On vocals and character

Last week, Alexander Smith discussed preference of vocals, suggesting that “listeners prefer vocalists of the gender they want to sleep with.” Perhaps this has merit — I do, in fact, own many more songs sung by highly emotional men, from Joy Division’s Ian Curtis to TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebumpe, than I do from women.

But really, like Smith hopes, it is more than just a vocalist’s gender that makes or breaks a song for me — soul, realism, authenticity, sincerity, and passion are all key factors, to name a few. Whatever you’d like to call it, it’s that X-factor that puts the human back into the song. It’s not the gender, race, or age of vocalists that turns me on; it’s the personalities they manage to convey through their singing styles and the tones of their voices.

As Smith mentioned, there are many “love it or hate it” vocalists out there. I hate Kate Bush, for one. Her shrill, warbly vocals, to me, are not only aurally displeasing, but emotionally irritating, too. Through her songs, I get the sense that her character is far too dramatic, pretentiously artsy, and overall just too much for me. On the other hand, Björk’s vocals are just as dramatic (if not more so) and yet seem stronger, sturdier, and more confident than Bush’s. Björk is a woman who knows what she wants and says what she means — even if it is in broken English. I appreciate those qualities in a vocalist as I do in a friend, and I am thus a fan of her vocals. I don’t particularly want to sleep with either one of these women, but I can see why their vocals might appeal to people.

Perhaps the personality in vocals is the problem I, and many others, have with a lot of pop music. The singer, in these cases, is not a part of the heart of the song, but instead another glossy pitch-perfect instrument. Much of the time, I don’t get the impression that, upon meeting these pop singers, I would be at all inclined to get to know them. I’ll admit, though, that I’ve fallen prey to such great pop songs like Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” Cassie’s “Me & U,” and the entirety of Justin Timberlake’s album FutureSex/LoveSounds. To me, all of these singers manage to elevate the mechanized beats with some sort of genuine emotion in their voices. In “LoveStoned,” Justin just sounds so damn serious that he truly lives up to the song’s name, although perhaps that’s just because I wouldn’t mind sleeping with him.

How can one sense an authentic personality through vocal delivery, though? Beats me. How do you know if you’re in love? You could probably break it down scientifically into the speed of your heart or dilation of your pupils, but that dissection of something so human takes the joy out of it.