What Our Ears Have Been Missing

meowser-48.jpg posted by meowser

As some of you know, I sing sometimes. Here’s why I don’t do it in public very much these days: I’m a wuss. Being snickered at and visually picked over by people half my age or less is generally not how I choose to spend my spare time. I sing at home, I sing in the car, I sing in the shower. I could probably get the entirety of my four-octave range back if I really practiced. I haven’t ruled out taking music more seriously one day and finally tapping into the potential I have as a singer and a drummer (I got high praise from drum teachers for my natural ability during my initial lessons a few years ago). But at the moment, it’s kind of asleep for me, although I write down song scraps whenever I think of them and occasionally fashion a new song out of them.

But unlike Susan Boyle, who I assume you’ve all heard about as the great Cinderella story from Britain’s Got Talent, I haven’t yet reached the point where I just can’t stand it any more and I have to let it out where people can see. That’s what I saw when I first looked at her, someone who just finally snapped, someone who said, “Fuck it, I don’t have all the time in the world left. I don’t care if they laugh, let them. Give me that damn microphone already.”

Her voice really is extraordinary. Not only didn’t she drop a note, she made every single one felt. Even most professional singers aren’t that good. And carrying off a difficult, rangy musical-theatre ballad like “I Dreamed a Dream” means that Susan Boyle has been practicing her ass off, probably for decades. (I don’t know if I could sing that song myself without serious training, even in a lower key. It’s tough.) She didn’t just wake up one day and decide to do this on a lark. She’s been growing this talent, in her shower, in her car, in her anywhere that people couldn’t destroy her desire to sing by making fun of her weight and her hair and her age and her awkwardness, for years and years. It was only a matter of her getting to the point where she just had to have that microphone or it would kill her.

What really flattens me is the fact that as soon as Boyle opens her mouth — I mean, on the very first line — the audience just goes NUTS. The very same people who’d been poking each other and gigglesnorting before the music started up, they just start screaming and applauding in waves. It’s like they wanted to be wrong about her. It’s like they were relieved that their prejudices were total BS. Maybe some of them were thinking, “I guess this means I can do it too, and who cares if my boobs are too small or my nose is too big or my teeth are too crooked or my skin tone isn’t luscious or what-the-hell ever, I WANT THAT MICROPHONE TOO.” This wasn’t just a performance, it was an opening of the floodgates, the “physically imperfect” among us (if only if in their own minds) deciding that it was fucked up beyond belief that we would tell a woman she shouldn’t be heard unless she looked like a model and had the world’s most finely tuned self-marketing skills.

But why should anyone have been that shocked? Don’t we all know people who are WOW talents, who nobody’s ever heard of but us and maybe a handful of others? Do people really assume that if someone hasn’t been on television, they couldn’t possibly be worth knowing about? In this day and age? Look, every city in America (let alone gods knows how many other countries) is just teeming with talent. Just oozing with it. The average person is far more talented than they were when I was a kid. When I was little, every other mom didn’t have a three-octave vocal range, every other dad couldn’t play a killer guitar solo, everybody didn’t have a cousin or two with a screenplay that could blow every movie in Hollywood clear off the screen, everyone’s aunt wasn’t making an award-worthy documentary in film school or printing up a chapbook of brilliant poems. Now — oh, man. We couldn’t possibly fit every stunningly gifted person in the world on television, even with 200 channels, and that’s not even getting to the people who haven’t begun to develop their nascent talents yet.

It was interesting to hear BGT judge Amanda Holden say after Susan’s performance that it was a “wake-up call.” You wonder, though, what the take-home lesson will be. “Anyone can have WOW talent no matter what they look like” is a good start, but for me it goes beyond that. I wonder if they’re ever going to get around to asking, “How much vocal richness are we missing out on by insisting all our female singers be super young and super thin and super waspy-cute?” It’s not just that someone like Susan can have a great voice in spite of her age and build and looks and the vicious social snubbing she’s experienced all her life; it’s that those things made her the singer she is. Physically, certain sounds can only come from certain bodies — not that thin young women can’t be great singers, but their tone is different, and how Susan has lived is the source of her soul.

