Pushing the boundaries

More from the current Rolling Stone, featuring their list of the 100 greatest rock singers. This is from Jonathan Lethem’s introductory piece, an overview of rock singing:

…what defines great singing in the rock-and-soul era: that some underlying tension exists in the space between singer and song. A bridge is being built across a void, and it’s a bridge we’re never sure the singer’s going to manage to cross. The gulf may reside between vocal texture and the actual meaning of the words, or between the singer and band, musical genre, style of production or the audience’s expectations. In any case, there’s something beautifully uncomfortable at the root of the vocal style that detines the pop era. The simplest example comes at the moment of the style’s inception, i.e. Elvis Presley: at first, listeners thought that the white guy was a black guy. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that when Ed Sullivan’s television show tossed this disjunction into everyone’s living rooms, American culture was thrilled by it but also a little deranged, in ways we haven’t gotten over yet….

Ultimately, the nature of the vocals in post-Elvis, post-Sam Cooke, post-Ray Charles popular music is the same as the role of the instrumental soloist in jazz. That’s to say, if it isn’t pushing against the boundaries of its form, at least slightly, it isn’t doing anything at all.

When I say I want classical music to connect to the world around us, this is part of what I mean. I want classical music to push against its boundaries — and our boundaries — to thrill our culture and derange it. As it did in centuries past.

(When someone sings Schubert, do we expect tension between the singer and the song? I think we look for unity, which — does anyone agree? — eclipses the singer’s presence as an artist, and also evades any distance between Schubert’s time and our own.)

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  1. says

    Classical singing has its won set of problems. We are hearing people today that do not have enough technique to take ownership of the music they are singing. With the ownership – the kind that makes you think of popping wheelies vocally, all you have is a provincial circus act. Tired performs doing tired tricks that someone else invented.

    the gift of ownership must be seized by the performer in charge of his instrument.

    Couldn’t agree more. One form of authenticity — absolutely unmistakable — in a past generation of singers was that they knew they were stars, and expected to knock you dead with their singing. And knew they could do it. And knew that their presence on stage — even before they uttered a note — reflected that.

  2. David Cavlovic says

    I agree with Roberta. And I would like to add that my rant about musicians/teachers/Grad Students not knowing the repertoire in my last comment is percisely about this issue: not connecting and not really being emotionally involved.