Monday, February 7, 2011

The Whitney Effect

(With apologies to everyone who will be convinced I’m talking about their favorite singers, even though in most cases I don’t mention any names.)

I was very proud of the fact that I knew who was in the Super Bowl this year. And that something called “the line” was two-and-a-half. I did not, however, watch the Super Bowl. Nor any of the highly hyped commercials, made expressly for the Super Bowl broadcast, for which advertisers pay ridiculous amounts of money for 30 seconds on the air.

I also missed halftime with the Black Eyed Peas and, I’ve heard, assorted others whose names I should know. And I especially missed Christina Aguilera messing up “The Star Spangled Banner”. However, I did catch it on the morning news – not the whole song, just the part Christina messed up. It’s easy to criticize and bellyache but I can’t say that, even if I were a trained singer who made zillions with my voice, I wouldn’t have experienced just a little case of nerves in a venue like the Super Bowl. Especially singing a song like the national anthem which is not an easy tune to belt. And props (as the kids say) to Christina for committing to her performance, belting it out just as though she were singing it all perfectly, until she got back on track.

That said, what I did hear on the clips played over and over on the morning news, was yet another singer taking a perfectly good song and adding a lot – a lot – of extra notes. It’s a style that, in opera anyway, is known as coloratura or “coloring”: elaborate embellishment in vocal music. In pop music terms (and it seems to me there is an official, musical  term for it) it’s what you might call the Whitney Effect, after Whitney Houston who made the style popular. Whitney did have a good voice, once, although now there are people who think she’s done herself so much damage she should stop singing. Forever. But in her heyday there were few who could touch her. And the embellishments she added, all those extra, swooping notes, worked for her. She could pull it off.

But now it seems every other female singer who fancies herself a diva (never mind the presence or absence of actual talent, they all seem to go from unknown directly to diva) makes use of The Whitney Effect to mask a not-so-hot voice. I guess Christina Aguilera has a pretty good voice (it’s not my taste, but hey...) but I would venture to say that, had she not been so focused on wowing the Super Bowl audience with her vocal pyrotechnics, she might have remembered the words to the song and not embarrassed herself. Just once I’d like to hear one of these gals get up and just sing the notes to the damn song, as written, with good diction, in tune, modulating her voice and selling it. Plain and simple. To coin a phrase: those who can, sing; those who can’t, embellish.

It’s like the distinction I make between a singer and a “song stylist”: a singer can sing; a "song stylist" has great gowns.

You see it everywhere. Air fresheners used to be just that, something you sprayed after you cooked fish or, you know, used the bathroom, to freshen the air. Now it's a lifestyle. There are timed air fresheners that go off at set intervals. And motion-sensitive air fresheners that spritz when you walk by. And plug-in air fresheners that smell like orchids now, but will smell like jasmine in fifteen minutes. Or vanilla. Or gingerbread. Give me a break, do our houses really smell that bad?

Or vodka. I remember a time when booze was pretty much amber or clear. Oh, there was Chartreuse and other sticky liqueurs that might have had a little color to them. But for the most part – amber and clear. Now there are 87 different kinds of vodka in as many colors, all infused with pretty, exotic flavors, like sno-cones for grownups. Leave it alone, already! Enough with the embellishments.

Likewise, the woman who used to be Mother or Mom or even Ma, has now become one of any number of maternal incarnations: Grizzly Mom (thank you, Sarah Palin); Tiger Mom (the prototypical Asian mother who pushes her children into Harvard med school, Yale law school and careers on the concert stage); the ubiquitous and almost clichéd Soccer Mom; Working Mom; Stay-at-Home Mom... you get the idea.

My mother, Isaura, at the beach
What’s wrong with just good old Mom? I ask you. Why the embellishments, the titles, the qualifiers? Mothers have, historically, always been multi-taskers, even before the phrase was invented, so let’s leave it at that. Thank God when I was growing up my mother was... Mom. Okay, Mommy to start. Then Mom. She had kids, she ran a business with my father, she was a shining member of her woman’s club, where she always won blue ribbons for her flower arrangements, and she made the best New England clam chowder I’ve ever had. Even on Cape Cod, where she was from. She just was who she was, and would have pooh-poohed the idea that she needed some kind of special, embellished title.

It’s everywhere, this mania for just plain overdoing it. Did anyone see the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Sunset Boulevard”? Lordy! Talk about a bloated, overdone, overwhelming production. I’m surprised Patti LuPone and Glenn Close agreed to be in it: the sets gave better performances than they did. (Okay, I exaggerate, but you get the idea.)

So let’s take a pledge: the next time we’re tempted to add a little something, anything, to something, anything, stop and think: does the coffee really need that infusion of hazelnut? Does the apartment smell that bad? Do you really need to Bedazzle that sweatshirt?

Simplicity, people. It’s cleaner. It’s easier. And, most of the time, it’s just plain classier. Just sing the notes on the page. When you’re Maria Callas or Barbra Streisand, then you can embellish.


  1. Oh dear...what you must think of me in all my glamour. I am thinking I must sell everything!! Yours, Bratprince

  2. worked...we got at least 56 of my readers to jump over and take a look at you!!! Yeah!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Fred, I couldn't agree more, I call it the "topper" syndrome, everyone wants to top the next person by embellishing...! I love your blog by the way!

  4. Thanks for the compliment and the endorsement... tell your friends!