ever seen a singer pull a device out of their ear and let it hang on their shoulder? It looks sort of like a hearing aid with a little wire coming out of it. That's an in-ear monitor, and if the vocalist is pulling it out, it means something has gone wrong, and it's doing more harm than good. The singer has decided it's better to try and hear his voice naturally instead of trying to get the mix from the monitor. It's a risky but sometimes unavoidable move. Don't be surprised if you hear bad notes after that.
The other tell-tale sign that something has gone awry with the monitor is if you see the singer twitch. It will pass by most people in the audience unnoticed. But, if you know the inner workings of live performance, you know exactly what it means. She'll go for a note, it'll be off by a little or a lot, and you'll see that unmistakable "eesh" move. It's a different look for each vocalist, but you'll know it when you see it.
Let's say a bassist gets ill the night of a show. He's coming down with flu-like symptoms. He has a pounding headache, so the stage volume is driving him nuts. He is nauseous, and having a hard time standing up. He had to take some medicine that is causing him to be groggy. He can see his bass, and his hands and fingers can still move, so he can play. He's not going to be the most energetic performer, but he's going to fight through it and play the show until he collapses, because he's a pro.
Now let's say a vocalist gets the same symptoms. She has the same pounding headache. It's throbbing so hard that she can't concentrate on her pitch. All she hears is pain. She starts to fall off the note. In between throbs, she hears one of these bad notes, and her confidence starts to shake. As a result, her pitch is getting even worse.
She's also nauseous, so every time she takes a breath to sing, she feels like she's going to yak all over the mic and the stage. The anxiety is constricting her throat. She unconsciously takes smaller breaths, and when she goes to hit that big note in the final chorus, the power has left her, and she goes flat.
When a vocalist is sick, it can feel like his "frets" are moving. He goes to hit a note, and it's just not there.
She took medicine that is causing her to be groggy, which is bad enough, but it's also got a decongestant in it that is thinning out her voice and robbing her of even more power. She fights through it, but she sees the awkward and unpleasant looks she's getting from the other band members and the audience. She gets worse.
When an instrumentalist is ill, it sucks for sure, but when a vocalist is ill, their instruments are directly affected. When a singer has an illness, it can almost feel like the "frets" are moving on you... I realize that's kind of trippy, but it's the truth. You think you're on pitch, but you're really a half a step or more off. Sometimes you can slide up to the note (or fret), but other times, you just miss it entirely.
Let's say another vocalist at another show is in perfect health. But, he just had his heart ripped out by his girlfriend. She caught him looking at another woman. He swears it was innocent, she says he's a selfish you-know-what, and threw his possessions out on the lawn. A long screaming match ensues. The screeching and shouting wreaks havoc on his vocal cords. He starts to get a bit hoarse.
The show must go on, so the singer angrily speeds to the venue, shouting at every stop light that impedes his path. He arrives an hour late, and storms his way to the bar. His body has been flooded with stress chemicals for a good long while now. Having done no research on vocal health, he barks over the crowd noise to the bartender, and orders a shot of whiskey and a beer. He downs the drinks, trudges up on stage, and starts belting out his songs.
He's done no warm-ups to prepare. He missed mic check, so the monitor mix is atrocious. He can't really hear what he's singing, and the soundguy is staring down at the soundboard, so he doesn't notice the singer's frantic hand gestures toward the monitor.
On top of all that, the singer has a cyclone of emotions swirling around in his brain. The memories of his recently ended relationship are all he can think about. He can't remember lyrics. He starts melodies in the wrong places - by a half a beat - and as a result runs out of breath much more quickly than he should.
The alcohol thins out his blood, and decreases the blood flow to his vocal cords, causing him to constrict, sound raspy, and eventually lose most of his voice.
In many instances, a song is written by one person, and performed by another, or many others. Quite frequently, the range demanded by the song may not match the range of the performer. As a result, adjustments must be made, sometimes in advance, sometimes on the fly. The key must be changed. Certain passages must be re-written.
Take "I Will Always Love You" as an example. Whitney Houston's Power-Diva version sounds just a tiny bit different than the original subdued Country ballad by Dolly Parton.
A singer's range fluctuates from one day to the next.
I'm not arguing that one version is better or worse. I'm only saying that the song itself is a blueprint. The vocalist is building their performance from a subjective reading of the notes on the page.
Songwriters often write songs that demand a very wide vocal range. Since voices and the biological systems behind them are not perfect machines, a singer's range changes from day to day. Sometimes they can hit that big note with ease, other times they need a whole lot more warm-up to get there. On some days, it's just not happening.
When I heard the soundtrack recording of "Let it Go" by Idina Menzel, I thought it sounded like she was reaching. When she didn't make the note at the Oscars live performance, I was not at all surprised. I'm sure many if not most days, she would have no problem getting there, but that day just wasn't one of those days.
There are a ton of reasons why things can go wrong for a vocalist. Bad days on the job happen for everyone, but for a singer, they happen in front of a crowd. One bad performance doesn't make them a joke, just like one great performance doesn't make them a legend. Let's just give everyone a break from time to time.
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