Lady Gaga at the Oscars,
or How I Came to Love Bluegrass Singing

by Hermon Joyner


We’re used to thinking of fashion in terms of clothing, hair styles, and maybe car styles, but much of what surrounds us in daily life is affected by fashion. And by this I mean that the look and even function of most of the manufactured objects that we encounter are nearly always in flux. In short, things change. Yes, I know, I’m stating the obvious.

But recently, I began to realize that the human voice, the singing voice, is also subject to changing fashion. In considering popular music, think about how singers sounded through out the 20th Century.

In the 1920s and 30s, Rudy Vallée was arguably the first American media pop star and was mobbed by fans wherever he went. His thin tenor voice coupled with jazz songs was well suited for the recording technology (specifically, electric microphones) of that time, and he became the first of the crooners and was the inspiration for later singers like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Perry Como. And even in this small niche of the male crooner, you can seen and hear the way the voice changes over time, from the 20s (Vallée) to the 60s (Como). It’s almost as if as the recording technology improves, with less electronic noise and smoother frequency response, these singers made similar changes in how they sound, going from thin and nasally to rich and smooth.

Of course, the way people sing is influenced by the style of music they are working in, but that just kind of supports the idea of fashion in singing styles. After all, we expect a certain general type of voice for opera, rock, country, or bluegrass music. That’s part of how we define those particular kinds of music.

All of these thoughts occurred to me recently because of two experiences.

Like most people who watched this year’s Oscar Awards, I was kind of surprised and blown away by Lady Gaga’s singing tribute to Julie Andrew’s The Sound of Music. She just came out and sang the songs from that movie and sang them straight, just like Andrews originally did herself. While she didn’t sound just like Andrews, Lady Gaga really didn’t sound like she usually does with her own songs. She has a really great voice. Her performance stuck in my mind and I found myself thinking about it ever since.

Hearing Lady Gaga on the Oscars also made me think of her recent recording project that paired her with Tony Bennett, another musical descendant of Rudy Vallée and the other crooners. In retrospect, it’s almost like she was trying to make the claim that she is, in fact, a real singer that can hold her own with a legendary singer like Bennett. Like she doesn’t want her actual voice to get lost in all the PR stunts and over-the-top videos and concert performances.

And then, I recently heard Rhiannon Giddens’ new recording Tomorrow Is My Turn and was blown away by the command, power, and nuance in her singing. The recording tried to focus on her voice as the main thing and proceeded to emphasize it. I have to credit T Bone Burnett, as the producer, for knowing what to do with Giddens and how to capitalize on her own unique strengths.

With these two examples in my mind, I started to think about the state of the human voice in pop music. The way the voice is heard in recordings has more to do with current music trends than the actual capability and native characteristics of the singers. Like I pointed out before, it’s always been this way, but the ability to shape and alter those voices has never been easier than it is now with current digital recording technology.

Since the advent of auto-tuning, the sound of the human voice has changed completely. Auto-tuning is where the pitch of the singer is altered after the fact to either correct the intonation or to give the singing voice a particular sound or effect. Most times, auto-tuning is added even if there is no problem with the singer; fans have come to expect that sound. And then there are the digital looping and sampling that routinely goes on, not to mention the cut and paste nature of modern recordings, where there is hardly ever one continuous performance that makes it into the final cut of any song. Performances are pieced together more like a jigsaw puzzle out of different takes. Digital audio processing has changed everything about music and what we expect from it.

Current pop stars like Katy Perry—and I have to admit to liking her songs because they are fun—have their voices so processed that they hardly sound human any more. In a song like “Roar!” instead of a single pure voice, we are presented a voice that is layered with maybe dozens of other voices or repeats of Perry’s own voice and every one is auto-tuned to match the others. Other effects are added and the end result begins to sound more like a synthesized human voice from a robot, instead of from a real live person, and owes as much to that end result to the record producers and recording engineers as it owes to the talent. It sometimes make me wonder if it really matters who they start off with and if that person can actually sing at all, when the end result sounds so homogeneous to all the other pop stars performing now. It’s probably this generalized doubt about contemporary pop stars that inspired Lady Gaga to sing with Tony Bennett and do the Julie Andrews tribute at the Oscars to prove that she is more than just the result of electronic manipulation.

But this is what many current listeners want and expect, so the record companies and musicians deliver exactly what their listeners want and expect. Actually, they would be fools not to do so. But not everybody is looking for that product. We want something more real, more natural, more human, more relatable.

And so we have people like Rhiannon Giddens, as a soloist and with The Carolina Chocolate Drops, who lets her voice shine through. We have have people like Eric Brace of Last Train Home, who has a voice that speaks of honesty and the human experience. We have people like Celia Woodsmith of Della Mae, who has a voice of depth and feeling like no other. We have people like Del McCoury, who uniquely embodies the high and lonesome sound of bluegrass music.

I appreciate the hard work and natural talent of these people, who I consider to be among the very best singers currently working, and many more besides them. They are all different and they all fit into their own musical niche and in this day and age, it’s not easy being different and unique. Compare the number of hits on a song by Katy Perry to those of Del McCoury. It’s hard to say definitively who’s the better singer, since it is a matter of personal preference, but I know who I respond to and who I prefer. And I guess that is a matter of taste and fashion, too. My own, anyway.

That’s why I love bluegrass and Americana music. Both are filled with real people’s voices singing about things that matter to real people. They sing about life. And that’s something that never goes out of fashion.