Grantland loves to hate on weak voices. In recent articles, Whitney Houston’s old voice was lauded for its power and Mariah Carrey’s was mocked precisely to the degree that it was overshadowed by Houston’s; Zooey Deschanel was clowned for her unconvincing rendition of the national anthem; and a writer puzzled over the success of Rihanna given the limits of her voice. All of these articles assumed that vocal limits are an obstacle to an artist, that if a weak-voiced artist succeeds it is in spite of this natural limitation.
But this is not true. In popular music the very limits of a voice can be the explanation for the artistic merit of a song. Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years”, for example, is artistic to the degree that Perri’s voice is in unable to soar to the romantic heights that the lyrics of her song promises. The narrow horizons of her voice give a resonance and depth to what would otherwise be pure wish-fulfillment.
This is an age of paradoxical reversals so let me say straight off that I’m not trying to do something similar here. I’m not trying to convince you that something aimed for commercial success is secretly an artistic masterpiece. I am trying to explain that whatever artistic value resides in Perri’s song resides there because of her limited range. On the face of it this appears to be a contradiction in terms. We often equate art with virtuosity, that an artist’s quality is equivalent to their own natural proficiency with the mechanics of their chosen medium.
But this is not always the case. Jackson Pollock, one of the most influential and powerfully expressive artists of the 20th century, turned to his style of “action painting” because he recognized his limitations as a figural artist. That’s right, he became a great painter because he was not good at drawing. Put another way, his artistic success, which is great by any account, depended on his limitations; his art was fantastic as long as he did not try to draw.
Virtuosity in music means the ability to play instruments with a high level of technical mastery or, if your voice is your instrument, to sing with a full and powerful voice. But in my opinion, while musical virtuosity is crucially important in genres such as jazz, classical music, and in some measure in the blues, in popular music it often gets in the way of art. One here need only to think of the difference between Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottoms” and “Jazz Oddyssey”, one is musical stupidity and the other is stupidly musical. The joke of the first song is that they are unselfconscious idiots; the joke of the second is that they are very self-consciously musicians. The possibility of Jazz Oddyssey comes into play whenever musicality is foregrounded in popular music.
In some ways it seems that we have discarded the idea that technical proficiency is a requirement for great popular music, at least in the circles of musical snobbery that is. Few there would argue that the sloppiness of Black Sabbath or The Sex Pistols in any way circumscribes their art. Fewer still would argue that the voices of Bob Dylan or Tom Waits limits their expressive power. But no one would forgive any of these artists their technical limitations if they set about to make money by writing and performing in the safe ground of romantic sentimentality that is the natural home of commercial popular music. There, as the Grantland articles suggest, if you’re going to play and sing crap music then at least you better do it really well.
Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” is in some ways a perfect example of romantic sentimentality. It begins with primarily percussive piano notes that are accompanied by evocative, impressionistic lyrics: “Heart beats fast/colors and promises/how to be brave”. These words are given weight by the vulnerable weakness of her voice. From there the song moves to the fantasy that makes popular music popular. She sings: “how can I love when I’m afraid to fall/but watching you stand alone/all of my doubt suddenly goes away somehow”. The song continues in this vein. The lyrics sappily romantic and her voice sweetly quiet.
As the song nears its conclusion the music swells and one expects Perri’s voice to rise with it. This is the chorus with which the song ends: “And all along I believed I would find you/ time has brought your heart to me/ I have loved you for a thousand years/ I love you for a thousand more”. At first there is a matching crescendo between the voice and the music but then at the last second, on the last word, “more”, her voice gets quieter, much quieter. At the moment when her voice should soar over the music, the music swallows it up instead.
Her voice doesn’t tower above the music because she probably doesn’t have the vocal strength for that. Nothing in that song, or in any of the other songs that I have heard by her, suggests she has the chops to belt it out that way. But to see this as something that limits the song is to miss the point entirely. The quieting of her voice gives a final expression to a tension that gives her song more resonance and truth than if her voice roared over the music.
Let me explain. This song involves conflicting impulses: earnest lyrics of sentimental desire and a voice whose weakness suggests an inability to accept the truth of that sentimental desire. Her words say that she will love him for a thousand years but her voice doesn’t seem so sure. And that conflict is taken through all the way to the end, at that last moment when the lack of commitment to the sentiments conveyed is ultimately expressed by the quieting of the voice. The weak voice makes possible the ambiguity between earnest desire and sober assessment, between fantasy and reality that is the true artistic content of Perri’s song. Celine Dion’s massive voice would collapse all that distance and turn the song into syrupy schlock. The old voice of Grantland’s resident diva would do the same. But maybe all the troubling things she’s put her voice through would allow Whitney Houston to achieve what Perri’s considerably inferior voice does naturally.