It’s a curious coincidence. The two debuts in popular music that I felt at the most visceral level, even though they were separated by many years and with an ocean between them, have something else in common. No I didn’t mean substance abuse, but rather the simple and sad fact that they both died in the past year. Amy Winehouse passed away in July 2011, while Whitney Houston died just this past weekend, on February 11th.
I don’t remember where I was the first time I heard “How Will I Know”, nor can I give you the date, but it was in the 1980s, and “HWIK” was not just the first song I heard from Whitney Houston, but the song that made the most lasting impression on me.
And I recall the first time I heard “Rehab”, Winehouse’s first hit. When I asked the people in the room with me about the nameless song (they had the radio tuned to a top-40 station) they had no idea because they really didn’t notice it and didn’t especially like it. It took me several days before I was able to figure out the name of the song & the artist. While “Rehab” never made number one, it spoke as directly to me as if she and I were old friends. In the first few seconds I thought I’d stumbled upon a song by an R & B artist who’d languished in obscurity (perhaps from the 50s or 60s) and not a new singer at all.
In the space between the songs there’s a whole world of difference that could inspire books. But I’m musing about voice not life, so let’s forget all about substances & lives abused. I may sound a bit unorthodox in this analysis as I go on to observe the effects some classical singers achieve using techniques that are somewhat similar if not the same.
I guess I have a thing for divas.
While “HWIK” was not Houston’s first hit in the USA, for some reason it was her first #1 in Canada, which may have more to do with the taste of the radio DJs than anything else; but I remember it as if it were her first. What grabbed me on that occasion was something I have noticed since that time in the singing in several disciplines.
Listen to HWIK. In passing you may observe dated arrangements, clunky rhythm tracks and the cheesy synth sounds; and yes, the text that still seems very concerned about how much genuine sexuality this young female artist can show.
She has to ask a friend –“because you know about these things”—rather than show too much confidence. Her persona flips back and forth between a strong assertive complaint (“how will I know”) and a more meek persona (“I’m too shy”).
And vocally, she flips around between at least two different approaches to the use of her registers. Notice that sometimes Houston seems to take a decade off her age, becoming a virtual innocent in her soft cooing voice, and then a moment later suddenly sounds powerful as she belts. It almost seems as if there were two voices inside the one woman.
Now listen to a far different kind of song, again without any visual distractions. In the roughly twenty years between the two songs, the world had changed substantially. Where Houston, being the first woman to achieve three number one singles from the same album, was held back at least by industry expectations if not also by cultural resistance to a strong black female asserting herself, the stage onto which Winehouse stepped in 2006 was entirely different.
“Rehab” has very little innocence to it, but even so does have moments of remarkable vulnerability. Winehouse also shows us at least a couple of different combinations of her registers, mostly sounding empowered and obstinate, but occasionally using a sound that floats sweetly. Once again, it’s as though there’s more than one voice, more than one Winehouse.
I don’t propose to offer any conclusions. Instead, I simply want to observe that the vocal artistry in the popular realm has parallels in the classical realm, and to juxtapose performances to suggest ways in which these different sorts of vocalism inform one another. Think about the ways in which Houston and Winehouse portray the passions through their voices, showing love and fear and strength and weakness. And then, don’t be surprised when you see similar dramas acted out on the virtual stage of the voice.
It may be hard to remember after those two songs, but at one time women were far from view, not just covered up. In a world without pornography and media for instant gratification, women’s vocal exhibitionism compensated for what couldn’t be seen, in the sounds of passion. A tearful heart-break sung onstage brought the voyeuristic audience into a kind of intimate union with the diva: centuries ago.
From what I understand from my reading, the performance I will post immediately below for your listening pleasure breaks the rules for proper bel canto singing: at least as far as those rules have validity. Of course the aria I am posting pre-dates bel canto by more than a century, so the rules are irrelevant, especially considering the extraordinary eroticism one can experience in the breaking of those rules. Is this just a modern day transgression, influenced by the brilliance of women such as Houston? or possibly a rediscovery of a way of singing that was employed before? This is Renée Fleming singing Alcina’s lament “Mi restano le lagrime,“ tearfully accepting defeat.
Purists may dislike the way the voice freely uses dark and light colouring from the registers to add expression with the abandon of a pop singer. Nowadays I wonder whether we’re literate in a new way, sensitive to vocal stylings and their emotional under-pinnings. In effect every person has at least two voices inside. We have the tough dominating voice of anger or triumph, from the adult voice of our lower register, and the gentler sounds of our youthful upper register, useful for soulful musing or surrender. How we blend those two registers allows us several additional possibilities, and that’s before we add the inflections, expressions and interpretive extras.
Listening to Fleming in context with Houston & Winehouse, I am especially impressed. Whatever musical idiom one works in, the voice is an astonishingly deep medium for conveying human emotion. While we now have permission to show just about everything in film or on stage, we haven’t outgrown the pure enjoyment of the voice.
Or should I say “voices”?
Coincidentally, it’s Fleming’s birthday on February 14th.
Leslie, wonderful post!
Thoughtful and insightful comparison. You have great taste in Divas!