When did audiences become totally unwilling to accept sounds made by anyone who wasn’t young young young and hot hot hot? It hasn’t always been that way. Perhaps part of it is that the gene pool has created more “pretty” people than ever and that is what we are used to seeing (check out what “stunningly beautiful” women on television or in movies or magazines looked like in the 1960s and 1970s, and then look now); perhaps Photoshop and plastic surgery have made us ever intolerant of “flaws” or even obvious markers of ethnicity; perhaps the youth culture that started up in the 1960s has made “never trust anyone over 30” such a credo that even most people over 30 buy into it. Or something else, I don’t know.

But I keep thinking about the sounds from nearly a century ago that are at the roots of much of today’s contemporary music — folk, blues (which morphed into rhythm and blues, then rock and roll, then rap, and a kajillion other things) and hillbilly (which morphed into country/western, then just plain country). Even a lot of vaudeville performers weren’t dishy young things. Now granted, most of the people who performed and recorded that stuff had the shit exploited out of them and usually weren’t compensated fairly, but they weren’t expected to be young young young and hot hot hot, either. (And even “hot hot hot” didn’t necessarily equal “no visible flesh” then, either.) In fact, if you wanted credibility in any of those music forms you couldn’t look like you had it all that easy (which people would instinctively assume if you were very young and very pretty), or no one would believe you.

Now everything’s turned on its head. You need youth, looks, thinness, and money, and lots of it, or people will openly mock you when you take that microphone in your hands. Even if your band has that scruffy boho look, your instruments and equipment have cost plenty and so has your rehearsal space and your computers and everything else you’re using to make your noise and get it out there. It’s almost impossible to be a poor, homely middle-aged singer or musician with no “fashion sense” (read: $$$$ that also has to look like you didn’t spend $$$$) now. It doesn’t occur to people how much is being missed by insisting on young young young and pretty pretty pretty, always always always. We’re missing not just the voices, but the songs, the stories from people who have really lived, not just from some cute telegenic white guy whose idea of “suffering” is not being able to get the blonde AND the redhead to sleep with him simultaneously.

And that’s just in music. Think about all the other art forms that applies to.

Are we really ready to throw all that in the trash as a society? Can Susan Boyle do that much? Or will Susan herself get sucked into the Great Prettifying Machine, being operated on and dieted down and endlessly primped to the point where she’s indistinguishable from dozens of other middle-aged celebrities, like so many others before her? That wouldn’t take away any of her considerable gifts as a vocalist, of course, but it would make an awful lot of people miss the point of her success — again, dammit, again. Let’s hope it doesn’t get lost. My own microphone can only gather dust for so long.


16 Responses to “What Our Ears Have Been Missing”

  1. Kristie Says:

    I’m a regular at the local open mic. I’m not sure what people think about me when they see me walk up to the mic. I am fat, pushing 40, sassy, and have a great, friendly smile, so it could go a lot of ways. I’m too nervous about messing up my guitar playing that I don’t have time to worry about them, and I have great guitars, and they’re probably looking at those instead of me. No one’s said or done anything that makes me think they expect anything other than your stereotypical woman coffeehouse singer. But when I start singing, all the noise stops, and for the next 15 minutes, they are mine, regardless of what they were thinking when I walked past them earlier. And I love it. And they do, too.

    Go. Sing. It’s the music that matters; I’ve seen that for myself. Find yourself a venue that has grown-ups in the audience and get your tune on.

  2. wellroundedtype2 Says:

    I love the song… your voice, the music, the lyrics. Love it. I don’t know how I missed that post, but I didn’t see/hear it until now.

    I would buy a whole album of your music.

