Often it’s hard for me to know what I like about a particular song, much less why I like it. Yet I’m in a business where not only do I give opinions and make value judgments, but I’m also expected to give reasons for them. And even people who aren’t being paid give reasons, every day, in living rooms, at bus stops, on blogs. You can’t stop them.
Observing my own reasons, I’ve developed what I call the Boney Joan Rule. The Boney Joan Rule states that any reason I give for liking a performer will also be a reason I give for disliking some other performer. E.g., I love Liz Mitchell’s clear, empty tones (Liz Mitchell being the lead singer of Boney M). I can’t stand Joan Baez’s clear, empty tones. Of course, I can look for further reasons. For instance, Liz Mitchell’s tone is light, whereas Joan Baez sounds soggy. Which gets rid of my inconsistency but produces another one when I recall that I love the thick, soggy singing in freestyle songs such as Cynthia’s “Change On Me” and Lisette Melendez’s “A Day In My Life (Without You).”
I can go on like that, digging further. My feeling is that we never do arrive at the Real Reason I Like Boney M and the Real Reason I Dislike Joan Baez—the opinions are more durable than any reason I give for them—but that in making the journey through successive explanations I learn about the music and my own tastes, and maybe I learn something about my own values, as I discover what I’m willing to count as a good reason and what I think is a bad but true reason.
A more current example of the Boney Joan Rule is provided by Mariah Carey and Cassie. I way prefer Mariah’s first two albums to what she did subsequently, a reason for my preference being those albums’ wonderful excess and exuberance. Since then, Mariah has been pulling her singing back into the mix, in the modern R&B style, cutting down the melisma drastically, and this has laid a damper on her show-off tendencies, to the detriment of her sound.
Now Cassie, whose “U & Me” was one of the great R&B hits of 2006, sings with no melisma and very little expression, almost the opposite of Mariah—and this comes off as really sexy, an attraction that holds the floor, drawing us in with emotions that seem present inside her but withheld from us. Now I can say, simply, that self-display is what Mariah does best, whereas Cassie attracts by sounding as if something in her is unavailable. But then, three-quarters of the way through Cassie’s album, the music suddenly goes bubblegum without her changing her vocal style, so the unavailability has to contend with her desire to do cartwheels. This is captivating, too. But does what I just said about Mariah and Cassie—what one of them does best is different from what the other does best—mean there are no general things to say about what makes good singing? (It may well.) How is “what she does best” any kind of explanation for why something is good? Is exuberance always good? Is sexiness? Beyoncé once told an interviewer that she was tired of being sexy.
I’m not trying to say that there are no real reasons, or that the reasons we give are bogus, or that no reason is better than any other, or that to try and search them out is a waste of time. In fact, I believe just the opposite, and I’m baffled that people don’t delve more deeply into their own reasons, don’t ask themselves why they pull one reason out of their hat in Situation A only to abandon it in Situation B. When we give reasons we’re basically winging it, but this isn’t because we’re clueless but because we know too much to rigidly apply the same principles to what are many varied and rich circumstances.
Think by analogy of something that I consider a lot less complicated than my liking for singing style: Today I debated with myself whether to wear an old Hard Rock Café Pisa T-shirt with a rip on the left shoulder, or whether to wear a less ratty T-shirt with a small tasteful logo in the upper left with the words “Mansfield Community Center.” There’s a lot that underlies a choice like that (including what’s going on in my day or in my life or in my part of the world that makes a T-shirt an option, not to mention that the Pisa T-shirt used to belong to a former girlfriend who, before she gave me the shirt, wrote a story in which both the shirt and its ripped left shoulder played a role), and a lot that would underlie the impression that someone else gains of me based on the fact that he sees me in that T-shirt.
When it comes to Joan Baez’s or Liz Mitchell’s vocal choices, and my response to them, I have reasons, and then my reasons have further reasons. Even if I knew what they all were, I’d probably need a novelist’s skills to communicate them. But I’ll take a shot.
Both Boney M and Joan Baez did a lot of cover songs, but Boney M gave them a disco beat, which immediately put them in a different setting from Joan Baez’s, whose presentation seemed very slow and formal. Liz Mitchell’s merely seemed direct and pure, delivering the song but not exalting it. The difference might be like the difference between seeing a painting on a motel wall (Boney M) and seeing it on a gallery wall (Joan Baez). Of course, a lot here will depend on your relative feelings toward motels and galleries. At the time I first heard Joan Baez in the early ’60s, I was kid and my parents often dragged me with them to galleries; furthermore, Joan’s voice—somehow—seemed operatic to my young ears, and I didn’t like opera (played on the radio by my parents on Saturday afternoons, preempting college football on TV). I simply didn’t get opera. It had such stylized singing that I couldn’t make sense of what I was hearing as either communication or melody. So maybe I haven’t stopped hearing Baez through the ears of a captive kid. But I still think I’m right, whereas I can now like Maria Callas, for instance.
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