Tuesday, October 13, 2015

On singing along

"You sing it daily in your bath, sir.  Mr Wooster," said Jeeves, turning to Aunt Dahlia, "has a pleasant, light baritone—"
"I bet he has," said Aunt Dahlia.
I froze the man with a look.
"Between singing 'Sonny Boy' in one's bath, Jeeves, and singing it before a hall full of assorted blood-orange merchants and their young, there is a substantial difference." 
                                                                                                       —Very Good Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse
What with one thing and another I rarely find myself singing along to music anymore, but when I do it's such a pleasure. It got me thinking about what makes the optimum singing-along experience. I'm interested in how other people answer this question, too, though I don't expect to know any of the things you Young People are listening to these days. (Casting about for a name, the most recent I can think of offhand is Ben Folds, or perhaps someone named Neko Case, of whom I only know because Melissa and Jordan, our hippest friends, mentioned her once.) Not that I've ever really known what's popular. In fact, one time soon after we were married, I served in a church calling with a lady several years older than me and she said something about how young I was, and I said, "It's fine, I probably like the same music as you do—" and sure enough I did. I learned my Classic Rock at my older brothers' collective knee, and never truly got into what was popular with my peers. (Except Beth, of course, whose musical taste is almost impeccable; and Rachael and I practically share an ear, like the Weird Sisters.)

Well! On to what makes a good song to sing along with. Of course, we should stipulate right off that there are times when singing "doo-doo-doo" and "ba-ba-bum" along with an instrumental line can be great (watching 2-year-old Sebby rock out at the top of his lungs to "Birdland" or Holst's "Jupiter" is one of the few times in my life I've gotten to witness pure, blazing joy in musical form). And let's face it; there are times when only opera will do. I enjoy a good belt-out of Nessun Dorma as much as the next guy. But honestly, for the bulk of your singing along, there's nothing like good old rock or pop. Let's get down to it:

• I like it best when there's about three lines of tight harmony from which I can select, jumping lightly between them at will, but especially favoring the high end (going upward on words that transform into "oooh!" halfway through is particularly satisfying), unless of course the low harmony has something more interesting.

• Oh! Or if the high note in vocals matches the guitar exactly, so you can't even separate the two until you cut off and the guitar's still up there shrieking it. Boston is really great for that type of thing.

• And any song where the writers were like, "Okay, repeat chorus—but UP HALF AN OCTAVE!"

• Really, anything that gets a kind of flourishing shriek-y finish is good; words like "high-eee" and "eye-iiiii-iiiis."

• A single spoken-inflected word amidst sung words is good, or Sprechstimme as we Music Majors like to call it…haha…if we're being pretentious or talking about Schoenberg. Getting this spoken word timed and pitched just right is an indication of your mastery of the song: "All the world's indeed a STAGE [shouted], and we are merelee-ee players!"

• It's also good if there's a long instrumental passage to which the singing joins in an unexpected place—or perhaps a spot where a phrase repeats several times, but there's just one time the pattern varies. If you can sing along to the entirety, variant and all (and coming in correctly after an extended instrumental solo), you're justified in feeling quite smug. (Like in Van Halen's Jump: when they yell "Jump" in the background but it's only every other measure, and sometimes they leave it out—I love hitting those just right.)

• I also like rocking out to hopey-changey self-congratulatory lyrics that sound way overearnest in retrospect ("Hollyann! We left the world behind; We held the line! Can you believe it?"). I just have a highly developed appreciation for the ridiculous, I think. I like to imagine a line of blissed-out fans waving their lighters and thinking this is great stuff.

• Any word the singer says…strangely is good. An overall foreign accent is fine but it's best if it's just the odd word here and there, like how Steve Walsh (Kansas) says:
HAAA-long? HAAA-long to the point of no return?
or Rush's Geddy Lee says "Gast in this unlikely roll" instead of "cast" during "Limelight." (Incidentally, "one must put up barriers to keep oneself intact" is one of the best lines to sing…the stiff at-arms-length-ness of it, in a rock song, makes me laugh every time)
Or "heppy" instead of "happy." Nothing makes me heppier than singing 'heppy' along with Geddy, I can tell you that.

