When the Bubble Pops

When the Bubble Pops

This past week I’ve been following pop music like some people in North Carolina follow college basketball. Beyoncé-gate took me on a wild ride and it’s like my favorite teams are playing each other. Why do I suddenly care about popstars and lip-syncing and musical spectacle? (I even watched American Idol… twice!) I think it’s because I’ve started to think about pop music in relationship to girl culture and that has made me feel rather mother hennish about the whole thing, both disappointed in Beyoncé (assuming she lip-synced) and fiercely protective of her at the same time. More on that later, but first I want to explain a little about what I mean by girl culture. (Special shout-out to Sarah Mesle’s recent fangirl piece, Imaginary Idols, for inspiration.)

A few years ago I started teaching a singing class to young women at a non-profit children’s theatre in Durham. It’s a wonderful organization where young people from diverse backgrounds study dance and other fine arts. I taught the first voice class at the school so I’ve had to make things up as I go along. As a lapsed classical singer who has performed mostly alt-country and bluegrass in the last several years, I knew that I wanted the class to be about more than traditional technique. I’ve had to struggle to learn to sing in popular styles after all those years of being conditioned into supposedly “natural” singing. I even had to re-learn how to sing with a country accent even though I grew up in rural East Texas. So, from the get-go it was important to me for the singers in my class have the freedom to develop whatever style they enjoy rather than conform to mine.

Nice intentions, but I wasn’t really prepared for how to deal with pop music, which all the young women wanted to learn. I had resented the way that classical music had constricted my capacity for musical expression, but I was suddenly faced with a new, even more devilish foe. Lauren Berlant might characterize pop music as offering a “cruel optimism” to its devotees who sing along aspirationally in the shower and in the car, emotionally investing in an activity that pretty much ceases to be possible as soon as you turn off the engine or the water. The invisibility of sound production hides the fact that you can’t make pop music with just your body. Pop music is a fantasyland of crystal clear, no, shellacked vocal tone and impossible range and pitch control. But it’s virtually un-performable without all the backing tracks and reverb and auto-tune.

But that’s what makes it awesome, right? It’s so perfectly packaged and polished. It sounds so… coiffed. But, uggghhhh. Katy Perry? They want to learn Katy Perry?! I forced myself to listen to some of her music, which both surprised and frustrated me. Take the song “Firework.” It has a really positive, if a bit saccharine message.

“You don’t have to feel like a wasted space, you’re original, cannot be replaced.”

Much as I wanted to hate the song, I also I wanted the girls in my class to have the gift of playing dress up into this song, of belting it out and feeling strong and confident in the face of fear like Katy Perry is in that unexplained ball-gown on the balcony. It’s like she’s the fairy godmother of young people city-wide, promising a better future and giving everyone an inner sparkler to make it through the day. I can make fun of it but it’s also ridiculously sweet and…. girly in a grown-up princess ball-gown kind of way.

But the song is next to impossible for young voices to sing. Most of the melody is performed repetitively and loudly in the top of the lower range, which is quite strenuous. One of the most common critiques of pop music by classically trained singers is that the style demands vocal strain and can be quite damaging and painful to execute. In addition to the difficulty of the placement of the melody, Perry’s tone is something like a plastic-covered shout. But even as I turn up my nose up at the digital enhancements and the melodramatic swells and bursts in the music, I can’t help but be a little heartened by the message. I mean, it’s hard not to tear up during the scene in the video when the non-skinny young woman decides to be brave and take off her clothes and jump in the pool with the rest of the party. It’s just the kind of message you hope that young people are getting on the radio.

I’m a card-carrying member of the “Everybody can Sing!” Party. Seriously. I am a singing evangelist. I believe we all have voices and know how to use them. Learning how to use them musically is just easier for some than others. I’ve known many people, particularly in the roots music world, who have started out with vocal challenges including serious pitch problems and grown into excellent and unique vocalists.

One of the reasons it’s so scary for novices to get started at singing is that when you sing there’s no instrument to hide behind. The instrument is you. Because singing is so connected to individuality and the body, I believe it’s an excellent activity through which to overcome social anxiety and body-image negativity. This is why the first skill I try to teach students is confidence, because you simply have to have it in order to sing in front of people. In class, that means mainly that we promise not to make fun of each other and that anything that happens in the class stays in the class. We hold this as a hard rule and it works to create a safe space for risk-taking. As any formerly pubescent young person knows, the tween era is sort of ground zero for one’s developing self-perception. It’s the battleground on which young people face the task of transitioning to adulthood and negotiating how femininity and masculinity and forms of sexuality are and aren’t going to fit on their bodies.

