Caterwauling Isn’t Singing.

Nov 04

The death of Whitney Houston in 2012 brought forth a number of tributes from singers like Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Celine Dion, Rihanna, and Christina Aguilera citing her as a significant influence in their respective careers.

At the risk of speaking ill of the dead, Houston has a lot to answer for.

Celine Dion, Mariah Carey & Whitney Houston. Raising caterwauling to an art form.

Celine Dion, Mariah Carey & Whitney Houston. Raising caterwauling to an art form.

No disputing Houston had a powerful singing voice. The problem, however, was she insisted at singing most of her songs at an ear-splitting volume, almost always at the upper octaves.

The prime example, of course, is “I Will Always Love You”, a wonderful love ballad written and originally recorded by country star Dolly Parton.

In Parton’s shivery voice, it’s a plaintive, touching ode to a former lover at the end of a relationship. In Houston’s hands, it’s a display of how long she could carry a tune at the upper range of her voice, to the point where it became painful to listen to, howling at a level akin to air raid sirens.

You certainly know Houston will always love someone, but who or why is lost as she howls out the chorus over and over again.

Little wonder Parton wasn’t a fan of Houston’s version, despite her nice words of condolences years later upon Houston’s passing.

When Houston’s debut album arrived in 1985, I admit enjoying a couple of cuts from it, especially “Saving All My Love For You”. That, for me, was Houston at her best, not overdoing it with the higher registers, though at the end of that particular number, when she sings “For yooooooooooouuuuuuuuu” it sounds uncomfortably close to the baying of a hound.

Sadly, that was the last time Houston would sing an album where all the songs didn’t as though she was trapped in a well yelling for help.

Before Houston, there were a number of female singers with powerful voices, the most famous (in my mind) being the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.

The difference, however, was Franklin knew when to use the different ranges at her command, when a song called for hitting and holding the high notes, and when it called for restraint. That’s part of the reason Aretha was the queen of soul.

The other, of course, was she put true emotion into her songs. She felt what she sang, which undoubtedly made it easier for her to know when to toss around those high octaves and when it was better to go with lower registers to get the soul across.

Houston, however, never understood soul. She sang pop songs and treacly love ballads, aimed at teenage girls and young women who had yet to discover what real love and loss was about. What she understood was she had a powerful voice which provided “oomph” to otherwise forgettable numbers.

By influencing other female singers with incredible voice range to stick to the higher registers throughout most of their songs, we’re now treated to caterwauling disguised as singing. They’re more interested in showing off their voice range than in actually singing what they feel. They’ve equated “feeling” with “screeching like a banshee”.

Perhaps that appeals to younger ears, but as they grow older they’ll find that high-pitched howling won’t be as pleasing.

The reason great singers like Aretha stand the test of time is they’re pleasing to the ear. Feeling, not range, was what mattered. You can listen to their music without fearing your eardrums will be blown out.

Houston and her ilk today are celebrated for their yowling, but as the generation of those who love them ages, I suspect they’ll prefer other options less taxing to ageing eardrums.

One comment

  1. Meade /

    I really agree with this post. Over singing at the worst. I don’t normally care for female vocalists for this reason. Sadly, some of the singers have nice voices, but they push and push to be louder and bigger all the time. They make the songs about them, rather than letting the songs do the talking. Dolly’s I will always love you- so much more heartfelt and endearing.

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