How ‘American Idol’ Uses (and Abuses) Melisma by Michael Katzif
NPR.org, January 11, 2007 Â· Jennifer Hudson’s Golden Globe-winning turn in Dreamgirls has critics raving about her stunning vocals. But fans of the singer have known about her talent since her humble beginnings on American Idol. And even if you’re not one of the 30 million addicted viewers of the Fox TV show, you’ve probably heard one of Hudson’s musical tricks: melisma.
Melisma is the musical art of creating a run of many notes from one syllable. In the United States, singers in the African-American church popularized the vocal practice, which dates to Gregorian chants and Indian ragas. When Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin began singing popular music, they brought melisma to more mainstream audiences. Whether you love it or hate it, Whitney Houston’s hit “I Will Always Love You,” with its elongated “iiieeee-eyes” and “ooooeeeooos,” is a prime example.
American Idol contestants (and pop singers) sometimes abuse and overuse the technique in songs. At worst, they can fracture a word into a soulless slur of syllables that feels both alienating and groan-inducing. Plus you have no idea what word they’re singing.
To get ready for the new AI season, spend a few minutes this weekend with our guide to melisma, courtesy of Anthony Heilbut, music producer and author of The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times.
How was melisma used in the early days of the African-American church?
Usually one person would recite a lyric or line of a song. Then congregants would repeat the line with their own variations. The ultimate choral effect was immense.
Can you describe that sort of melisma?
The melisma of a traditional gospel singer is rooted in folkloric moans and blue tonality. The most transcendent moments occur when a melismatic line is saturated with blue notes.
What can melisma accomplish in a song?
As some crucial moment in the lyric, the singer will worry a word to the point of abstraction. Ideally, the vocal distortions, the intricate and convoluted division of one syllable into as many as breath will allow, convey an eruption of feeling. But melisma can become so predictable that the singer’s passion can be questioned, even though the singer is usually making “ugly faces” to convey the soul’s torments.
How has melisma changed over the years?
As gospel singers became more professional, they would try to outdo [each other], much like a jazz musician in a cutting contest. The fancier the runs, the more amused or delighted the audience might be.
About 20 years ago, I dubbed these elaborations the “Gospel Gargle” and the “Detroit Disease.”
Why blame Detroit?
Some of [melisma’s] earliest and most audacious practitioners hailed from the Motor City. [Their variations] are much more self-conscious. In more recent years, soul singers, and ultimately pop singers, adopted these very busy and self-advertising forms of phrasing.
So while a great gospel singer such as Aretha Franklin can employ melisma for dramatic purposes in a manner that seems true to the song’s message, singers today seem to indulge themselves in a manner that is both virtuosic and anonymous. And the more it is done, the worse it is done. Something that might have seemed fresh and charming in the beginning began to seem self-indulgent and, to many of us, exhibitionist.
What are they doing wrong?
Often, there isn’t any musical justification of what they are doing. [Their runs] interfere with the flow of the melody, of the lyric, of the harmonies, sometimes of the rhythm itself. It’s frequently a very vulgar and ugly display. [That’s] the style of American Idol singers, most of whom are amateurs. [They] are simply mimicking the devices of the style’s most famous practitioners â€” singers like Mariah Carey, who indulge in runs.
How can melisma serve singer and song?
It can carry both the singer and the congregation to a higher sense of the song’s meaning; until it really becomes really a form of musical catharsis.
When [the late gospel singer] Marion Williams sings “The Day Is Past and Gone,” her subtle use of melisma helps turn a lullaby into a cosmic blues. The note-bending begins with the third word, “is,” which is echoed in the next measure by a moaned hum, which is also melismatic. The listener understands at once that she is singing about something deadly serious. By the time she has reached the penultimate line of the second verse, “but death may soon disrobe us,” each melismatic turn has led us to the song’s crux.
With all the attention and backlash this style receives, how subjective is any of this?
In and of itself, melisma can be a great thing, it’s just been terribly abused by some untalented and insensitive singers. But I think the practitioners like to think that this is a sign of their engagement in the song.
The irony is that melisma is one of the glories of gospel music; I feel a real loyalty to it. I don’t think you can get very much better than gospel singers at their best.
