Good singers and songwriters are master-craftspeople and artists – albeit, often sensitive and insecure ones. Therefore, I’m upset when an armchair critic or unqualified non-musician argues that assessing great songs and singers is purely subjective. End of discussion. This column will attempt to clarify and list some criteria we can use to evaluate ourselves and others.
Being able to evaluate how and why the voice works and doesn’t work (or how and why a song ‘works’ or ‘doesn’t work’) helps us to know when we’re successful. There are many different reasons for liking, and functions for, singing and songs. The success of a daughter singing a song she wrote at her uncle’s funeral will be evaluated quite differently than the same song judged at an international songwriting competition. A song being a hit is primarily due to the economics of the music industry’s machinery rather than how well written and delivered it is.
Non ice-skaters would never be allowed to judge Olympic ice-skating. Similarly, it takes an experienced architect to assess a building’s merits in terms of construction, relevance to context, environmental impact, etc. Aesthetics are but one criterion when judging what Don McGlashan coined A Thing Well Made. Our decisions are swayed by our tastes in genre, mood, associations and prejudices. (Vocal coaches are least likely to criticise. We’ll simply assess how much technique is, or isn’t being used… ‘It’s not just what you’re born with, it’s what you do with what you’ve got.’)
Evaluation provokes anxiety for both evaluator and the singer/songwriter being evaluated. Unless we know what’s desirable, what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, we lose direction and faith in ourselves. Not one singing teacher could decide what constituted a fail, let alone distinction, while listening to NCEA singing exemplars at a recent NEWZATS conference.
The death of David Bowie reminds us of our need to look at ourselves ‘as artists’ and learn from the masters. Yes, we can say some singers (and songs) are better than others. But we must explain why. Sadly, our tall poppy ‘how hard could it be’ – everyone’s an expert – distrust of authority – ‘listener is all’ mentality often silences the discussion before it begins.
Again and again mediocre songs and artists are lauded, applauded and awarded over and above more worthy, significant and valuable ones. This has danger for various reasons. Firstly, lack of appreciation, acknowledgement, reward and recognition wear away at an artist’s confidence, and can create bitterness and despair. Secondly, it reveals the evaluating institution or individual as illegitimate or at worst corrupt – especially if they can’t justify their decisions.
There are superfluous reasons for the appeal of a particular artist; appearance, popularity, fashion, genre, video, attitude, catchiness, singability, familiarity, back-story. None of these criteria should be confused with a song or voice being ‘well made’. We become aware of this when singing great songs, and appreciating what they do to us – from the inside out. At music schools specific criteria for vocalists often get ignored, such as abilities as story-teller, spell-caster, actor, raconteur. Singers aren’t just instrumentalists, we have the paua of ‘the word’.
Europeans helpfully separate definitions of ‘art’ and ‘entertainment’, ‘creativity’ and ‘commerce’. At the top end of any discipline there’s consensus; singers’ singers, drummers’ drummers and songwriters’ songwriters etc. Likewise poets, painters and super yacht engineers. Let’s dive in and swim around in what’s ‘good’ then.
A voice is more significant and valuable when it’s; original, instantly recognisable and without easily detected influences, unique, authentic (either as yourself or a constructed character), genuine – having found your essence, amplifying that which defines you and your points of difference.
In terms of delivery, have you or the artist you’re listening to gained control and command over phrasing, tone, rhythm, feel and pitch? I believe we should give extra points (and a chocolate fish) to those artists who intentionally take risks, evolve, experiment and move into uncharted territory, rather than conforming to the indistinguishable sameness that floods the airwaves.
Musically manifest. This means playing with song form, harmony, arrangement, melody (range/intervallic leaps/altered notes) and key centres. Bowie described this as “…music that broke my expectations.” There’s a sound neurological basis to this risk-taking, the brain likes the ‘surprise’ of going to the unexpected, a ‘crunchy’ chord, word or note).
Find interesting, new or fresh lyical perspectives. Play with your point of view. My cousin does Abba’s Dancing Queen from the perspective of a young cross-dressing gay boy. Don McGlashan is forever writing from different perspectives; a serial killer in White Valiant, drug courier, toy factory arsonist and other untrustworthy narrators.
Work with different subject matter and concepts from new angles, like Colin Pitts’ Let Her Lie, written from the POV of the Titanic’s iceberg.
Choose to write and sing lyrics that are; insightful, revelatory, helpful, instructional, psychologically aware, emotionally mature, relevant, pertinent to ‘our times’ or timeless, specific to location, radical, representative of an underrepresented demographic/marginalised group, person or tree! It’s great when lyrics can stand up as poetry, monologue or conversation, and that employ metaphor, simile or analogy that can be deepened and developed. Blam Blam Blam’s classic There Is No Depression In New Zealand does just this and more.
We can even dabble in the mystic arts of assessing the INXSable X-factors like presence, vitality, spirit, soulfulness, stagecraft and demeanour. No, Ian Curtis might not’ve been a ‘Triple Threat’, but he was extremely significant. Hopefully, these paragraphs may help to unravel ‘why’.
Rather than simply declaring, “I hate…” or “I love…”, dig deeply into your reasons for being repulsed or enamored by an artist, voice or song. Then, we can learn and grow into our most significant selves.