As someone who sings plenty, and someone who sings classical music and who also is not too proud to listen to pop, I have often been asked who my favorite female pop singer is. I have always chosen Whitney Houston. So it was upsetting to hear this weekend that she had died – even more upsetting than the realization a few years ago that her glorious voice was trashed.
There were a few reason I admired her so much. It wasn’t just the beautiful voice, it’s that she knew what to do with it. You never got the sense that she was foolishly pushing her limits. Unlike a lot of singers I hear, who try so hard to sound a particular way that they lose their own unique voice, Whitney always sounded just like herself. She was doing what her voice was meant to do.
In the same vein, her voice was not meant to shout. She sang, exploring different colors, different mixes of head and chest registers. She sang instead of shouting, and she sang every note. It is so tempting only to focus on the money note, the one that makes the highlight reel (think “and the rockets red glare” of her legendary Super Bowl Anthem). But she really sang every note, the high and the low, the long and the short.
I was really interested to hear Adele sing last night after her vocal surgery. In addition to doing proper rehabilitation, she appears to have rebuilt her technique as well. With all admiration for her previous powerhouse performances, I love this new style.
Once again, I admire the lack of shouting. Rather than muscle her way through every single note, it now sounds like she is finding more of a balance of lighter and stronger production. This is difficult to do: it means a choice on every single note, a choice of balance and mix. It means relinquishing the mark of overwhelming force with which many voices are branded, and behind which many artists can hide.
Regular readers have probably already recognized the extended metaphor here. We get one unique voice. I am not immune to the desire for someone else’s voice (if only I could belt a little higher! If only I had that stupid high E!). Sometimes it’s not the physical voice I want but some other combination of traits and gifts (if only I were quieter, or politer, or more diplomatic, or not me). But this is what I got, and this is what I’m made for. This is the voice I was meant to sing with.
And there are subtleties and colors throughout my one unique voice, and I do myself a disservice if I just muscle through all the time, trying to find the power and the expense of the beauty.