So, when Beyoncé took the stage at the inauguration, it was with all of this in mind that I watched and listened. I was listening both as a former 13 year old girl and as someone who cares about young women. I had also just had a phone call with one of my best friends who is facing some medical challenges. She is a professional classical singer — with the kind of talent that makes you weak in the knees and also one of the most gorgeous, feminine divas I know. She literally wears ball gowns to work! I was bringing a lot of emotions and expectations about womanhood and singing and bodies with me to the couch when I re-wound my DVR to watch Beyoncé’s performance, which I had missed because of the phone call. I did so with great anticipation and a kind of misplaced hopefulness.

And there she was, so elegant, stylish, serene, exhibiting flawless stage presence. Comfortable, but commanding. Raising the microphone to her mouth, holding it, like a champion holds the trophy. You could feel the brisk wind and the tickle in a throat, the anticipation of the crowd, God, there was Vice-President Biden, basically high on this moment’s utterly transfixing power. Was she going to stumble or shine?

I’ve never been a Beyoncé fan and I haven’t followed her career closely. I’ve also never been super impressed with her voice. It’s a bit thin for my taste and I always assumed that her success had more to do with what happens in the studio than in her diaphram. But I was also eager to be proven wrong. So, when she opened her mouth and that glorious rendition of the Star Spangled Banner came out of it I was blown away. Let’s not forget that the performance of our national anthem is always the subject of critique and is notoriously difficult to perform. It’s also typical for pop stars to over-sing it, adding too much ornamentation and flare, which people often ridicule for being tacky. I won’t get into all the race and class politics of that, but I will say that Beyoncé chose to embellish the piece in just the right ways. She put a stamp on it, but barely. That’s the kind of singing I love, where the singer under-does it just enough that you are imagining more in your mind. It’s like how thinking about eating chocolate cake is actually much more satisfying than doing so.

During the first few lines her mouth movements seemed a little off track with the song but I thought it might be due to a delay in the broadcast or because I was using my DVR to see the performance that I initially missed. Despite my early skepticism, I was so taken with the performance and the drama as Twitter rose to its feet and started cheering, so thrilled to watch her nail it, that I didn’t doubt for a second that she had performed live and nearly counted myself as a Beyoncé convert. Seriously, I was about to buy an album on ITunes. I mean, I had always found that “If you like it then you better put a ring on it” rather catchy.

So when the news broke that she had been lip-syncing, I felt this big glorious pink pop bubble burst inside me. It was like Barbie had died in a drunk-driving accident that she caused. The dream wasn’t just gone, it was taken away by the choices of the perfect girl I wanted to believe in. The confident superstar who has the nerve to take a national stage and surprise the world that she actually has got the chops, after all.

I know about that article on Slate arguing that she was singing live. The author makes some great points about what it’s like to sing into a microphone with a big sound system, but I don’t buy it. I’m pretty sure that if Beyoncé was lip-syncing, she’s also really good at that, too. I’m sure she has to do it all the time in videos and when performing at arenas on nights when her voice isn’t in great shape. I don’t begrudge her that one bit. In fact, it doesn’t really bother me that she was lip-syncing. It mostly just bothers me that I was fooled into getting all stirred up into believing that she wasn’t. I do think she may have been “singing” along to the track, but I’m pretty confident that what we heard was not her live performance. That’s probably also true for James Taylor and the choir that also knocked my socks off. I think that Beyoncé’s publicist would have been vocal about trying to set the record straight if that had been the case. But she doesn’t need believers, she helms a wildly successful business empire, as this cover-story in GQ makes plain.

I asked the girls in my singing class if they had seen the performance or heard about the lip-syncing. They were all aware of the controversy, but not that interested in it. I guess it was my inner 13-year old who was let down.  So, what about her? Well, time for another confession, my inner 13-year old is really, really girly and she loves seeing beautiful women all dressed up and being elegant. I had tweeted earlier during the inaguration about Michelle Obama, who also incites my girl-passions, “I get chills when @FLOTUS is on screen. She is stunning, engaging, poised. Mom-in-chief, indeed.” What can I say? When I see beautifully coiffed, elegant women I get stars in my eyes and want to play dress up in a ball gown on a balcony and sing the star-spangled banner to all the children of the world!