Nothing Syrupy About This Pancake Mountain
by Michael Katzif
Okay, so there’s this goat puppet named Rufus Leaking. (Get it, get it?… Sigh.) And he gets to hang with George “One Nation Under a Groove” Clinton, the Flaming Lips and even the seemingly angry musician Henry Rollins. And then there’s Captain Perfect, a cape-wearing sidekick who does not live up to his name. If this sounds like a flashback to the nutty world of Syd and Marty Croft, you’re not far off. Enter Pancake Mountain, an offbeat variety show that has both kids and parents alike tuning in to watch the mayhem.
The Washington D.C.-based cable-access program is the brainchild of filmmaker Scott Stuckey and a small group of friends who serve as the show’s actors, designers, writers, artists and puppets. Stuckey created the show to combat what he describes as “dumbed down” children’s TV programming. “Dumbed down” it is not, as can be seen on the new DVD set, fourth in a series.
Pulling its name from the theme song by a D.C. indie rocker, Pancake Mountain has grown into something of an institution, both for its oddball sketch comedy (Miss Manners teaches the art of sloppy eating) and as a place for musicians to reach a much younger audience — like ages three to ten. Each episode is framed around a dance party: a rock sock hop for tots featuring a who’s who from nonmainstream music scene, including Nebraska’s singer-songwriter Bright Eyes and Metric’s Emily Haines.
A highlight of the DVD is actress Juliette Lewis, who doesn’t always seem to be in on the joke. “Do actors make good musicians?” Rufus awkwardly asks Lewis, who fancies herself a singer. “Before you answer,” he adds, “let me say two words: Corey Feldman.”
Michael Katzif, a podcasting guru and music writer for NPR, scours YouTube for old Stevie Wonder performances on Sesame Street.
It’s Just You and Jeff Tweedy on the Road by Michael Katzif
As the finger-plucked opening notes trickle in, a foggy montage of rainy highways, old storefronts and empty concert halls captures the behind-the-scenes feel of a tour. A rumble of the crowd and a lone fan declares, “Hey Jeff! I love you man!”
It’s these little moments that make Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s new concert film, Sunken Treasure, so engaging — you feel as if you’re on the road with this guitar-playing icon of alt-country. At one point, he even forgets the words to “Shot in the Arm,” then asks the audience to sing along to boost his memory.
Longtime Wilco fans will know most of the music, but both newcomers and diehards get a glimpse at a different side to Tweedy’s prolific songcraft. The stripped down arrangements revitalize old favorites like “In a Future Age” and “Airline To Heaven” and show off Tweedy’s haunted yet charismatic voice. You could argue that watching from home is a far cry from experiencing this great show in person. But this DVD beautifully takes you there — and you don’t have to fight your way out of the parking lot when it’s over.
Michael Katzif, who writes about music for NPR, turned his baby boomer Dad on to Wilco.
A new feature on NPR.org debuted today: Five For Friday. It will serve as a preview of many new things deserving of some attention in the world of books, DVDs, video games, movies, music and so on and on. While not as review-ish as other outlets, it’s a quick read of things that might keep you occupied over a long weekend. You know, for KIDS! I have a short review of Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood… check it out here.
Four Jazz Names Are More Fun Than One by
Out Louder by Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood
While your friends are listening to pop’s one-name wonders — new CDs by the likes of Diddy and JoJo — try one-upping them. Or make that four-upping them. Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood have crafted one of the year’s finer (and most fun) jazz records.
The names belong to jazz guitarist John Scofield and the organ-bass-drums trio of Medeski Martin & Wood (John, Billy & Chris, respectively). Regrouping for the first time since 1997’s groove-heavy A Go Go, they recapture their classic chemistry with plenty of new twists. Out Louder recalls the gritty swamp soul-jazz of late ’60s Blue Note records. But Scofield’s nasty angular guitar work, the band’s slinky rhythms and Medeski’s haunting Hammond B3 and Wurlitzer keyboards push the group into more experimental territory. Jazz novices, do not be afraid. The record never becomes unlistenable. Call it avant garage-jazz, and enjoy it. One standout: a great New Orleans shuffle reinterpretation of Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It.”
Michael Katzif is the keeper of all things podcast at NPR. A guitarist, he frequently plays his own version of garage jazz, or would if he still had a garage.