Front Page Reviews & AIR
"I Just Don't Buy It"
In 2008, Rolling Stone published its list of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time.” Aretha Franklin topped the list. Followed by Ray Charles. Hard to argue with those choices. But down at #7 was a more controversial entry: Bob Dylan. Yes, the same Bob Dylan whose voice has been ridiculed since the time he entered the popular cultural consciousness in the 60s. Isn’t Bob Dylan’s voice usually considered his weak point? How could Dylan be rated ahead of Stevie Wonder? Freddie Mercury? Mariah Carey? Weren’t their pipes all clearly superior to Dylan’s?
The rationale for Dylan’s ranking is explained in the text of entry itself, via an apocryphal anecdote retold by U2’s Bono, “When Sam Cooke [who ranked #4 on Rolling Stone’s list] played Dylan for the young Bobby Womack, Womack said he didn't understand it. Cooke explained that from now on, it’s not going to be about how pretty the voice is. It’s going to be about believing that the voice is telling the truth.” Other versions of the story I’ve heard have Cooke going home and writing his greatest song, “A Change is Gonna Come”, after hearing Dylan for the first time. Ultimately, though, the details don’t matter. But the idea is an important one: the measure of a singing voice is not how good it sounds but how much you buy it.
I think I’ve always instinctively believed this to be true. One of my most common criticisms of an artist I don’t like is, “I just don’t buy it.” I feel this way about a wide range of singers, from Ray LaMontagne to Scott Weiland. You could argue that it’s when I feel an artist is singing through a “put on” or “inauthentic” voice, but that’s not exactly the case; there are singers whose put-on voices I totally buy (like The Cure’s Robert Smith), while there are other singers who I can’t stand (like Janis Joplin) who seem to be trying too hard to be authentic. There are also artists who I find ironically effective (David Bowie), whereas I don’t doubt the sincerity of others I hate (if anything, Creed’s Scott Stapp seems too sincere). I’m not sure that it’s anything I could specifically explain other than to say, “I know it when I hear it,” which isn’t particularly helpful. Then there’s also the problem of subjectivity. Any way you slice it, the extent to which you buy someone’s vocal delivery is going to be at least somewhat subjective. It depends not only on the singer, but also on the person listening, perhaps even more so.
That said, I think it’s pretty clear that the extent to which we buy what a singer’s voice goes a long way towards determining whether or not we like them, even when we’re not aware of it. For instance, I totally disagree with Chuck Klosterman’s recent assessment of why people hate Nickelback:
The day before the New York show, [Nickelback lead singer Chad] Kroeger appeared on a Philadelphia radio station and was asked (of course) why people hate Nickelback so vehemently. “Because we're not hipsters,” he replied. It's a reasonable answer, but not really accurate — the only thing hipsters unilaterally loathe is other hipsters, so Nickelback’s shorthaired unhipness should theoretically play to their advantage. A better answer as to why people dislike Nickelback is tautological: They hate them because they hate them. Sometimes it’s fun to hate things arbitrarily, and Nickelback has become an acceptable thing to hate. They’re technically rich and technically famous, so they just have to absorb the denigration and insist they don’t care. They have good songs and they have bad songs, and the bad songs are bad enough to build an anti-Nickelback argument, assuming you feel like that's important. But it’s never required. It’s not like anyone is going to contradict your thesis. There’s no risk in hating Nickelback, and hating something always feels better than feeling nothing at all.
Klosterman goes on to say that there are five bands in the last 20 years who it has been acceptable to hate without explanation: Bush, Hootie and the Blowfish, Limp Bizkit, Creed, and Nickelback. He says that this is the case in spite of the fact that “if you anthologized the three best songs from each of these respective groups, you’d have an outstanding 15-track album.”
Are you buying it? Neither am I...
I completely disagree with all of this. I think what those bands (particularly their singers) have in common is that there are a lot of people who just don’t “buy” them, myself included. And because of that, I don’t like any of the songs by these artists. I refuse to grant that they have 15 great songs between them, because I don’t buy any of their songs, regardless of how technically proficient they are by some objective standard (though I’m curious what standard Klosterman is using to rate the 15 best songs by those artists as “outstanding”—sales, maybe?). The point is, regardless of any sociological reason that people hate Nickelback (and yes, I think one exists), I think the primary reason people hate them is that they just don’t buy them. And that, coupled with their staggering ubiquity, leads people to hate them.
I should probably point out that I’m talking about something completely isolated from the melody or lyrical content—the song form as it would be written down on sheet music. Melody and lyrical content can be related to vocal delivery, insomuch as they set certain parameters for it. But what I’m saying is that if Scott Stapp had written and performed one of my favorite songs—say, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band—I don’t think I’d like that song. I mean, isn’t Levon Helm’s vocal delivery every bit as important to the experience of listening to that song as the melody or lyrics? Might it even be the most important thing? Conversely, my favorite vocalists—like David Ruffin (of The Temptations) or Mark Kozolek (of Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon)—could sing the phonebook and I would find it moving. In fact, Kozelek once did a cover album of AC/DC songs which I thoroughly enjoyed even though I can’t stand AC/DC. The songs themselves were exactly the same, of course; I simply bought Kozelek where I didn’t buy Bon Scott.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” is another example. It’s always the same song, but its effectiveness has everything to do with the performance. For instance, listen to this version and then this version. The difference isn’t so much that the singer in the first example has a prettier singing voice than the singer in the second example (though that is certainly the case). It’s more that her voice manages to be both confident and vulnerable at the same time. It’s revelatory; it tells us something about the performer’s soul, and if you’re in the right mood it might even tell you something about your soul, too. Whereas, if the second performance tells us anything about the performer’s soul, it’s that his soul is kind of boring.
Anyway, it is the willingness to make these kind of distinctions, I think, that people find most infuriating about music snobs. Because music snobs won’t just insist that the first version isn’t subjectively different from the second version, they’ll insist that it is objectively better. Music snobs think that who they buy and don’t buy is related to some objective truth about the quality of the artist as opposed to being a purely subjective (and therefore relative) measurement. They think they have a more highly developed bullshit detector than your average plebeian listener. And therefore an argument about the merits of Ray LaMontagne’s music between a music snob (who probably hates him) and your average listener (who might very well like him) ceases to be an arbitrary juxtaposition of equally valid points of view and becomes the veiled assertion by the music snob that the average listener just isn’t quite good enough at listening to detect the fact that Mr. LaMontagne is, in fact, full of it. And this (quite understandably) tends to piss off your average listener.
I know, I know. Levon wore old-timey clothes sometimes, too. He just didn't have Ray's stylist...
Which brings me back to Nickelback. One of the reasons I think people pile on bands like Nickelback is that, after hearing the accusations of inferior taste from music snobs (or critics, who are almost universally music snobs), average listeners love it when they can actually say “I just don’t buy it” about a popular artist. They relish it and say it loudly because it makes them feel superior (which, by the way, is why music snobs like being music snobs so much; they like feeling superior). These psychological transactions are, I think, largely subconscious, but if there’s a sociological factor in the hatred of bands like Nickelback, Creed, etc. I think this is it. So the next time you hear someone say “I just don’t buy it” about an artist (whether it’s Lana Del Rey or Conor Oberst), know that this seemingly subjective reaction may actually be an objective assertion about the quality of the artist in question. So call them on it. More than likely, some sort of fight will ensue, but at least you can count on your conversation getting a lot more interesting.