• Rush really deserve their own bullet point, because Rush are always good. Not least because I know every word and every inflection. I can sing along to whole albums at a time…complete with timed pauses between songs. Rush is best if you want something, you know, pithy. Something you can drum along with in hearty philosophical agreement. Of course Rush aren't actually, er, religious, but if you listen in the right spirit…
(If you kept it simple…and denced from the haht…and hed the right pahtnah…
Oh, and that's you is it? —Strictly Ballroom)
then the songs are fun to sing AND metaphysically satisfying.

• For example, one of my favorites, The Spirit of Radio, and let's just listen in on my thoughts as I sing:

"Begin the day with a friendly voice,
A companion unobtrusive;
[Ah, you allude to the Spirit. Of radio, or the Holy Spirit perhaps. Go on.]
Plays that song that's so elusive
And the magic music makes your morning move.
Up-on your way hit the open road; there is magic at your fingers,
For the spirit ever lingers [He does; if we are worthy of him]
Undemanding contact
In your heppy solitude ["Heppy!" The heart leaps!]
Invisible airways crackle with life; [Yes; the spirit world is here, some say]
Bright antenna bristle with the energy.
Emotional feedback on a timeless wavelength [the wavelength of eternity, in fact]
Bearing a gift beyond price [Yes, like the Pearl of Great Price, go on], almost free.
All this machinery making modern music can still be open-hearted, […wordless ruminations on the modernization of our world…]
Not so fully charted,
It's really just a question of your honesty, yeh, your honesty [Amen to that; nothing like honesty; I like the 'yeh' too; go on]
One likes to believe in the freedom of music [one does, doesn't one! I know I do.]
But glittering prizes and endless compromises
Shatter the illusion of integrity, yeh. [Ah, too true, too true. Preach it, Geddy.]

• Or what about Freewill, arguably the most Mormon song Neil Peart ever wrote?

There are those who think that life is nothing left to chance
A host of holy-rollers to direct our aimless plans. [You're right, that's silly.]
A planet of playthings, we dance on the strings of powers we cannot perceive. [Oh, the alliteration! It's positively Maxwell-esque!]
The stars aren't aligned, or the gods are malign; blame is better to give than receive. [Tsk-tsk. Too much of this going around.]
You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice [Okay, done.]
If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice. [So true!]
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill [I choose neither, please]
I will choose a path that's clear,
I will choose freewill [Me too Geddy! It's what God wants!]

• Not quite knowing the words, or what they mean, is great. I can't decide if I like it better when I'm just singing a collection of sounds with absolutely no idea where the words begin and end—or if it's better when I think (rightly or wrongly) I DO know the words and they make absolutely no sense. Word salad. Or perhaps a mixture of the two, where you start out innocently enough and then descend by degrees into madness…

Yes is awesome for this. Also they repeat their lyrics often enough that you often know them by the end of the song:
I'll be the roundabout, the words'll make you out and out,
You spend the day your way,
Call it mornin-drivin-through-the-sun-and-in-and-out-the-valley—
In and around the lake, marmots come out of the sky and they stand there
When my lover will be there I will see yoo-oou
Touch of summers will be there a lapwing too-oo,
Twenty-four before my love, you'll see, I'll be there with you.
I will remember you, a silhouette will charge the view, a-distant atmosphere,
[Everybody now!] Call it mornin-drivin-through-the-sun-and-in-and-out-the-valley…
I know I could look the words up but WHY WOULD I? I never want them to change.

