Tag Archives: voice

What kind of fuckery is this? Amy Winehouse & the destructive economy of popular music

No-one’s got the emotional tools to deal with being looked at by a million people. Live the dream? Live the nightmare.—Robbie Williams, Take That

There are industry-specific conditions, which tend to target certain kinds of pop workers: singers—frontmen and women—appear most vulnerable. Why the singers? Perhaps because there is arguably a closer relation between their instrument, which is the voice, and the body; perhaps because they are the focus in the band of fans’ attention, and feel the adulation and pressure more; perhaps because the singer is often also the lyricist, who writes the band’s subjective and expressive text. In Laurie Stras’s view, ‘the jazz or pop singer has a privileged and vital role … as an agent through whom identification becomes easier, less intellectual or abstract, more corporeal’.

Pop stardom is an illness that can seriously, even fatally, threaten health and undermine ability; to do well in this career is frequently to be or to get a bit or a lot fucked up. Its workers employ medical terminology to express the condition. His then manager described the unattractive transformation of Ian Dury, following the chart-topping success of the single ‘Hit me with your rhythm stick’ in 1979, as the result of him suffering ‘a very bad attack of number one-itis’.

Deborah Curtis notes that, round the same time, as Joy Division became more successful in late 1970s Britain, her husband and that band’s frontman ‘Ian [Curtis] contracted what was known as LSS (Lead Singer Syndrome)’. Number one-itis and LSS are the medical metaphors that describe the industry’s sheer damagability, which may be focused most on, but is not restricted to, those who make it. The pop and rock industry has a notable capacity to facilitate the ruination of its workers; it’s a high-risk, hi-vis workplace culture where one is never quite safe.

English jazz-pop singer Winehouse’s sung question, ‘What kind of fuckery is this?,  the opening verse line from ‘Me and Mrs Jones’, a song on the hit album Back to Black, contains a startling tabu neologism for a pop lyric—one of the signs of Winehouse’s freshness, her creative innovation, of course—which resonates in the context of her lyrics’ self-dramatising commentary on her life and her love life, yes, but also I suggest on her position in relation to the industry. Back to Black is, after all, the album that famously (perhaps now we must say notoriously) opens with a song and a hit single called ‘Rehab’, in which the young woman, barely into her twenties, recounts, to a fabulous retro 1960s-soul-style dance track, the twin pop lifestyle pressures of health and hedonism. ‘Rehab’ is in fact a refusal of treatment, a rejection of advice, with listeners singing along to its refusing chorus—no, no, no; we are complicit.

The control / rock ‘n’ roll dialectic I discuss elsewhere in Shakin’ All Over when looking at the out-of-control performing pop body is relevant here too, in the context of the industry’s treatment and behavioural expectations of its own lead workers. If we speak the cultural policy language of creative industries or creative economy, we should acknowledge too that there is and has long been a destructive economy at work in popular music.

In the discourse of popular music, and perhaps especially of rock (via jazz), a romantic eschatology has developed and endures, which can in some genres become an extreme and urgent ending, though in others it is melodramatic or pathetic. This is confirmed by the favoured perspective of the media industries on young musical death, in which, for example, as Jeffrey S. Sartin notes in an essay called ‘Contagious rhythms’, ‘popular movies were made about Mozart, Charlie Parker[, Ian Curtis, Amy Winehouse] and Kurt Cobain, not about Aaron Copland (died age 90) or Eubie Blake (died age 96)’.

Live fast, die young. Bird lives. And now he’s gone. I hope I die before I grow old. Time takes a cigarette. Goodbye my friend, it’s hard to die. No future. Death disco. Is there life after birth? Do it, do it. I hate myself and I want to die. It’s better to burn out than to fade away. When we’re dead they’ll know just who we are. I’m just gonna close my eyes. Teenagers scare the living shits out of me. No, no, no.

[extract from Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability]

Share Button

Shakin’ All Over, number 2: Curtis Mayfield, ‘Here but I’m gone’

SAO cover lo res… There is another falsettist in popular music whose later work makes us think again about the place of the high voice in disability culture. The African-American soul singer Curtis Mayfield (1942-1999) had major success in the 1960s and 1970s both with the vocal group the Impressions and as a solo artist. Mayfield was a singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer, notably successful black independent music industry businessman, and a social activist. His songs were characterised by gospel sounds and dance beats, soul harmonies and catchy melodies, his own deceptively light funky guitar-playing, and his fragile-sounding falsetto. In 1990, a workplace accident—he was performing onstage during a concert in New York—resulted in a severe spinal cord injury that left him in a quadriplegic state, paralysed from the neck down. Asked in an interview in 1994 if he could still sing, Mayfield replied: ‘Not in the manner as you once knew me. I’m strongest lying down like this. I don’t have a diaphragm anymore. So when I sit up I lose my voice. I have no strength, no volume, no falsetto range, and I tire very fast’. Yet Mayfield returned in 1996 with a new album of songs, New World Order, which heavily featured his characteristic falsetto delivery. How was this achieved? In large part, via technological manipulation of his recorded voice in the studio.

For Mayfield the vocalist, the challenge was two-fold: to be able to sing once more at an acceptable level of quality over the duration of an entire song, and to be able to sing his falsetto. The first was achieved by bringing the studio equipment to him, in his bedroom at home, and arranging his body so that it was most physically capable of producing vocal lines for capture by the equipment. In one account, ‘he was suspended by harness to give gravitational power to his voice, just to find breath to complete a musical phrase or two’. Another account elaborates on this: he ‘developed a technique that enabled him to record a few lines at a time, which could be edited in the studio later. He discovered a way of getting gravity to help his lungs do the work in the studio and it was this way that Curtis evolved the system of singing, lying down at a slant (sometimes flat) on the studio floor’. Line by line songs were composed and vocals painstakingly recorded, which various guest producers and musicians worked up elsewhere.

As for the falsetto, the most intriguing point is that it continued at all, since he was in fact now physically incapable of reaching that range which had made him famous. He could no longer move on up. Post-accident, his voice tracks were recorded at the lower pitches and slower speeds which he could now achieve, and then handed to an engineer. As his biographer Peter Burns explains, ‘[h]e recorded his voice at a slower and lower level than in the past and the results were sped up for the falsetto sections’. In this way, Mayfield’s voice was manipulated to retain the pre-accident sound of sensitivity and sincerity. Many of the reviews of New World Order were full of wonderment at the disabled overcoming—though for Ray Pence, the album is about ‘Mayfield’s resistance to portrayal as a victim’.

But I do wonder whether such a positivistic social model reading as Pence’s what can be overlooked is consideration of, as Mayfield sings on ‘Here but I’m gone’, ‘what my mind erased’—the set of deficits which is hinted at in several of the absence- or negative-oriented lyrics Mayfield sings. It is almost impossible to listen to this album on some level without a heuristic impulse to bring in the knowledge of the material condition—the physical arrangement, the health context—of its production. Although there is no overt reference in lyric, music, or album artwork and text to his disability, in sung lyrics like ‘How did I get so far gone? / Where do I belong? /… I still feel as if I’m here but I’m gone’, or ‘Sometimes I’m up and sometimes I’m down / It’s like one way in and no way out’, or even the album’s moving opening line ‘Darkness no longer’, an autopathographic narrative is being both tentatively and compellingly presented to the listener.

Share Button