19 November 2004
None too smooth
I think I was going to try to write something about the way what used to be called "bad" and deliberately bad, not just off-key singing had become in fact an acceptable mode of expressing oneself musically, and to wonder how and why this came about. This phenomenon the "rough" voiced singing that Janis Joplin and Bono, and others mostly use or used has not only become accepted, but has become the preferable singing technique, at least in the rock and MOR pop venues. It is passing strange that smooth, almost Sinatra-esque singers such as Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop ever made it in the rock world, so much has "rough, emotional, authentic, soul" singing been preferred.
I see two possible sources for this particular phenomenon, one black, one white, both raw and ragged.
The earlier of the two is James Brown's "Prisoner of Love," recorded in 1963, a song previously associated with ultra-smooth crooners like Billy Eckstine and Perry Como. The Godfather of Soul couldn't croon if his life depended on it, so he got the song across the only way he could: by scraping away pop boilerplate and replacing it with his own desperate screams. This wasn't the first time Brown had attempted a pop standard two years earlier he'd given a similar treatment to "Bewildered," another song from the Eckstine repertoire but "Prisoner" did well enough on the pop charts (#18 in Billboard) to suggest to Brown that he was on the right track. Not that you could have persuaded him otherwise.
It was about this time that Bob Dylan, possessor of another ravaged rasp, was coming into his own as a folkie. What he lacked in tone, he made up for in transcendence: people were willing to listen to his songs even if he sang them. Still, he didn't achieve truly iconic status until the literally-electric arrival of "Like a Rolling Stone," a six-minute track off Highway 61 Revisited that Columbia issued at full length on a 45, an extended workout for both Dylan's cascade of imagery and his porcupine-on-acid half-growl half-whine. After this made Number Two, the boundaries that had defined popular-music vocals more or less faded into the background; conventionally "pretty" voices might be praised, but they might just as well be scorned.Posted at 9:29 PM to Tongue and Groove