February 9, 2011

Intention vs. perception: Christina Aguilera and "oversouling"



I enjoyed this article about "oversouling" on Huffington Post, referring to the vocal style demonstrated by Christina Aguilera during her performance of the national anthem, that is currently popular among many singers. Here are a couple of quotes:

"Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston are relatively minor offenders, but singers like Aguilera -- who admittedly possesses a great instrument -- just don't seem to know when to stop, turning each song into an Olympic sport as they drain it of its implicit soul, as if running through the entire scale on every single word was somehow a token of sincerity."

"The great Jerry Wexler -- who produced both Ray and Aretha -- coined a great term for it: 'oversouling.' He described it as 'the gratuitous and confected melisma' that hollows out a song and drains it of meaning. Wexler, who knew more about soul than any producer before or since, said:

'Time and again I have found that flagrantly artificial attempts at melisma are either a substitute for real fire and passion or a cover-up for not knowing the melody... Please, learn the song first, and then sing it from the heart.'"

But what really caught my eye were some commenters' opinions that Christina Aguilera not only "oversouled" the Star-Spangled Banner, but did it with the intention of showing off her vocal prowess, rather than performing for the benefit of the audience. Here are a couple of excerpts:

"...singers like Christina Aguilara are extradordi­nary talented and would be even more so if they relaxed a little, trusted their skills, and allowed themselves to delve into the music itself rather than self-consc­iously trying to outdo their competitor­s through technique."

"This woman was on an ego trip."

"Kinda like a ventriloqu­ist showing he can gargle water while talking through his dummy."

"...sh­e was making the moment all about her..."

I don't know Christina Aguilera's intentions. I'm sure the pressure to sing the national anthem -- on live TV -- in front of millions of people, must be overwhelming, even for a seasoned pro. And it's possible that her oversinging was simply a result of wanting to give the song something "extra special," which was warranted by the occasion. And probably a little adrenaline as well.

But what's important here is the audience's perception, not the singer's (speaker's) intention.

Getting carried away by the moment, by your own role in a larger-than-life event, can be hard to control. But you still need to practice. You still need to prepare. You still need to come from a place of truth and authenticity. And you still need to remember that it's all about the audience and what value you're giving them.

Making it all about you, your cleverness, your talent, your brilliance (your amazing vocal range) is never going to satisfy the audience. It's only going to turn them against you, no matter how pure your intentions.

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2 comments. Please add yours! :

Jakob said...

The funny thing about perception is that it is the only hallmark. The intention of the communicator matters zip, nada, nilch, if the recipients interpret the message in a way that differs from what the communicator meant to say. This is why it is so crucial for a professional to put some effort into tailoring their message to facilitate a smooth uptake - not that this could ever guarantee success, but you should always try to approximate that 100% comprehension as much as possible.

It might be a bit unfair to judge artists by this standard though, as the magic of their profession rests in the mystery of ambiguity to some extent. I still have to agree with you about the superbowl performance though.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Jakob, thank you for your comment. I especially love this: "the magic of their profession rests in the mystery of ambiguity."

Artists and performers are definitely given more leeway in exploring creative expression and interpretation within their medium.

I think people became so personally invested in this performance because it was an interpretation of a beloved song that is a patriotic symbol to many, and people felt like they couldn't participate or even recognize the song because it was so far off from the norm.

However, Jimi Hendrix interpreted the national anthem in a similar way and is mostly praised for his performance. Why one works and the other doesn't is a matter of personal taste, I guess!

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