Today’s Google doddle reminded us that it’s Maria Callas’s birth date. This seems a good occasion to draw your attention two of our most popular posts, by Brian Bain:
As part of my music education, I’ve been watching Korean-Pop (K-Pop) videos!
The K-Pop machine is fascinating. Boy and girl groups consisting of from four to nine members sing and dance to catchy tunes. The groups are mainly differentiated by their image, innocent, sexy, or somewhere in-between.
For an example of innocent, watch this video of APink singing “MY MY“.
For an example of in-between watch this video of Girls’ Generation singing “Paparazzi”.
For an example of sexy, watch this video of T-Ara singing “Number Nine”.
By Western rock n’ roll standards, even the most raunchy of these groups is pretty tame.
A great part of the groups’ success depends, I think, on affection and sincerity. Fans respond not just to the music, important as that is, or to the dancing, impressive though that is, and the voices, some of which are pretty good, but also upon how well liked each member is by the public, by how accessible the groups’ members appear to be, by how well they work together as a sort of family, and by how sincerely group members connect with fans.
If you want a primer on K-Pop accessibility and fans’ and group members’ mutual affection, watch this Girl’s Generation concert.
Start at about the 30 minute mark; notice the lengths the group members go to to engage the audience, how effective they are, how comfortable they are with the audience, and much fun they and the audience are having. Sure a large corporation created the occasion to make money. But the moment works because the corporation found a way to create a genuine relationship between group members and between the group and their fans.
Now watch the first two songs on the video. You’ll see that the performer-audience connection is sincere. The girls sing two sentimental songs. They are so moved by what they sing that they choke up and by the end of the second song the group is in tears.
Why? I think it’s because of the refrain in that song, “You make my life complete”. The girls of course rehearsed this song several times. And the song occurs at the start of the concert before anyone’s emotions have had time to warm up. So there must have been something in the moment that affected them.
I think it was the thought that their career is not just about fame and money. It’s about their relationship with one another other, a relationship built up over the course of ten years or so.
K-Pop group members are recruited at about age fifteen. They are then put through three or more years of intensive training in singing, dancing, public speaking, and the like, and they share these experiences with each other. For a large part of this time the group members live together in a dormitory. No doubt they are told that the group will succeed only if they learn to get along with each other. The bond between the members of Girls’ Generation appears to be sincere and close.
The girls were, I think, also moved by thinking about their relationship with, yes, their fans.It must be a wonderful feeling to know that all your hard work has resulted in creating a joyful relationship with the people in the audience. I’m not sure what that sign says that everyone is holding, but I recognize one phrase, “I love you.” The signs say it and Girls’ Generation’s members believe it and are moved by it.
So, what’s all this to do with Jackie?
Girls’ Generation’s first song in this concert is, of all things, Danny Boy!
Set aside thinking about their technical competence or even the beauty of some of the members’ voices. To me, the rendition is effective. Why? Because they convey sincerity and emotion. Their sincerity has nothing to do with understanding and conveying the meaning and emotions of the song. Only two of these young women are fluent in English.
No, it’s because of the frame of mind they were in while they were singing. They were being sentimental about their relationship with each other and with their fans. And that’s the source of the emotion they project.
Similarly, Jackie may (or may not) be technically perfect every time she sings (I’d say she’s pretty much perfect in her rendition of Danny Boy). But being technically perfect is not what makes her singing effective. It’s her beautiful voice of course, but it’s also her ability to project emotion. I believe she’s successful in that because she’s genuine and sincere.
There you have it. There is an innocence and sincerity about K-Pop and there is an innocence and sincerity about Jackie that makes listening to them more than a technical exercise. To listen is to feel connected and appreciative.
I find myself appreciating these women’s hard work and how well they’ve maintained their humanity despite the vicissitudes of fame. That’s one reason I started this website, because I appreciate not Jackie’s talent, yes, but also because I appreciate her hard work and her sincerity.
THE OBJECTIVE STANDARD
When critics of Jackie Evancho who claim to be voice teachers go on the Internet and write about an “objective standard” by which to judge her singing, it raises an interesting question. When it comes to judging musical talent, is there an objective standard ? (In the sense I’m using it, objective does not equal truth. It means judgement devoid of bias, exercising agreed-upon criteria.)
To learn a musical instrument or how to sing is to obtain a skill, to follow a technique. Some may disagree with the validity or utility of this or that technique, but all agree that techniques can be reduced to rules, methods, standards. Judging mastery of technique, then, involves assessing objective, not subjective, criteria.
