Over on Quora, David Leigh complains that it doesn’t take much musical ability to be a popular singer these days, not like when Enrico Caruso sold a million records. People had taste back then. Kids today, amirite?
Here’s my response:
David Leigh is perfectly correct that Caruso would have a hard time selling all those records today. People do prefer records that “drop the bass.” But that has nothing to do with the natural abilities of current pop singers as opposed to Caruso’s, and everything to do with the music that they’re singing. In Caruso’s time, mainstream American culture was defined by the European classical tradition. In our time, mainstream American culture is defined by the African diaspora. To equate that shift with a supposed degradation of mass tastes and sensibilities is Eurocentric at best and racist at worst. There was dumb and venal opera alongside Mozart and Verdi, just like there’s dumb and venal African-American-derived pop alongside Kendrick Lamar and Solange. Caruso was a better *opera* singer than Kendrick, but that’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison – Caruso would have been a dreadful rapper.
It’s true, we don’t expect unamplified and unedited singing at Caruso’s level anymore. But we expect a lot of other things. For one thing, we expect singers to write their own material, which Caruso didn’t do. For another, we demand a lot of studio technique that Caruso would have found unbearably alien. To say that “edited” recordings are of intrinsically lower musical value than live recordings makes no sense. By that standard, we should require that all movies be plays that are filmed in real time. Film acting isn’t the same craft as stage acting, and unamplified stage singing isn’t the same craft as studio singing. Some people manage to master both crafts, but not many.
In the present pop world, you can’t actually get very far with a pretty face and no musical ability at all. I don’t personally enjoy Taylor Swift’s music, but she’s writing, performing, and (most importantly) producing recordings in a way that connects emotionally to millions of people, and that’s the only definition of musical quality that matters. And there are plenty of would-be Taylor Swifts out there who might have the face but who can’t write or sing or collaborate with producers the way she can, which is why they aren’t as famous as her.
The kinds of sonic surrealism and extreme precision that we expect of our Afrodiasporic dance music are not possible to attain with live musicians, no matter how good they are. Auto-Tune isn’t a “problem” any more than color correction of film is; it’s a necessary component of the creative process. One reason it’s so necessary is the way that the best Afrodiasporic music is created in the studio. The usual way to write in genres like hip-hop and R&B is via spontaneous improvisation into the microphone. You need that immediate connection between an idea’s conception and its realization. A surprisingly large number of the past decade’s best pop vocals are first takes with zero rehearsal or preparation—”Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley is a paradigmatic example. If you write the idea out, rehearse it to perfection, and only then record it, you lose too much of the feeling. You need Auto-Tune and editing to make first takes and tossed-off improvisation tight enough to meet the listening public’s stringent demands for perfection.
Does opera actually have an untapped audience? Would more people appreciate it if they could be made to realize how “fake” all other kinds of singing are? Maybe. Probably not, though. Music isn’t a sport. No one cares how hard it is to produce a given sound, they just care how that sound makes them feel. Opera has a small audience because it doesn’t address the emotional needs of the mass audience. I do think that if an opera singer worked with the right producer and found the right loop-oriented material, they could break through quite easily. But in order to be embraced by the culture, they would need to embrace the culture first, to see the beauty of a good bass drop rather than being contemptuous of it.