I haven’t been watching American Idol this year and probably won’t until the final few episodes (and even then I’ll definitely be muting the contrived, cartoonish insipidity of the Randy and Paula Show during the comments sections). But I did stumble across a performance online by Jason Castro singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with a ukulele (which Paula Abdul, with her typical insight and razor-sharp skills of musical observation, called a guitar). If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth checking out.
Maybe it’s just because I’ve grown up on gospel where creative covers of old standards are a common practice, but the song really left me cold as a piece of music, and it was a little surprising to see everyone go ga-ga over what was pretty clearly a rip-off of Israel Kamakawiwo’s rendition in which he melded “Somewhere” and “What a Wonderful World” (otoh Kamakawiwo couldn’t be a less marketable name so you can’t really blame people for not remembering it). But the Castro boy is good looking and fits the part of the ukulele-playing crooner singing his cute little pop-music heart out about rainbows and dreams that come true. Friends of Dorothy really are everywhere, I guess.
But here’s what I want to talk about: breathy singing – when vocalists pass extra air over the vocal chords creating a diffuse and wispy sound (that if mixed right/wrong comes out sounding raspy and scratchy), as if they’re pouring every ounce of existential energy into the singing of this one song for you. Anybody have an idea when or how this was popularized and who might be responsible for popularizing it? And better yet, why is it so popular?
While you prepare your answers, here’s mine. As best I can tell, the style’s been around for a long long time. Olivia Newton John used it to great effect on “I Honestly Love You,” and I’m sure you could probably find examples going back much further. But as a widely deployed vocal technique, it really seemed to take hold the 90s, didn’t it?
I blame Mariah Carey. Her 1990 self-titled album is often credited with mainstreaming the use of melisma (though actually I think that credit really belongs to Whitney Houston). But the album is also a study in the deployment of breathy singing across a range of song styles and lyrics (in gospel music, Michael English is probably the key figure here; I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he came on the scene about the same time as Carey, which is not to say he was consciously cribbing tricks from “Someday” and “Vision of Love” - he may or may no have been; he was pretty clearly a sponge of tricks and treats - but that the breathy-singing technique was clearly one of the hot new things for vocalists around this time).
What’s its appeal? I’m not sure. But watching Castro scrunch his face up into that look of deeply felt intensity and sensuousness that seems invariably to accompany all breathy singing, I started thinking that maybe breathy singing has as much to do with the sending certain nonverbal signals to audiences about the singer’s celebrity persona as it does about the quality of the singing itself.
Stay with me for a second. In an age of irony, it’s just not possible or desirable to sing with the unbridled enthusiasm and uncomplicated glee that, say, Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney brought to a song. You’d be laughed off youtube. Instead contemporary musical performers need some way of singing that suggests some sort of post-modern angst or some other complicated cluster of dense feeling lurking murkily beneath the surface sound of their voice. Enter breathy singing, which has become inextricably linked to some variant of an angsty facial clinch that performers and fans alike can interpret to indicate a wide range of underlying feelings: from emotional turmoil, romantic longing, and sexual prowess, to existential sophistication and an inexpressibly deep well of tortured artistic insight.
Of course the reality is, most angsty pop performers put the pose in poseur. And breathy singing from your average top-40 girl or boy really only masks (and not very well) the focus-group emptiness of their celebrity image.
In gospel music, though, where there is no short supply of breathy singing, the effect of this technique is slightly different. Breathiness in this case actually tends to cut against the straightforward piety of most lyrics, like the singer is really saying something more or else or different than what a literal interpretation of the words would suggest. So maybe breathiness, along with other pop-music devices like melisma that get incorporated into gospel music, actually serves to texturize and complicate the effect of the music without disrupting the lyrical surface?Email this Post