Jackie’s persistent critics condemn her by analysing her technique, by judging her against standards and rules they choose to privilege. Already, we see a problem. Whose standards? Whose rules? And, as important, who is judging Jackie, what is their motive?
In a court of law, officers of the court call expert witnesses to testify on technical and scientific matters, to give “expert opinions.” Interesting that both sides of a legal battle produce experts whose opinions differ from one another. How can that be when both sets of experts apply objective criteria?
Clearly, even experts sworn to tell the truth on the witness stand cannot be said to have unassailable objective opinions. Why? Because complex facts do not provide their own interpretation. One expert may apply one technique, the other expert a different one. One expert may have great experience that the other expert lacks.
As in scientific forensics, so in judging singing technique, applying objective criteria is a complex exercise subject to degree of experience, personal interest, and unacknowledged bias.
The closest thing to an objective opinion or cold fact can be found in the hard sciences — mathematics, chemistry, physics and related disciplines. But study and experimentation have resulted in the reinterpretation even of fundamental physical laws. When that happens usually the scientist or mathematician has looked at the phenomenon from a fresh, unexpected perspective.
Thus, Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein and others did not prove that Newton’s universal laws of nature were wrong. Instead, they discovered a new perspective from which to understand complex facts. Because of them we now believe that Newton’s laws apply to macro but not micro reality.
If it’s possible to change our understanding of the nature of fundamental laws of the universe, surely it’s possible to misjudge the value or validity of a singer’s technique, especially when, singing the way she does, she’s successful in what matters most, her art.
Elmyr De Hory was a celebrated art forger. Time and again art experts declared his bogus paintings genuine Picassos, Modiglianis and Matisses. It’s rumoured that some of De Hory’s fake masterpieces still adorn the walls of prestigious museums. If art experts cannot distinguish genuine from fake Picassos, well ….
Looked at one way, art is a complex fact and, as we’ve seen, complex facts are subject to personal interests and unacknowledged bias. Never mind the subjective dimension of art appreciation. If facts are capable of interpretation, surely subjective opinion is open to challenge.
It’s obvious that an expert has more knowledge than the average man or woman on the street. But who can say definitively that the expert’s taste is superior to that of someone else in her profession or, for that matter, to the taste of this or that non-expert?
Your average strip-mall voice teacher, one hopes, successfully conveys technique to her students. She may also aspire to convey an understanding of singing as an art, but we don’t expect that of her because high ability of that sort is given to few. Thus we expect more from the great voice teachers of the world; they convey technique, of course, superlatively so. But they do more, they find and nurture artists.
Great teachers of voice are themselves artists of a sort and they have the disposition and character of an artist. They have insight and sensitivity, they have vision and the drive to create. They build up rather than tear down. These are passionate men and women. They sympathize and identify with the artist and nurture her. Such teachers may be resented by their students when they drive them to achieve greater excellence, but we find from history that great teachers engender in their students fierce loyalty and even love.
I can’t imagine a great teacher of voice being someone who pulls down more than she builds up, who speaks harshly, never tenderly about a young artist. I can’t imagine a teacher who fails in a public forum to exercise basic humanity being respected, let alone loved, by her students.
I can’t imagine a genuinely great teacher of voice writing thousands of words and spending dozens of hours disparaging a singer, especially one who has succeeded in what many singers spend a lifetime attempting to do: to interpret music creatively, to move people emotionally, to inspire intellectual appreciation of music and, in many millions, joy.
The voice teacher who thinks her opinion is gospel, who looks down her nose at the great unwashed, who fails to understand that her opinions are subject to prejudice is a fraud. For her, singing is technique. It’s meaningless to her that Jackie fills many a concert hall, that people around the world beckon to hear her.
And what about the teacher as listener? Because she is a teacher of voice is she a more sensitive listener, one whose judgement is superior to yours or mine? There are those who teach art (be it literature, music, or the plastic arts) whose eyes and ears are no better than yours or mine. Their judgements are faulty. Their assessment of value is worthless.
Is it possible for someone widely recognized as a critic of art to be blind or deaf to greatness? Certainly. Think of the film critic Pauline Kael of The New Yorker. She’s hailed as one of the finest critics of the last century. But she never gave that great genius of the cinema Alfred Hitchcock a single positive review.
As with any art, appreciation of great singing requires humility, the acceptance that the unexpected is possible, that someone could come along who, though untutored, might in her few years know more about art than the self-declared expert will appreciate in a lifetime.
– Brian Bain and John Mitchell