So what if Christina Aguilera botched the lyrics to the National Anthem before the Super Bowl. Sometimes, when it occurs to you that a billion or so people are scrutinizing your every breath, it can make you a mite nervous. I enjoyed the letter to the editor, however, from the Collierville woman who was so incensed, >she wrote that Aguilera's error was "a spit in the eye to all I hold dear." I hope no one ever shows her a video of the performance by Rosanne Barr.
What offended me was not her messing up the words (those are some tough lyrics to sing) but the tortured, moaning manner in which she chose to sing the song. As soon as she sang the first line, I said to my wife Melody, "Here we go again." "The Star-Spangled Banner" is one of those songs that doesn't lend itself to a breathy, orgasmic reading. It sounded like Aguilera and the flag needed to get a room.
Not that I'm opposed to artistic interpretation of the National Anthem. Ever since José Feliciano drove the puritans insane at the 1968 World Series, artists have been putting their own touches to the anthem. Several inspiring versions have been performed since then, from Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock to Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl. The greatest version was Marvin Gaye's at the 1983 NBA All Star game. These artists had the one ingredient lacking in so many contemporary singers' anthem attempts: heart.
As good a technical singer as Aguilera is, no amount of vocal pyrotechnics can overcome a soulless performance. Thanks to shows like American Idol, where Americans try to sound just like their idols, these wild exercises in vocal gymnastics are all we ever hear. I can still hear the echoes of my father saying, "You call that singing?" after hearing Elvis. As an aspiring singer myself, I can say with some authority that note-scaling over-singing has saturated the music scene to an extent that it's become farcical. No one even needs to sing on key anymore. They have something called an auto-tuner that will make you sound like an emasculated Darth Vader, but it will be on pitch. The musical term for this stylized vocalization is called "melisma." Simply put, it's singing a single syllable using multiple notes. Its beginnings go back to the madrigal, but in popular music, melisma originated in the black church. All the great, church-based soul singers could manage it to an extent, but the master was Bobby "Blue" Bland. I used to study his records like a mathematics textbook to figure out how he sang like that. In the song "I'll Take Care of You," he sings the single word "I" with a five-note drop. I know, I counted. Listening to Bland's style taught me a variation of melisma that, although not authentic, is better than most can pull off. Great singers also know when to leave it out, lest it become a distraction.
There are many artists with melismatic abilities, including Mavis Staples, Usher, even Justin Bieber. But no one really overdid it until Patti LaBelle, the Queen of Over-sing. Listening to her wears me out because she tries too hard to be over the top, all of the time. And she does this bird thing with flapping arms that's not nearly as entertaining as when Rufus Thomas did it. Melisma is best applied with a fine brush and not the paint-roller that LaBelle uses. Blame the neurotic, microphone hand-twitch on Whitney, but the current phase of female vocal abuse can be traced back to Mariah Carey. She is to contemporary women singers what Joni Mitchell was to the '70s: unavoidable. Mariah's pipes inspired a thousand imitators, until the top female singers all began sounding just the same.
Which brings us to the 2011 Grammy Awards. This year's show began with a quintet of chanteuses paying tribute to the still-kicking Aretha Franklin. Aside from the talented Jennifer Hudson, the rest of the pack, including the caterwauling Aguilera, illustrated just how far we have fallen in our definition of "diva" from Aretha's gold standard. Lady Gaga arrived at the ceremonies inside of an oblong pod carried by throne bearers, just daring critics to say that she laid an egg. But the harshest criticism for Gaga was reserved for the similarities between her new song, "Born This Way," and Madonna's "Express Yourself," from 1989. Having a longer memory, I can tell you both songs sound just like "I Got the Music in Me," from the Kiki Dee Band, 1974. You're welcome.
Aside from Justin Bieber being punished for his success and shut out of the awards, the most surprising Grammy moment was the upset win for Album of the Year by Arcade Fire. I'll own up to being so unhip that this group wasn't even on my radar until their Grammy performance, but I always enjoy seeing a Yoko Ono tribute band get a break.
As far as the ladies, it was Rihanna's night, and she wasn't even up for an award. Leave it to Babs Streisand, though, to show that a great singer doesn't need to hit her highest note in every verse and is able to thrill you with her tone, not how many notes she can cram into a measure of music. Younger singers would be wise to look to Streisand and realize that sometimes it's better to just sing the damn song.
The two other most infectious performances of the evening came from Bob Dylan and a show-stopping Mick Jagger. Even with all the fresh, new interpreters of song, leave it to a trio of septuagenarians to show 'em how to rock the house. And poor Christina Aguilera needs to learn that after milking that final, excruciating drop of melisma from a song's ending, it's best to try not to fall on your ass. That's what the audience is supposed to do.
Randy Haspel writes the blog "Born-Again Hippies," where a version of this column first appeared.