This week in a moment of weakness I finally listened to Kim Kardashian’s new song Jam. The one word that I could think to describe it was “elementary,” because it sounds like a six year old singing about her birthday party. I discussed with a friend who pointed out that it also just sounds like Cassie. At that point I delved into an afternoon of self-loathing, listening to similar breathy whisper jams of the last ten years. What’s to blame for the wackness of Kim’s song? It’s not songwriting. The lyrics aren’t the problem, and I swore to never speak a word against its producer, The Dream. The deep issue is vocal training. Someone’s level of celebrity should not dictate their musical endeavors. Real singers stretch the voice box to its limit. Maybe this was why Kim was so frightened in the episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians when she was about to record? After an award season filled with vocal lows (see: all of Rihanna’s performances and Gwyneth Paltrow in general) it appears music is not the problem—there are just very few vocalists left.
It’s been over 40 years since the era of Motown but one of my favorite songs is still “Love Hangover” by Diana Ross. The bass drop at the beginning a libation from heaven and her voice is perfect for it. In the world of breathy falsetto, Diana Ross was once queen. Her vocal range was weak but her ability to melodically follow the music was always on point. This may have had a direct correlation with all the singers of that time. Fast forward to the soul and funk—I’ve spent the past couple of weeks drenched in Steve Arrington of Slave after watching him perform for the first time in 25 years in Brooklyn and replaying Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings for the 4,796,293,729th time. The vocalists of the era were able to follow the melody of songs and improvise for almost five minutes. There aren’t even many words in “Love Hangover”, it’s just Diana and the girls cooing over and over while the bassist and the guitarist go ham. Steve Arrington riffs and croons all over the place as every member of the band improvises bars. These singers understood there was a song with notes to be sung. What you’re dealing with these days is talk singing a la Ke$ha who at least blatantly lets you know: there is no melody here.
Not to say there aren’t any great vocalists entertaining this generation growing up with Beyonce as their Diana Ross. Beyonce still holds the crown. Yes, she yells it. But her ability to let her all-girl band rock out while she just wails over the tune is not something everyone can do. Alicia Keys ranks close second. I refer everyone to her original single Fallin’. From the first acapella-dropped line you hear her range and how she sets the tone for the piano. It’s sad because this exact skill makes us forgive all variations of voices. If a person can use their scratchy/raw voice ( see: Mary J. Blige) on a song and sing notes then we appreciate their voice’s deviation from one that is crystal clear. We don’t all have to be operatic singers but everyone enjoys someone who shows they have an understanding of music. So this is really my only beef with the model/ actress/ jack-of-all trades singers of this generation: stop talking in my head. William Shatner already has the spoken word market on lock. I need a MELODY. Music tames the beast—nobody ever talked a baby to sleep.