  3. buttercup Says:

    When I saw her face, my first thought was “she has a bone structure like Joan Sutherland.” Who is also not a typically beautiful woman but managed to become the greatest female opera star of her generation. Now, even opera singers have to be thin. Crazy making.

  4. Meowser Says:

    WRT2: Awww, thanks!

    Buttercup: Yeah, and that’s an especially dicey requirement in opera, where vocal tone — not just range — has traditionally been crucial. If they’re putting dress size before that, I think they are drastically underestimating (or misunderstanding) their audiences.

  5. Lindsay Says:

    I remember growing up in an opera house – seeing men and women of all sizes going up on stage, and giving amazing performances. Perhaps that’s why i wasn’t overly shocked by this woman’s performance. (As far as my thoughts on the crowd? It’s complicated and i’m not sure i can adequately explain it without sounding an ass.)

    Thing with opera, from an almost-insider POV: opera is hurting. The company my dad works for has been in the black for decades, with an average sell rate of over 100% (last-call ticket purchases are what push it over 100%) and they’re feeling the crunch. The opera world is having to compete with cheaper forms of entertainment, and so they’re having to do some catering to the masses – making it more “acceptable”, making it more in-line with what the majority of people would want to see.

    I don’t think it’s entirely kosher. This is a precious art form that i do not think we can afford to lose; so on one hand, there’s a feeling of “do whatever we can to keep it around”, but it’s mingled with the horror of what mainstream societal values are doing to opera in the process. It must adapt at least a little in order to survive, but there are times when i wonder if those adaptations are more harmful than helpful.

  6. Meowser Says:

    Yeah, but Lindsay, even you have to admit that “it’s not over til the Britney Spears lookalike sings” doesn’t have quite the same cachet, doesn’t it?

    Seriously, though, wouldn’t they be losing a bunch of their audience from casting opera that way, too, though?

  7. Lindsay Says:

    Seriously, though, wouldn’t they be losing a bunch of their audience from casting opera that way, too, though?

    I view it as not entirely dissimilar from outsourcing. Not similar in action, but similar in results. The results are a temporary gain, but a downward trend in quality. Which isn’t to say that thinner opera singers aren’t as good as their larger counterparts, but that when you favor looks over voice, you wind up with something that looks better than it sounds.

    I’m not involved enough in the “opinions about opera” world to know how anyone else feels about it.

  8. bigliberty Says:

    Awesome post. I have mentioned before elsewhere in comments and so forth, but I’m a coloratura soprano, and at 26, my voice is really starting to come into its own in a BIG way. I mean a BIG EFFING WAY. I can’t afford more voice lessons, and there really isn’t anyone around who isn’t $100/hr who can teach me more than I already know (this isn’t an ego thing: I took voice lessons for seven years, and my old teacher has moved to Burlington VT to start her own opera company).

    I was so inspired by this post, Meowser, that I just sat down and recorded an (a capella, crappy, computer-mic) version of Un bel di vedrimo (One Fine Day): http://nusseymagazine.com/unbeldi.mp3

    Anyway, when I was younger I wanted to go into musical theatre. I joined community theatre companies, but I never got the role of the lead, even though my voice (and often my acting) was far superior; I’d get the “sister” or “mother” or “nurse”!!! of the lead. I was cast into roles far older than myself, even though I was often younger than the young young young hot hot hotttt lead. I remember a lot of white powder to make my hair gray, and makeupped-on lines to make my face look older. 😛

    Then my voice teacher during high school found an opera singer inside of me, and I found an eating disorder. My voice still progressed, but not as much: I was exhausted, and losing weight, and you COULD HEAR IT. When I tried out for the Boston Conservatory at 17 my body was at its thinnest, and so was my voice. I missed it by a hair.

    I decided professional singing wasn’t in the cards, and since I had many other interests I went to college for economics, then political science, then physics. My voice lessons continued until I switched into a physics major; then I had to devote every bit of myself to physics, so I stopped taking the voice lessons.

