Thursday, June 3, 2010

Short, shallow thoughts on Madonna

So I was listening to some Madonna at the gym the other day (don't ask why: someday I may tell you), and I realized that while I'm real hit-or-miss on her dance stuff, I tend to like her ballads. "Take A Bow," "Love Don't Live Here Anymore," stuff like that.

What's more, I realized why, but to explain that I'm gonna digress.

It may have slipped out that I sometimes get hooked on Idol. As a music lover it's easy to do, in spite of or maybe because of the fact that most of the performances are pretty unmusical. I've always maintained that knowing bad arts helps us recognize the good, and this show proved that to millions (consider this my tribute to Simon).

One of my constant gripes about Idol is that everybody oversings. Ever since Mariah Carey, at least, pop-soul has been under the delusion that good singing=an overabundance of melisma. If can do vocal gymnastics, you should do them all the time, the thinking seems to go, and if you can't do them, don't waste our time. Now I've got nothing against a good flight of soul fantasia, but like everything it has a time and a place. Right now in pop music it seems like it's always the time and the place. It reminds me of guitar heroics in the '80s: every band had to have an Eddie Van Halen, and every song had to have a pyrotechnical guitar solo. It gets meaningless after a while. That was six-string wanking, this is vocal-chord wanking.

It struck me that Madonna doesn't really do that on her ballads. And I think it's because technically she's not that good a singer. I don't mean that as a knock on her. Some of my favorite artists have had technical limitations (Dylan, Miles): what makes them great is their ability to make those limitations work for them rather than against them. In Madonna's case, what that means is that since she can't rip it up improvisationally on the ballads, she has to lay back. Another way to put it is that she's smart enough to get out of the way and let a beautiful melody do its thing.

I appreciate that.

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