Breathy singing

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?

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  1. Kyle wrote:

    Depends on the songs and the arrangements. If used sparingly, it’s quite a nice dynamic. On The Cathedrals’ “High And Lifted Up” project, “At The Name Of Jesus” has a chorus of “His Name Is Wonderful,” which is sung barely above a whisper (and in intervals of fifths instead of thirds), which makes it stand out from the rest of the power harmony vocals.

    On that same album, though, is Ernie Haase’s breathy feature, “Death Has Died.” In this song, Ernie uses the old preacher’s trick….whisper for emphasis (”They rolled the stone in place….but not for long….”). By the end of the song, he’s his usual screaming tenor vocal self.

    Your example of English usually does entire songs in this fashion instead of just parts. Maybe it was after years of his full-blown vocals with the Singing Americans, he started mellowing his voice with the GVB (compare “Daystar” with the SA version of “I Bowed On My Knees”), but as the years went on, he did use the breathiness more. Even now, he still takes advantage of it (such as “Time” on his new project).

  2. quartet-man wrote:

    This is before my time, but didn’t Marilyn Monroe’s infamous “Happy Birthday” have some breathiness to it? English used to not sing that way, but did start doing that after joining the GVB.

  3. Videoguy wrote:

    Simple: it is a suggestive attempt to appeal to the prurient. Yes, even in SG.

  4. Dean Adkins wrote:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!! I’ve thought the same thing about that style but you expressed it much better than I.

  5. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    …a landmark moment in SG: Avery posts his first YouTube…

  6. CVH wrote:

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. The practice has become quite widespread in every genre of music as far as I can tell. It’s especially prevelant among younger singers whose models are in fact the Whitney Houstons and Mariah Careys of the last two decades. There seems to be a cloying kind of emulation in many vocalists these days rather than or perhaps substituting for real interpretive skill. How many, what I call, ’song artists’ are there these days? In SG or CCM or any genre? Not many. Instead, consumers blindly accept it, producers keep cranking it out because it sells and real artistry (if the potential for it in some of these people is even there) never enters the room. Once again, it’s style over substance. She’s not SG but when I listened to the last Bethany Dillon project I thought she was on a respirator at times or having an asthma attack. The way it’s recorded and processed only accentuates it. Give me someone who can sing…I mean SING…anyday, over the cheap tricks so many artists employ.

  7. Phil wrote:

    Obviously this will “date” me, but when I heard Castro sing this on Idol it reminded me of Tiny Tim…tiptoe through the tulips…

  8. quartet-man wrote:

    I do like it for effect. It makes it more intimate, however I don’t want it for all singers and songs. It should just be part of the arsenal and used along with dynamics. Kyle mentioned some good examples and I like those. In fact, Ernie did the same with O What A Savior. At first he sang it straight and then later he found his inner Michael English and added the breathiness on the verses. To hear this compare the version on the Live In Nashville video to about any other.

  9. Al Locke wrote:

    #7…That is exactly what I thought when I heard it.
    However, the Michael English technique has grown on me. Like other comments on here, it should be used in the proper context. Wished I could do it. I am stuck in the 40’s-50’s.

  10. RF wrote:

    Usually done to disguise a weak voice. Especially on high notes. Made famous by the late Harry Nilsson back in maybe 1973 on his albums of standards.

  11. Cabell wrote:

    Marylyn Monre used this technique to sing her “happy birthday”. It is used to convey a sensual, seductive tone.

  12. Bob wrote:

    So breathy singing is a recent phenomenon? I thought it was a distinct musical style made popular by 60’s folk singers and California Sunshine Pop artists. Here are some examples:
    The Association: “Cherish” (#1 in 1966)
    The Fifth Dimension: “Up, Up and Away” (record and song of the year in 1968)
    Peter, Paul and Mary “Leaving on a Jet Plane” (#1 in 1969)
    or even Smokey Robinson: “Tears of a Clown” (#1 in 1970)

    Interesting that this style of singing became popular during the Vietnam War era. I don’t think it has anything to do with sexuality. More of an optimistic, gentle sound that served as a distinct contrast to the stress and violence due to protests and societal changes. Note that it is also more prevalent with singer-songwriters than simply performers; perhaps to showcase lyrics vs traditional singing abilities.

    Of course who could forget The Bee Gees, one of the best-selling music artists of all time (220 million) who also got their start in the ’60’s “To Love Somebody” and “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” (#1 in 1971)

  13. Brett wrote:

    I very much like Mariah Carey’s debut. Especially the song “Vanishing”. Is is haunting but a great song. Still my favorite off that cd is “Love Takes Time” I would say she still sings in the same fashion, just in a lower key.

  14. burt wrote:

    Employing an airy tone as an effect or on particular songs can really be dramatic. I think Castro’s performance on AI is pretty much the standard for the “pop sound” now. I do wish that people would just SANG the thang sometimes though. Carrie Underwood is a great example…she can go from whisper to belting in a nanosecond.

    Which brings up another of Doug’s pet peeves…Inner Angry Girl/Boy Syndrome.
    Since Mike English is the poster boy for IAB and Air Tone singing for gospel music it’s good to note that English is pretty talented at balancing all that stuff.

    I don’t think he really was ever all that airy. He had a super clear head tone back in the day and usually his signature almost always included singing the first verse a little softly then progressing to a full blown scream by the end of each song. Nowadays he’s singing mostly chest…still sounds good though.

  15. irishlad wrote:

    Ha ha Doug, i just love all those sexual references in your post. It’s like you’re saying stuff you know you shouldn’t be saying. Keep it up you naughty little boy!

  16. quartet-man wrote:

    #11, I beat you by about three commenys and 1:50. :)

  17. Robert wrote:

    I think it has it’s place for effect in certain songs. But in the case of Castro, I believe that is the only way he can sing. Otherwise he probably wouldn’t have made it this far on Idol. That and the fact that it seems that this year’s Idol voting (more so than ever) is dominated by teenage girls that just like the dreads and the way Castro looks. No matter how many times Simon and the others say it is a singing contest I believe it is mostly a popularity contest. The case of Michael Johns being voted off proves that. I believe he was the oldest and had one of the best voices but is no longer there.

  18. Trent wrote:

    Very interesting topic. With Michael English’s breathiness in the GVB years came also a whine, a little painful sound that was a huge turn-off to me. He certainly wasn’t doing that earlier in his career, and I don’t think he does the whiny thing now like he used to, although I think he still employs it from time to time. Wish he’d stop that.

    I think another topic in SG that Avery should explore is the “growl”, that sound that female singers in particular like to make on a big phrase in a song. Kim Hopper loves the growl. Several male singers also use it from time to time.

  19. FormerDJ wrote:

    Trent, I remember when Hamill used to yell “grab it growl Ray!”

  20. natesings wrote:

    Michael W. Smith has made a career out of breathy singing.

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