Saturday, February 06, 2010

Here Comes the Pitch

200,000 human souls have recently perished in Haiti; lives crushed, futures hopeless and a poor country poorer. Meanwhile, the chatter on campuses, in the media and among the hippest-of-the-hip focuses on how poorly Taylor Swift sang during the Grammy Awards. On all levels this is bullshit.
Any individual that has ever opened their mouth to sing – regardless the situation – at one moment or another, has sung poorly. There was a time when recording sessions were ‘live.’ In other words, a well-rehearsed orchestra was in place, the microphones turned on, the tape rolling and the performance captured. Thing is, if the violins played a wrong note or the bass player missed a downbeat or the vocalist sang flat or sharp they did another take. These days a singer/artist will perform endless lead vocal passes atop a track that has already been produced and scrutinized. From those multiple takes a ‘performance’ is pieced together by an adept audio engineer with the oversight of the record producer (unless they are cutting tracks at another studio or playing golf.) Technology has also provided ‘auto-tuning’ which is capable of taking flat and/or sharp vocal tracks and nudging them ‘in tune.’ Singing live in a situation like The Grammy Awards – at the age of 20 with Stevie Nicks as your duet partner - will transport any normal human being into a stratosphere of unparalleled anxiety. Ms. Swift did not do well; I agree. But if you think Taylor Swift should be hung from the rafters for an inferior vocal performance on the recent Grammy Awards you have never been behind a microphone, in front of a crowd or on a stage. On the scale of the toughest stuff in the world it doesn’t deserve to be measured. However, from the small slice of the entertainment business, this is most forgivable.
Taylor Swift and her songs (and, by the way, it really doesn’t matter what you or any critics think because the public has voted with their dollars) have revived a very lackluster and dormant music industry. We have a new star. She is young and appealing and has millions tuning on their radios and purchasing music. Good for her; good for us.
For you older folks – My G-G-Generation – go back and listen to the records you loved. Except for The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Stevie Wonder (and I’m sure there’s miles of tape of them singing poorly) you will hear massively out-of-tune vocals that will live forever on vinyl on the recordings we worship.
If Ms. Swift can sustain this crazy scrutiny she will be better for it. She is what she is. I am a man about to turn 60. Ms. Swift’s music is not my music. But I am also a guy that has seen this business of music from many angles for many years. That makes me root very hard for her. I also sing sharp and flat; and once in a rare while I sing really good.
Some years ago I was unexpectedly elevated to a position in the recording industry that I neither deserved nor understood. Suddenly I had become the head of a record label in Nashville – RCA, thanks to the generosity of my friend and new boss, Joe Galante. A few months later I was standing in a hotel in Los Angeles preparing to attend an awful event – The Academy of Country Music Awards. I looked to my right and a young guy was standing there – skinny, well dressed with a big, black cowboy hat. Just the week before his manager had ‘pitched’ him to me but I was uncertain. I walked up to this kid and we talked briefly. The next week we signed him to RCA. He didn’t sing that great (as in he wasn’t Merle Haggard, George Jones or John Anderson) but he was something – I was certain he was something. That kid sold lots of records.
I root for Taylor Swift without reservation. For me, she will never overtake Paul Simon or John Prine as a songwriter, but she is doing what she was called to do. If you don’t like her, that’s fine. But please stop the babble about her performance on the Grammy’s. This is laughably, trivial shit. Like my dear pal, Fred Knobloch has said, ‘Garth Brooks has sold over one hundred million records. That means 7 billion people have never heard of him.’
200,000 human souls have recently perished in Haiti; lives crushed, futures hopeless and a poor country poorer. You go, girl!