So what if Christina Aguilera botched the lyrics to the National Anthem before the Super Bowl. Sometimes, when it occurs to you that a billion or so people are scrutinizing your every breath, it can make you a mite nervous. I enjoyed the letter to the editor, however, from the Collierville woman who was so incensed, she wrote that Aguilera's error was "a spit in the eye to all I hold dear." I hope no one ever shows her a video of the performance by Rosanne Barr. What offended me was not her messing up the words (those are some tough lyrics to sing), but the tortured, moaning manner in which she chose to sing the song. As soon as she sang the first line, I told Melody, "Here we go again." The "Star-Spangled Banner" is just one of those songs that doesn't lend itself to a breathy, orgasmic, reading. It sounded like Christina and the flag needed to get a room. The lyrics seemed like an afterthought.
Not that I'm opposed to artistic interpretation of the National Anthem, mind you. Ever since Jose Feliciano drove the puritans insane at the 1968 World Series, artists have been putting their own touches to the anthem. Several inspiring versions have been performed since then, from Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock to Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl; or the greatest version OF ALL TIME; Marvin Gaye at the 1983 NBA All Star game. These artists had the one ingredient lacking in so many contemporary singers' anthem attempts; heart. As good a technical singer as Aguilera is, no amount of vocal pyrotechnics can overcome a soulless performance. Thanks to shows like American Idol, where Americans try to sound just like their idols, these wild exercises in vocal gymnastics are all we ever hear any more. I can still hear the echoes of my father saying, "You call that singing?" after hearing Elvis, but as an aspiring singer myself, I can say with some authority that note-scaling, over-singing has saturated the current music scene to an extent that it's become farcical. No one even needs to sing on key anymore. They have something called an auto-tuner that will make you sound like an emasculated Darth Vader, but it will be on pitch.
The musical term for this stylized vocalization is called "melisma." Simply put, it's singing a single syllable using multiple notes. It's beginnings go back to the madrigal, but in popular music, "melisma" originated in the black church. All the great, church-based, soul singers could manage it to an extent, but the master was Bobby "Blue" Bland. I used to study his records like a mathematics textbook to figure out how he sang like that. In the song, "I'll Take Care of You," he sings the single word, "I," with a five-note drop. I know, I counted. Listening to Bland's style taught me a variation of melisma that, although not authentic, is better than most white folks. Great singers also know when to leave it out, lest it become a distraction. There are many artists with melismatic abilities like Mavis Staples, Usher, even Justin Bieber. But no one really overdid it until Patti LaBelle, the Queen of Over-sing. Listening to Patti wears me out because she tries too hard to be over the top, all of the time. And she does this bird thing with flapping arms that's not nearly as entertaining as when Rufus Thomas did it. It proves that melisma is best applied with a fine brush, and not the paint roller that LaBelle uses.
Blame the neurotic, microphone hand-twitch on Whitney, but the current phase of female vocal abuse can be traced back to Mariah Carey. She is to contemporary women singers what Joni Mitchell was to the 70s- unavoidable. Mariah's pipes inspired a thousand imitators until a slew of top female singers all began sounding just the same. Which brings us to the 2011 Grammy Awards. This year's show began with a quintet of chanteuses paying tribute to the still-kicking Soul Queen, Aretha Franklin. Aside from the immensely talented Jennifer Hudson, the rest of the pack, including the caterwauling Ms. Aguilera, illustrated just how far we have fallen in our definition of "diva" from Aretha's gold standard. Lady GaGa arrived at the ceremonies inside of a turquoise, oblong pod carried by throne bearers, just daring critics to say that she laid an egg. But the harshest criticism for GaGa was reserved for the similarities between her new song, "Born This Way," and Madonna's "Express Yourself," from 1989. Having a longer memory, I can tell you both songs sound just like "I Got the Music In Me," from the Kiki Dee Band, 1974. You're welcome.
Aside from Justin Bieber being punished for his success and shut out of the awards, the most surprising Grammy moment was the upset win for Album of the Year, by Arcade Fire. I'll own up to being so unhip that this group wasn't even on my radar until their Grammy performance, but I always enjoy seeing a Yoko Ono tribute band get a break. As far as the ladies, it seemed like it was Rihanna's night, and she wasn't even up for an award. Leave it to Babs, though, to show that a great singer doesn't need to hit her highest note in every verse, and is able to thrill you with her tone, not how many notes she can cram into a measure of music. Younger singers would be wise to look to Streisand and realize that sometimes it's better to just sing the damn song. The two other most infectious performances of the evening came from Bob Dylan and a show-stopping Mick Jagger. Even with all the fresh, new interpreters of song, leave it to a trio of septuagenarians to show 'em how to rock the house. And poor Christina Aguilera needs to learn that after milking that final, excruciating, drop of melisma from a song's ending, try not to fall on your ass. That's what the audience is supposed to do.