I doubt that any of my favourite singers would have passed the audition stage of The Voice let alone made it through to the finals. I avoid watching those supposed “reality” shows because my feelings about pitting one vocalist against another in some sort of battle to the death makes me quietly fume. (sometimes not all that quietly actually.)

What makes a singer great isn’t really based on their ability to sing as their ability to take us to an emotional place with them. We need to love them and that’s more likely to be brought about by the song than the actual singer. Yes, their performance of the song is of great importance but you’d be hard pressed to have become a die hard Jeff Buckley fan, for example, if the first song you’d heard him sing was Mary Had A Little Lamb even if it was a really captivating version of it. (I mean the original not the SRV version) I could be wrong of course. I can’t speak for everybody but I think our attachment to the song comes before our attachment to the voice singing it. Love of the voice (and therefore love of the artist) follows. It can be a quick succession but it’s still A first, then B.

On these singing game shows like The Voice and Idol, etc, we’re confronted with cover versions of hits from singers we’ve likely already fallen in love with. It’s very hard to feel particularly moved by them because somehow, if we truly love the song, we feel a little as if we are cheating on the original artist that performed it by listening to some wannabe taking a swing at it. It takes a pretty special version of a song that we love to make us feel completely comfortable. Even then we’ll feel a bit guilty. At the very least, when we hear those first few notes of something we recognise we will immediately approach the new version with arms folded, a scowl on our face and a sceptical mind set. A voice inside our head is going to say”you’d better do a bloody good job of this, pal or you can piss off.” (Not always the case. If we are trying to get behind the person who’s doing it we may be more forgiving. Case in point would be that young, blind chick for instance in the first season of The Voice. Not that I’m saying that she didn’t have some talent. Her “La Vie En Rose” was excellent for someone so young but everything she did after that was fairly average. But she was so young and so obviously handicapped so we all gave her a certain amount of pity vote…. face it. Yes, you did. You know you did. You couldn’t really say anything bad about her because you’d be worried that you would be the person picking on the poor little blind kid. Am I right?)

For the rest of them, it’d be pretty hard, no matter how good the singer performing the piece is, to overcome that disapproval from us for not being the original artist. Good luck to them if they can. I’m not sure whether this is just a phenomenon we experience with TV singing competitions or whether it happens elsewhere. It certainly seems a little different when you go and see a cover band in a pub. A few drinks under your belt and being out for a good time does seem to let us lower our expectations a little. Usually we are a bit more on the band’s side as long as they aren’t completely crap. We know we aren’t going to get to hear the original artist on the stage and live is better than a record when you are in the right mood so we let our guard down a little more and we accept that the version we are listening to may well not live up to the original.

Things seem to change when we become arm-chair judges however. We become very strict indeed. The television production values of these shows are usually about as good as they would be for the major artists who first performed those songs so they have very little excuse in our eyes not to shine. And, if they don’t, look out! We’ll give them a mouthful of critique in our living room and often even take to social media to extend our judgement and, sometimes, outrage at a person’s attempt to pull off a song that perhaps they couldn’t capture in as striking a way as the original. Pretty harsh really but that’s what it brings about. But are we making those judgements based on a feeling of guilt that we are sneaking behind the original performer’s back? I think maybe, sometimes we are.

In my humble opinion, judgement cannot really be passed on an original piece of music’s performance. An original piece is going to have the benefit of the first person to perform it putting their stamp on it and that stamp will forever be a part of the sound of that song. It will become a unique tone entwined with the music itself. For example, David Bowie is not a great singer. In fact he has some real issues with singing in tune but when you hear “Heroes”, his voice, as out of tune as it is, is how the song is. It lives that way in your head and your heart and no doubt will do so forever. There may be technically better singers doing versions of it but that Bowie version will always reign as the one true “Heroes”.

TV game show performers are not allowed to do an original piece of music. The prerequisite is that they do covers only. That’s already putting them behind the eight ball. Those songs can never be emulated entirely and anything else is always going to come across as nothing more than “a copy”. How are we to judge that? Especially when the original artist had particular foibles that probably would denote that they weren’t the greatest of technically proficient singers in the first place. If it was opera, maybe we could call out technical fault but contemporary music? There are just so many things that are “technically” wrong with it right from the word go!

Not that long back I went for an audition to sing in a band. I was given three songs to perform. Covers of course. None of these three would have been songs I would have chosen to sing at all. Ever. They were not songs that I believed would truly showcase my voice. Of the entire song list the band had, (some 60 songs in total, all of which I learned prior to the audition just in case I was invited to have a go at something else) these three were the songs I liked the least. (possibly why they picked them) They were not really “great” songs in my opinion. Yes, they were very popular hits in their day. Yes, they sold millions of copies. The singers of all three of these songs however were not great singers by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, all of them had issues that left me thinking that there would be no way in hell that these guys would pass an audition for anything. What they had done is write (or be in a band that had written or had been given) a hit song that has lived on in rock n roll history. Their original performance of that song was the benchmark for it. It had to be. There was no other version. We all got used to and learned to love their voices IN SPITE of their inadequacies because we loved the songs. Then we fell in love with the singers. I was not allowed to change the song choices nor was I allowed to screw with the melody lines, the styles of delivery or anything that would make those songs “my own”. They were to be performed as per the record.

This I did.

Apparently too much like the record.