• For sheer overall singing enjoyment, though, I have to admit America is some of the best. There's no song better to drive to, windows down, than Ventura Highway. The guitar intro alone makes you want to break into song. When the vocals start, the close harmonies are perfect. Plus we get the phrase "sorry boy, but I been hit by purrrrple rain," and the Sprechstimme in "Aw, c'mon Joe, you can always change your name." The sheer vocal decadance of "I kno-oo-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow" is great. But I believe the pièce de résistance comes here:
Dooooooodoodit, dooooooodoodit, do, dooooooodoodit, dooooooodoodit dooot…
Let me explain. You see, the doot-doo section itself is pleasant to sing with; it allows one's natural voice to spill forth unfettered by pronunciation or memory, and there are multiple harmonic lines within each phrase, to give full scope to one's range. But the real gem is the lowest line of harmony, which varies the theme with a tongue-tripping musical element that a trumpeter might do full justice to:
Dootadootadoot, dootadootadoot.          Dootadootadoot, dootadootadoot.
When combined, we have the downright contrupuntal
Dooooooodoodit, dooooooodoodit, do, dooooooodoodit, dooooooodoodit dooot…Dootadootadoot, dootadootadoot.         Dootadootadoot, dootadootadoot.
—from which you can select not only the range but also the rhythm that suits you best. Who wouldn't enjoy singing along?

• But I'm going to go out on a limb and say Tin Man is one of the top sing-along songs of all time. It ticks all the right boxes: reaching up to oooh, nonsense lyrics, high shrieking harmonies:
Say I'm spinning round-round round-round, smoked glass stain bright color-ooooh [excellent word-to-oooh transition]
Image going down-down down-down, soap's a green light cover-oooh…[a bit fragmented; still, could just be poetic…]
Oh Oz never did give nothin to the Tin Man, That he didn't, didn't already have [Still with you, yes]
And cause never was a reason for the evenin [o…kay…maybe…]
Or the tropic of Sir Galahad [WHAM! What?! this is brilliant; brilliant. This couldn't have been written better if you'd brought in a lunatic expressly for the purpose.]
So please, believe in me, ooh ooh ooh…
Sing it, baby! Please believe in me, oooh ooh ooh.

5 comments:

  1. I want to add to your list a Michael Jackson style direct modulation, such as in Man in the Mirror. Nailing that is soul satisfying. Also you'd better check out Kenny Loggins 'Conviction of the Heart' for an awesome sing along (and air guitar and air piano) rock ballad.

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    1. Good call about the modulation. Very true. And I might have known you'd have some excellent recommendations!

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  2. Hahahaha. Loved this post. And I'm so honored at that mention. But now that I've settled into the domestic life, I can no longer claim much knowledge of musical trends. I guess some folks can keep that frozen-in-time phenomenon from happening, but I lot of us simply can't (or don't care) to keep it at bay. Just like my dad will forever be listening to the Beach Boys. I didn't realized you were such a Classic Rock aficionado. You are absolutely right, that is a great genre for singing along. I get a lot of added pleasure out of having a sing-along companion, someone branching out to sing a harmony part, or just getting twice the volume out of a great song.

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    1. Ah. That's true about having a companion. It just isn't quite the same hitting harmonies with *only* the recorded music.

      No matter where life takes you, I'll always consider you one of my hippest friends :)

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  3. Now I want to pay attention to each and every "exactly what" that causes me to sing along; and I probably shall note it, but I think -- particularly with my lack of knowing anything about Nything that is really going on in music, it will mostly just boil down to: a song playing loud enough to drown out my own voice. But I can recognize some bullet points. Abe really likes Imagine Dragons. One of their songs occasionally does the slightest pause before a very forceful "I'm goin' back to my roots!" And whatever happens there -- it doesn't matter if you are in the middle of talking to someone. You immediately must "I'm goin' back to my roots" right along with it. And, the not knowing the words. Yes. We all sing along loudly to Shakira's Waka Waka around here and who knows if anyone is singing the same exact words or not!

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