The Voice vs. The Machine
Sometimes you can be so close to stardom and yet so far, which is the subject matter for the documentary now in theaters, 20 Feet from Stardom. I took time during this holiday weekend to check it out, and I’m so glad I did.
This film has a glorious soundtrack – from 1960s Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” (had no idea Darlene Love did lead vocals on The Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel“!) to the British Invasion – from Rolling Stones to Joe Cocker to David Bowie – to R&B greats like Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross. It’s amazing, listening to these songs – especially rock & roll – and not recognizing just how deeply they are indebted to the backup vocals provided mostly by gospel-trained soul-singing black female vocalists, the “colored girls” Lou Reed sang about in “Walk on the Wild Side.”
No wonder David is so in tune with sistas and their vocals! He’s been listening pretty closely to his pop music. 😉
When their vocals are isolated in certain tracks, you immediately hear the difference and understand why such classic rock anthems as Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” Joe Cocker’s “Space Captain,” and David Bowie’s “Young Americans” were all the richer for these backup contributions.
At once invigorating and heartbreaking (particularly the stories about how truly talented singers like Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, and Lisa Fischer tried to strike out as solo artists but got no where), this film is at its strongest in arguing for the magic and power that vocal mastery delivers to any recorded track.
There are two scenes in particular that stood out for me. The first is when Merry Clayton listens to an isolated track in which she belts out her hook “Rape…Murder/It’s just a shot away” (listen around the 2:48 minute mark) on “Gimme Shelter”; it’s chill-inducing because she’s bringing the rage to life. The second scene highlights the vocals of Lisa Fischer. Oh my word! Her pipes are so ethereal! She’s a beast on the mic! That’s why Sting gave her a spotlight and a moment to shine when she provided haunting vocals on his If On a Winter’s Night album.
The talent is real, and it’s raw, and it’s easy to say, “Oh, they had the talent but not the X factor.” But what does that even mean? Stevie Wonder offered his own ideas on what it takes to become a “star”: 1) the right song; 2) the right producer to feature your voice in the best possible light; and 3) the right backing/promo.
I think about this because, as Archie fans, we can go back and forth about what are the right ingredients to transform David’s star potential. Sting, of course, says that sometimes it’s just “luck” (which I would agree since David was very lucky back in 2008 when his label at the time found the right kind of song for him to put out). The question, of course, is how he can be more than a “one-hit wonder” since those folks are a dime a dozen.
Sting also spoke disparagingly about shows like American Idol (he did not mince words: he specifically expressed how “damaging” he felt Idol was because it encourages instantaneous success without requiring the “spiritual work” needed for a musician to really craft his art and his gifts). He has a point since I constantly see David’s fans wringing their hands in impatience because we have come to expect “success” to be instantaneous.
Still, if anyone understands the “spiritual work” needed in music, David certainly does (who would deny that?). We’re just now at an impasse in the music industry where that kind of workmanship and craft is no longer required.
Another musician featured in the documentary lamented that music labels now include a “tuning” budget (i.e. any imperfect vocals in the studio can be fixed through technology). He bemoaned the “soulless” machine that has reduced the voice to yet another technical tool for manipulation.
Seriously, folks, have you been aware that the backup singers, who were given steady paychecks for their work on recordings and performances with lead singers, have slowly disappeared in today’s music? They’re no longer needed, you see, since “tuning” budgets and the Machine can add those harmonic chords needed on a song.
What 20 Feet from Stardom does is not only provide human beings (along with their struggles) attached to the voices we hear in the background (that we often take for granted), but it also reminds us that this very humanity, the soul, the heart that it takes to bring music to life, is slowly disappearing in the increasingly electronic production of music.
And when the background vocals start to go, whither the solo artist? Soon, the solo artist will also disappear (and many think they are already going down that route).
Things are complicated. You can have a killer Voice, but it’s not enough when it is pitted against a machine.
What becomes essential is for us, the listener, the fans, to tell the difference. I know, for me, the difference was in my O.D.D. devotion. Sure, there was something about the “Hello, Gorgeous” sparkle in David’s eyes and in his irrepressible personality when I first saw him and heard him sing “Heaven” during the Hollywood auditions round of American Idol. But it wasn’t until he sang “And So It Goes” halfway a capella (see above video) when I became officially hooked.
There’s something about that Voice that rings so pure and true and haunting and soulful. Autotune can’t touch that, and if David never makes it to “stardom,” that elusive goal for so many talented vocalists, as long as he keeps on singing (and making himself available for live performances), some of us can only feel blessed and call him blessed for sharing his gifts (with or without the help of the Machine).
It’s why I do sometimes get bewildered by fans who think David is misguided about his spiritual priorities. Do we not understand that this too (his Mission) is part of that “spiritual work” that can only make him a better vocalist and musician?
We may not have listened to the backup singers on our classic rock and R&B songs, but I at least hope we’re listening to David on his own songs. He’s singing loud and clear and has his eyes on the more enriching prize: the life-giving power of music.