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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter