Sunday, May 18, 2008

Melismatic Excess

I'm finding that a lot of R&B singing grates on my nerves the last, oh, 15 years or so. Some of that, I'll admit up front, is my middle-aged "these-kids-today..." sort of thing. But a lot has to do with the infuriating overuse of something that, properly used, can be a valuable part of a good singer's toolchest; Melisma.

Melisma is singing more than one note during one syllable of a lyric. For example, the first word of the National Anthem ("Oh...") has two descending notes. The origin of melisma in much of American pop music is due to the forms of music from which it is derived, especially black Gospel music.

Etta James used melisma with devastating effect - she is one of the great singers in the history of American Popular music. Her Chess recordings from the early sixties are particularly legendary: her performance of "All I Could Do Was Cry" is both breathtakingly intimate and vividly expressive: it communicates pain with a plain, harrowing directness that other singers might find too revealing to attempt - but her skillful use of melisma serves the song: showing off is the furthest thing from her mind.

Her delightful "If I Can't Have You" duet with Harvey Fuqua is another gem - it is fun to hear him try to keep up with the colossal talent with which he's singing, and Etta singing rings around him, imparting a sense to the song's story-arc that Fuqua's character is in way over his head, but can't believe his luck just the same.

Her ballads are monuments of their type - Etta's well-known performance of "At Last," in spite of its lush instrumental setting, is both transcendently intimate and heartbreaking; the song of a woman who has suffered much, but finally found a rock in the storm.

Listen to these songs, and then think of, say, Mariah Carey who, like James, uses melisma and other flourishes of Gospel singing, but unlike Etta she uses it to point to her own (undeniable) virtuosity, rather than in humble service to the song. If even half the R&B belters out there had Etta James' ability to express angst or well-earned joy, top-40 radio would be a wonderland.

No comments:

Post a Comment