So, that’s why I’ll add this little bit of finger-wagging. Stop it, all the people, with the talk about Beyoncé’s body. It’s her right to rock her beauty, but it’s not your right to talk about her like she’s a bag full of eye-candy, ready to be dissembled and enjoyed by the public at will. (And I’m looking at you, GQ article I noted earlier.) I’ve found that really difficult myself while writing this essay, not to refer to the popstar in objectifying terms, as if she’s merely a product, not a mogul of her own self-image. The long history of black women being stereotyped in sexualizing terms makes Beyoncé’s treatment particularly onerous and important to avoid. Just think for a second about the level of corporeal scrutiny both Michelle Obama and Beyoncé’ are subjected to on “the national stage.” It’s appalling. Beyoncé addresses the commercialization of her personhood in the trailer for her soon-to-be-released documentary auto-biography, saying “I always battle with how much I reveal about myself. How do I stay current, how do I stay soulful? I felt like I had been so commercially successful it wasn’t enough. It’ something… really stressful about having to keep up with that. You can’t express yourself. You can’t grow. It is the battle of my life. So I set a goal and my goal was… independence.”

In addition to teaching singing to tweens, I’m also teaching a class about music genres to Duke undergrads this semester. These first few weeks have been really interesting and one of the things that keeps coming up for us as a class is, “What is pop music?” We’ve been reading some academic articles that were written at a time when musicologists had to explain to their colleagues why it was worthwhile to write about popular music at all. So, popular music is a concept we’re using at the same time that we are trying to understand “pop” and what makes genres distinct. As a class, we’ve come up with a few things that make sense. For one thing, pop music doesn’t really care about genre. Lots of different styles and traditions could find their way under the umbrella of “pop.” Just take Beyoncé, for example. While Destiny’s Child was arguably R&B, and Beyoncé is married to a hip-hop mogul, her music still counts as pop precisely because it could be related to both R&B and hip-hop but not need to be either in any strict sense.

Another thing we notice about pop is that its sound is heavily digital. We’ve even been listening to some 80s artists like Madonna and the Pet Shop Boys to see how those performances related to, say, Taylor Swift (who’s also made the transition to pop, according to my students). All of these artists use synthesizers and non-acoustic instrumentals front and center.

And, pop music is interested in being commercial. It’s “pop” because it wants to be popular. It wants a wide audience and it wants to make money. Or at least, that’s the impression you get because of the heavy hand the recording industry has in this genre. None of these categories are necessarily true for every artist, but we think they are fairly representative of the features of what most people would describe as pop music.

Pop music also has an interesting relationship to femininity and image. Beyoncé is a perfect example. When she sells a record, she’s not just selling her music, she’s selling her face and her body. It’s hard to say the same for other popular musicians and groups in other genres, although, I would argue that the closer they get to “pop” the more likely they are to have a strong visual imaginary.

One of my male students derided Taylor Swift for being what “teenage girls like” you know, because they are so fickle and shallow. I retorted, “have you hung out with any teenage boys lately?” It was a jocular moment in the class but it raised the question of how pop music tends to be derided primarily because it’s dominated by female performers and apparently enjoyed by young women. So, it must be empty of meaning. But thank heavens we teachers of music genres and singing have been blessed with Lady Gaga, who’s mega-meta pop embodies all of these categories so self-consciously and hyperbolically that in her hands, the emptiness of meaning comes to mean very much indeed.

You don’t have to give up being feminine in order to be a feminist and I’m not going to eschew pop music just so I can believe in singing. The voice is happening, whether it’s in your minds eye, in the sound booth, or in a ball gown on a balcony. But it would be wonderful if our era’s prime vocalists would play dress up a little less and just be themselves quite a bit more.

UPDATE: Check out this essay by Jordan Stein, You Better Work; or, how to Tell Friends from Faux: On RuPaul’s Drag Race, which takes this conversation about playing dress-up and lip-syncing and femininity to a whole new level.