Lou Reed

Why We Love Bad Singers

A few listener reviews of some of pop/rock music’s big names:

Regarding Neil Young: “For as far back as I can remember I’ve disliked this guy. His whiney voice is like nails on a chalkboard.”

Regarding Bob Dylan: “Like if a wistful Lee Marvin swallowed a kazoo.” (by Ted Pillow.)

Regarding Lucinda Williams: “Out of tune at times and outright horrible for some songs…”

Regarding Lou Reed: “He mumbles, comes in flat, can’t pick a note, and when he does it’s the wrong choice.

Regarding Leonard Cohen: “Citing Cohen as a voice to reckon with serves only to remind me how many major male lead lungs can’t sing their way out of paper bag but are hailed as musical heroes.” (by Susan G. Cole.)

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What is it about bad singing that we love? Not only do we love it, we love to tell others how much we hate their singing. And then we love it, secretly or openly.

We love to complain that Bob Dylan sounds like sifting gravel (Ted Pillow again), but tell me, do you really want to hear “Subterranean Homesick Blues” sung any way other than how Dylan manages to drone that tune out?

It may seem like a performance issue, not really a songwriting one, but in pop music how you deliver a song becomes every bit as important as what you’ve written. Because if you can’t entice people to listen, it doesn’t much matter what you’ve written.

So why does bad singing so often succeed? I would argue that comes down to three distinct but related reasons:

  1. Bad singing has a spontaneous “I was going to say this, but it just occurred to me to sing it” kind of feel. Bad singing sounds unrehearsed and immediate. And since some of pop/rock music’s best tunes have a strongly improvisatory style, bad singing just seems to work well with it.
  2. Bad singing sounds sincere. Sing a line from Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” with a beautiful, resonant, vibrant croon, and then sing it the way Reed sings it, and I’ll bet you’ll choose the weirdly spoken-sung execution Reed comes up with every time.
  3. Bad singing communicates attitude. The cleaner the singing, it could be argued, the harder it is to pick up attitude or point of view. Singing with rough edges communicates much more than what the words alone can relate.

Those are all communication issues, but there’s more to it than that. When we accuse singers of not being able to hold a tune, that’s not strictly true. Neil Young, for instance, often sounds like he’s a bit off, but when required to sing in 3- or 4-part harmonies, he can do it quite well.

With bad singing, we’re more often talking about that lack of a sonorous quality of tone, a voice with a lot of noise attached — the Kim Carnes effect in “Bette Davis Eyes.” Bad singing has a way of having the audience say, “Hey, I could sing like that, too.”

Until we try it, and realize that for some bizarre reason, we can’t. At least not like that. But having an audience think that they could do better is perhaps the most important reason that bad singing sells. If your aim is to touch the heart of the audience and make them feel something personal, singing badly may wind up being your most valuable tool.

When it comes right down to it, bad singing is often a matter of style. If you set out to sound bad, you likely will, and good luck to you. But if you set out to sound real, you likely will. “Real”, in some people’s books, may equate to sounding “bad”, but real always trumps bad.

Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitterfyspn

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  1. Pingback: Server Bug Fix: Is it possible to state whether someone is singing in tune? - TECHPRPR

  2. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the advice given to musicians to ”play for the song”, basically meaning that if the song demands it you should for example avoid showing off your instrumental chops and let the melody or lyric take center stage.

    Strangely almost no one gives this advice to singers. Yet it’s, as you note in today’s post, obvious that some songs clearly come through better if they are sung by less wailing and scale-running singers.

    A lot of covers reveal this immediately. Best proven, in my view, by covers made of Cohen’s Halleluja. I still haven’t heard a cover of this song – and there are many – that captures any of the bittersweet, sarcastic, dark humourus and well educated atmosphere of the original. Probably because few of the singers have bothered enough to even check and understand all the literary references, instead focusing on for how long they can hold chorus notes. And all of a sudden it’s simply not believable anymore.

    I also believe that most persons that are capable of singing in tune and writing really well-crafted melodies probably could have developed into what is usually referred to as “good singers” had that been their focus and goal.

    But they focused on something else – such as reading books and working on lyrics. Which gave us songs without the all these totally mind-numbing cheap rhymes that no one – sometimes the singers themselves included – will remember ten years later. Good choice, in my view.

  3. Hi Gary dont know what happened to the unfinished reply
    it was my computer playing up Hope you can take this
    and the very bad one off

    P s would love a blog on Metric Feet in Popular songs
    from you in the near future
    Sincerely Peter Wood_Jenkins

    • Cool comment — Heptameter
      Like “Blowin in the Wind” ?
      or “Get your feet up off the ground,
      ain’t no nickles layin’ around!” – ?

  4. I think with Dylan it’s not so much as being a bad singer as

    Singing With Attitude that sells him to us , Many of his songs have

    been covered by singers with great voices Adelle being one

    of them . Another trick used by Dylan is using lyric lines of

    Seven Foot Hepta Meter it’s been described as A Lolloping Gait

  5. Dylan among others (Ray Wylie Hubbard is a good example) is a gruff or sarcastic talk/singer, but is actually on key most of the time. While perfect round resonance often sounds trite or phony, singing flat or sharp will always degrade the audience’s ability to connect to the song.
    There is a big difference between earnest and amateurish.

    • You’re absolutely right on the difference between earnest and amateurish, and I think that’s why so many non-singers think “I could do that.” They’re missing the “earnest” part of the equation.

      Thanks for the comment!

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