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Isn't it actually liberating and, in fact, likeably egalitarian that if someone wants to, they can present their work publicly, regardless of how technically perfect it is or is not? | Photo: Daniel Chekalov (Unsplash)
Isn't it actually liberating and, in fact, likeably egalitarian that if someone wants to, they can present their work publicly, regardless of how technically perfect it is or is not? | Photo: Daniel Chekalov (Unsplash)
Anna Marie Hradecká -

TOP 5 Reasons Why We Like "Weird" Voices

In a musician's discussion group on Facebook a few days ago, the topic of the lack of self-reflection in people who can't sing and play, yet share their creations online without any problem, came up. Naturally, another round of the age-old discussion about what it means to "know how to sing/play" started under the post. When is it a matter of artistic intent and when is it rather bunglery without a hint of self-criticism (expected by the audience)? And what is pop culture all about when it comes to singing? Today, let's try to make five (not necessarily exhaustive) points about what fascinates us about technically imperfect voices – whether positively or negatively.

1. How dare you? Surprising courage or sweet ignorance

Have you seen the movie Florence Foster Jenkins, where Meryl Streep plays the protagonist of "the world’s worst opera singer"? The model for the film adaptation (and not just this one) was the life story of a real person – Florence Foster Jenkins, a lady from a wealthy family who hosted lavish musical evenings for New York's elite in the 1920s to 1940s and, as an opera enthusiast, regaled them with her enthusiastic but terrible off-key singing. Contemporary recordings show that her singing was truly awful: she could not sustain pitch, had no vocal range or rhythm. The less gifted, the more difficult and technically demanding arias she chose to perform – and her accompanying pianist had to do his best to follow up her loose delivery. Musical reviewers spared her no criticism and sarcasm. Lady Florence, however, apparently believed she could sing until her death.

What is fascinating about her story is not only the fact that the people around her somehow never managed or wanted to make it clear to her that she simply could not sing, but above all the indomitable faith of the artist herself in her abilities and talents. We can grin at such recordings or outright scorn them (those who have never laughed at the Pop Idol worst auditions throw a stone). But from the positive point of view: Isn't it actually liberating and, in fact, likeably egalitarian that if someone wants to, they can present their work publicly, regardless of how technically perfect it is or is not?

2. No one is perfect – and that makes them close to us

Sarah Brightman once said in an interview that the 1990s was a time when great pop singers competed to see who could sustain a higher pitch sung in full voice longer (Mariah Carey and her "Can't liiiiiive..."). And that such time has long since passed. I think it would be even more accurate to say that even the polished and all sorts of technically pure pop has since been infiltrated by a deliberate vocal "imperfection" previously more typical of alternative and ear-provoking genres.

The breaking vocal lines of U2's Bono, Sting's high-pitched strangled voice or Björk's various vocal excursions have long been part of pop culture, just as much as the technically perfect screams of Celine Dion or Sarah Connor. And we like it because perfection is a rather scary thing. Even the queen of meticulousness, Beyoncé, has let a little of that "dirty" vocal rasp into her singing now and then.

3. Emotions first

It's been thirty years since Kurt Cobain's suicide – his breaking, vulnerable voice still fascinates us to this day, but at his time it must have been a revelation among male voices after all those unwavering rock and metal screaming voices. Yet singing teachers would have told you straight away that the vocal break was not an expressive aspect but a technical error, and that a scream like the one in "Territorial Pissings" must have given Kurt nodules on his vocal cords. Similarly, Jay Buchanan of Rival Sons, for example, doesn't "play it easy" with his voice (and he had been prescribed forced vocal rest).

What attracts listeners about him is that the vocalist is willing to, literally, destroy himself for the sake of confessing his not always sun-drenched emotions, to cause those damn knots or vocal cords to become unstable, in short, to go beyond his physical limits. Listening to him, you can dream about how you would like to scream like that and shout out all the pain of the world. And whoever is lucky enough to have a band or lives in a secluded spot by the woods can really do it – but only until they are ordered to keep vocal rest.

4. Telling a story or ego aside in the name of art

Let's face it, Nick Cave, Iggy Pop and even Kim Gordon are not exactly stunning performers in terms of vocal range. But that doesn't matter. On the contrary, in their vocal expression, they seem to have calmed down their big emotions to one level and hidden them behind seeming inertia and "anti-perfection". Similarly, the sometimes extremely off-key vocals of alt-pop or shoegaze bands seem to be lost in a haze of reverb.

The more declamatory and virtuosic their voice is, the more the textual content and the atmosphere of the song built by the instrumental arrangement come to the fore. The voice is a vehicle for communication, for artistic expression, not a mirror of the artist's technical perfection and pride.

5. Just for fun

Plenty of biting commentary and articles have been written about the fact that Katy Perry or Fergie are not the best when it comes to singing live, and that the voices of Rihanna, Kesha or Duffy are a bit annoying. But it doesn't matter, in the studio, the auto-tune reigns supreme and live it's more about – as Petr Váša says – "the overall impression". LP once said in an interview before her first concert in Prague that we all know that Britney Spears has a strange voice colour and can't really sing, but that she enjoyed writing songs for her as a ghost writer because Britney is all about being entertaining ("It's fun, she's an entertainer") –  at least she was, a few years ago.

But what is this supposed fun? Let's just face it, the more irritating a voice these "poppies" have, the more they engage the audience. They're memorable, instantly recognizable – and their songs are all about a catchy musical theme, which the music producers make sure of. So you'll be dancing to their music, and it's precisely because they have such an odd and often technically imperfect voice that you won't be able to shake their songs out of your ear.

But don't worry, we won't put Britney here at the end of the article. Instead, listen to a different kind of "no voice" – Wet Leg don't bother with loud and intonationally pure vocals either, and their music works and ingrains in your memory as well as any other pop bubble-gum.

Which voices that would make a singing teacher's ears fall off do you like? And when has a musical performance irritated you with its imperfection (whether intended or unconscious)? Let us know in the comments.

Tagy voice just for fun

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Anna Marie Hradecká