    What I didn’t realize is that the voice is a very PHYSICAL instrument. As I gained weight these past two years, suddenly the voice I thought I was supposed to leave behind started coming out in full force. As my body became healthier and stabilized to the weight IT WANTED TO BE AT, my voice got bigger and stronger. Suddenly I knew why my grandma and grandpa were able to make ends meet in the 1950s by singing at various churches and halls in their area, and why my dad gets paid to sing.

    One’s voice gets better until they’re about 40, an then it starts to (slowly) decline. That’s right, your PEAK is at 40. That’s something I never knew before I researched it, something the young young young hot hot hotttt star culture would never dream of letting be known. At 26, my very big voice is just getting bigger. At a starving 17, it was a mere limping bird. Who knows, if I tried out for the conservatory NOW, if I’d get in? Probably. But that part of my life is over – house, responsibilities, job, I can’t go back to youth and school.

    Fat and eating disorders is what kept me from going into music, ultimately. I think the fact I have such a voice and I’m a software programmer, project coordinator, writer, etc etc etc is somewhat of a waste. Perhaps at some point I’ll find a way to use it, but — well, it makes me a bit sad, as it’s a direct reflection of the young young youngggg hott hott hotttttt musical culture that no one will ever really hear it, except me.

  9. Ameroux Says:

    Meowser, I had a similar reaction to yours. Seeing and hearing Susan sing, I felt liberated from the shackles around my neck that say I can’t get out there and sing because of how I look. Of course, trying to earn a living and manage diabetes and a mood disorder make it difficult to find the time and energy, but I won’t let that other stuff stand in my way. I’m inspired by Susan’s courage, and deeply moved by her inner conviction that she was good and that her talent would prevail. I also noticed the depth of emotion she poured out through her voice and agree with you that without her struggles and suffering, she wouldn’t be able to put that across. The song expressed her fear that “there are dreams that cannot be”. But this time, the dream is real. Hallelujah! And rock on, Susan Boyle!

  10. Jo Says:

    One’s voice gets better until they’re about 40, an then it starts to (slowly) decline. That’s right, your PEAK is at 40.

    That’s exactly what I was thinking when First Dude said he was “shocked”. What an ass — I mean, really. They all expected an older, not-gorgeous woman to sound crappy, when if they really knew anything about voices at all (like the above)

    And your peak is *around* 40. Or not until 40. If you take really good care of your voice, you’ve got a good 15, 20, 25, maybe even 30 years of good to really damn good to great even after 40. (Pavarotti, anyone?) Susan Boyle is in her vocal prime, period. Of course she had the richness that 20-year-olds don’t.

    But yeah, the ageist sexist BS was about all I could stand to listen to, how everyone in the audience was making fun of her, basically, when she had just as much chance as everyone else of being great (or not).

    bigliberty, if you (or anyone else) want to sing, you should. Even if you don’t go to full-time school for it, if you want to perform, you could at least find a teacher and start doing recitals or community musical theater or opera chorus, whatever tickles your fancy.

    But re: the beautification? I hope she doesn’t. I hope she’s sensible (feminist?) enough to know that’s just a waste of time, that it’s the singing that matters.

    (One thing I do hope is that she finds a vocal coach to help her care for her voice as it matures further — singing belt-range stuff can be tricky, and it’s easy to mistake pain for hard work.)

  11. Jo Says:

    Oh, and bigliberty: sorry, I missed the “there’s no one to teach me that’s not $100/hr, etc.” part of your post. Maybe there’s some way to barter, perhaps? A school with a vocal pedagogy program, with grad students who don’t charge $100/hr? Just a thought or two. My sister teaches voice, and I’ve taught piano as a student too, so that might be an option. If you were anywhere near my sis (which I doubt, with those fees), I’d send you her info.

  12. Katia Says:

    I studied voice (classical singing) with a wonderful teacher who had had a fine opera career herself, but had left it to settle down to raise her child.