Where the record went flat or raspy or technically off, I went flat or raspy or technically off. Even though I knew that “technically” these things were incorrect. They were as the song was presented by the original artist. In fact, you’d be fairly hard pressed to guess my version from the original in any way. (disclaimer: Obviously you could, my voice was different. But for every note of each of the songs, I stayed true to what the original singer did down to the smallest detail.)

I failed the audition.

They said that I had issues with my pronunciation.

I cocked an eyebrow at this as I had pronounced every syllable as per the original.

It wasn’t my fault that the original artists had problems with their pronunciation. That was how they sang the song.

But the people judging me didn’t know really how to deal with that. It seems that being too close to the original is a problem. It reminded me of an article I read about animated film. It stated that if things are too close to “real” in animation, we are actually put off by it. It’s a psychological phenomenon and animators take it into account when they make movies. That’s why the eyes are often too big, or head to body ratios are out of whack, etc on animated people in Pixar films. We are more comfortable if things don’t look too real. The article cited “Mars Needs Moms” as a film that had failed to take this into account. As a result, it was considered a box office flop.

Although I had been given no leeway to change the material in any way (and therefore I didn’t… down to the minutest detail. Every breath, crack in the voice, flattened note, etc), there was something about being too close to it that made the people auditioning me feel uncomfortable. I was mimicking. (Which is something I tell my own vocal students not to do but I am one of the worst offenders of it that I know. I guess it’s true what they say about teaching that which you most need to learn.) I just can’t do anything else when I sing covers. It feels completely wrong if I do. (Hey, try to sing Sinatra songs with an Australian accent and see how it sounds! “Fly Me to the Moon” meets “Click Goes the Shears”?? Can you imagine it??) If the song has an accent or a particular pronunciation issue, then I’ll stick it in there. (Cyndi Lauper’s “Twoo Cowors” anyone? They’re bootiful like a wainbow apparently.)

Conversely, my own original songs sound like me. I don’t know exactly how to describe that sound but I’m pretty sure it’s mine and mine alone. It’s built up of influences from different artists but it’s still very much me. Whether they are good songs that would make you fall in love with that voice or not is debatable of course but the fact remains that it is a unique sound. Unfortunately, that unique sound does not slip very well into covers of other people’s material (unless I’m trying to go for some sort of stylised thing). If I’m trying to do just a straight cover of a song and I try to sing it as I would sing one of my originals, it’ll sound pretty awful. It will sound wrong in my head for starters as the original version of it will be playing in there all the time and I’ll be trying to nail that. If for no other reason than that is the way I know has already been successful in bringing people in to the emotional space that the original artist managed to create. That means all the little nuances of that artist’s voice, even the ones they weren’t even realising they had, will be in there within my performance. I can’t seem to help doing it. It’s a curse really. It certainly cost me a position in this particular band.

The other day, I heard Coldplay’s “Yellow” come on the radio. To me this was a terrible song. A massive wall of guitars wailing out of tune on that one damn note over and over, three boring chords and a whingey, whiney vocal that simply shits me to tears. I’ve recorded primary school bands doing stuff like this and I’ve been grateful when the whole thing was over and I could get out of there. But this actually made it onto the radio. Not only that but it propelled them to mega-stardom! Further, it gets played on the radio years after it was released over and over and people treat it like it’s a classic. I had a friend who I considered quite discerning musically who camped out for tickets for one of their concerts. I was flabbergasted.

Try to sing a cover of this song. You can really only do it by being shit. It’s the only way (unless you do some sort of stylised thing with it or at the very least are trying to be ironic.) There’s so little to it. The vocal calls for you to sing like a whingey whiney little bitch! It’s kind of hard not to if you do a cover. If Seal were going to stick one of his team members with singing it, what would they be able to do other than to whinge and whine?

Anyway, my point is that reality TV singing competitions suck. They aren’t fair. They are turning singing into a bicycle race which fundamentally is a cataclysmic turn for our industry and our future listening experience. Some of the greatest music of our time may never have reached our ears if this was the way we chose what artists were allowed to fill our airwaves in the past. From Australia alone, great bands like Midnight Oil, Australian Crawl, The Angels, Cold Chisel, The Hoodoo Gurus, etc (still some of the most covered bands I’ll hear in the studio week after week.. and there’s a reason for that. They had great songs.) would have never passed muster. All of their lead singers would have been ditched before a record contract got signed. It concerns me that record companies aren’t seeing this. That they think that this is now the right way to find the superstars of the day. In doing so they are losing the opportunity for great songs to emerge. Songs that make us fall in love with the singers of those songs. If we have the great song, we WILL fall in love with the singer!

Can you imagine if Guy Sebastion was the only singer during the 70’s and 80’s that was deemed good enough to be played on mainstream radio? What would have happened to music? On the other side of the coin can you imagine Jimmy Barnes or James Reyne turning Delta Goodrem’s chair around? No. It just couldn’t happen. And yet we are being told that that is how we are supposed to measure the talent of singers nowdays.

This is where we are going people. We are going to lose our original vocal tones amongst a sea of “technically proficient singers” who do little for us emotionally and have, at best, mediocre songs. I ask… nay… implore you… boycott these shows. Show TV stations that we aren’t interested in the cock-fight style programming that reduces us to judge between apples and oranges that all turn out to be lemons. Tune in to a re-run of Family Guy instead.

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