Who needs vocals? Lots of people, actually. How many times have you shown someone that band with the amazing guitarist, ridiculous drum beats or funkiest bassist you’ve ever heard, only to be on the receiving end of the twisted face of disgust as the music is thrown back at you because they didn’t like the singer?
When it comes to screaming, lo-fi vocals or just plain unintelligible singing, the situation only gets worse with arguments flung around by those who like to hear the lyrics not necessarily loud, but clear:
“Screaming is for those with no talent who can’t sing.”
“They only use lo-fi to hide their inadequacies.”
“I’d probably like it if I could tell what they were saying.”
If you can’t hear the words of what’s being sung, does that stop you from enjoying the music? I can’t understand Italian, yet I listen to a lot of Italian music. It’s the intent behind the delivery that makes it for me and I’d say the same about pretty much everything I listen to by choice, whether it’s in English, Italian or morse code. I just have to know that there’s some form of expression there whether it’s screamed anger, whispered anguish or gleeful gang vocals.
What if your ears are met with a sad and sombre track about troubles and strife sung by a guy grinning away like an idiot with a jovial spring in his voice? Is that a betrayal of the song’s meaning? I need some conviction in the what I hear. Half-laughing your way through a restrained song about the civil rights movement isn’t appropriate or true to the music regardless of how good the singer is.
Vocals are one of those feisty battle lines played out within genres, friends, families and other groups when we discuss music and what we like about it. There is a definite divide between those who like to hear the words first and foremost, and those who place the emotion behind them as a greater focus.
Ironically, one of my main problems with the current crop of post-hardcore, pop-punk and emo bands is the amount of apparent sincerity in their vocals. It is so contrived to the point that they’re no longer adding weight to their words, and are instead trying to outdo each other in how much they can whine and make girls want to mother them. It’s awful. Go back and listen to Embrace, Rites of Spring, Circles Takes the Square and so on and see what a bit of feeling in your delivery sounds like. It’s not about competing to make the most pre-teenagers’ heavily caked-on eyeliner run.
But this, as many meandering quests for vague answers does, opens up more questions. Where does your image start and end? Does it destroy any emotional authenticity your band’s music is trying to express when it’s tied up to your image branding?
The lyrics themselves are massively important to me and I’ll read through the lyrics sheets regardless of whether I can decipher what’s going on in the music or not. Bad lyrics make me cringe and cringing is not what you want when you sit down to enjoy an album; that awkward contorted feeling in the pit of your stomach that feels like your taste and opinions want to vomit up the bad experience it’s suffering.
In a similar way, good lyrics and passionate, heartfelt or generally emotional vocals really do pang me and make the hairs on my neck stand on end like NASA is ready to send them to infinity and beyond. Watching Stevie Wonder play at Michael Jackson’s memorial service choked me up, Animal Collective have given me butterflies that tickle my lungs, a good number of bands have taken my breath away and I’ve been left gobsmacked, defeated and hollowed out by the scale and feeling of everything from La Quiete to My Bloody Valentine.
Ultimately, as with anything to do with music, this is all subjective and not everyone is going to like the idea of someone screaming so hard they give themselves an aneurysm or worse, whilst I don’t like vocals that sound like they’ve been copied and pasted as a genre standard with all their gleaming clarity and uniform accessibility. Give me chaos with an original face any day!
Tags: Michael Jackson, My Bloody Valentine, Stevie Wonder