    My teacher was probably in her 50’s, grand and glamorous — an imposing busty woman with little pet poodles. She taught us to sing from physical sensation. We would imagine things and sing and when we were singing the way she wanted us to sing she would tell us to remember what that felt like and to sing again with it feeling like that again.

    I will always remember her instructing me to hold my arms in front of me in a big circle. Then she said — “That is your bust! All the way out to there! Now sing!” And she would have me hold my arms in front of me making a big circle but lower and she would say “That is your belly! All the way out to there! Think about your belly, all the way out to there, and sing!”

    Even though I didn’t yet have a bust out to there or a belly out to there it helped my singing to think of it.

    Our massive bodies were trees, too, and our feet rooted us deep deep deep into the ground.

  13. meowser Says:

    Kristie (sorry, just got you out of the spamtrap): Good for you! I love to hear about people doing stuff like that.

    BL: Holy shit, you can sing like that ALREADY? You’re right, you’re way beyond the beginner level. But yes, ditto what Jo and Katia said, there is certainly middle ground between singing opera professionally (which obviously takes every bit as much rigorous training as being a professional or Olympic-level athlete) and not singing at all.

    You definitely have the training — and the gift — at this point to sing light opera or operetta or lieder or other classical music, or even be involved in a full-on semiprofessional opera production. And if you were involved in things like that, you might well make some connections with people who could steer you to an instructor to help you take your art to the next level, at a price you could afford. (Probably people will come to you, in fact.) Or maybe you’d find out you liked doing what you were doing and want to keep doing it. In any case, I hope you don’t limit yourself to the computer mic, unless you really would prefer that.

  14. bigliberty Says:

    Meowser (and Jo and Katia),

    The computer mic (and Garageband) and myself are good friends, but sadly, all I do is give give give and she never gives back, you know? It feels like such a one-sided relationship. 😉

    Thanks so much for your kind words, and your encouragement. I sometimes (heck, most of the time) feel like it wouldn’t be worth it to expand on my gift, because of – you guessed it – my fat. I’m so afraid of history repeating itself – being the better singer and not getting the part because I’m not hott enough – that I’ve really shrunken away from putting myself “out there.” Singing also makes me feel really vulnerable, because of how important it has been in my life, and I’m very afraid of making myself vulnerable because of how I’ve been hurt before.

    I really, really need to kick myself in the pants (or someone else, please, take a shot!) with respect to this. I need to forget about my Dad, who has always drifted into the shadows professionally whenever he didn’t think he “looked” right (i.e., whenever he was too fat for his own taste), and who has implied that my gift doesn’t mean anything or can’t get me anywhere because I’m 6′ 0″, 290 lbs and not 5′ 7″ and 120!

    I can’t tell you how much Susan Boyle has inspired me to just GET OUT THERE. I’ve been thinking for a long time about doing some wedding singing, just to be able to perform, and to practice in public for a few extra dollars – but I can’t seem to muster the faith in myself to do the bare minimum of what I need to do, which is memorize the songs and find the backup instrumentals. I mean, I have all the equipment already. What’s holding me back? Am I going to let the fear of being snickered or mooed at by teenage boys when I sing opera, the inevitable “until the fat lady…” jokes, etc, hold me back?

    I have a lot of thinking to do. Thanks so much for your encouragement, and for listening to me. It might be hard to believe, but that’s the first time I’ve recorded singing a full operatic song (and it was yucky, a tad flat in places I’m usually not flat, and first thing in t’morning – certainly not my best performance by a long shot)? At any rate, thanks again, and I’m going to really think long and hard about this.

  15. Starling Says:

    Why wasn’t I surprised?

    Maybe you have to be a certain age. But I can remember when the man who played Gomer Pyle opened his mouth and sang.

    Yes, she was amazing. But he was even more amazing.

    I’m not surprised because I’ve experienced it before on national TV.

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