Aside from the thorough creepiness of children singing love songs, my main problem with TV singing contests is the karaoke-ness of it all. Singers - many able to hit all the right notes and sound thoroughly Record Deal Ready - perform the songs of other people. And syrupy accolades are doled out to those who sound “good”, who sing “well”.
What good and well mean in the context of a TV competition I’ve never really understood.
It’s not that I think the fingernails-on-the-blackboard singers deserve a shot. But equally, it’s a pretty diabolical realisation that Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin would die a rapid death in today’s industry.
So imagine my surprise when, seeing my favourite band, The National, last week, the lead singer sounded bad - really bad - and instead of focusing on the performance I was distracted trying to understand “bad” in the context of songs that I love. Was my love for the music negatively impacted because they didn’t sound “good”?
Should it matter?
If the songs are still great, if the lyrics are still fantastic, if the musos are still belting out the tunes out with husto, does it really matter if the lead singer sounds like he can’t be bothered?
I’ve written previously of my horror when, seeing The National in Boston a couple of years ago, the lead singer climbed through the audience. And he did it a-bloody-gain! Different city, but on the very same song - Mr November - Matt Berninger rambled manically through the audience, climbing on things, on people.
I should have done more research. Apparently this is a thing for him. A compulsion. Apparently he can’t not be awful.
And it was at one point where - from Row U - I was thoroughly convinced he’d been swallowed up by the hipsters, that I desperately wanted to make my way over to him. Not to touch him - God knows where people’s yen to rub their mitts on strangers comes from - but to give him a stern talking to. The plan - after he finally rose from the sea flannel - was to say, “Get back out there, play "Slipped”, and you better bloody sing it properly this time, Bono.“
Even without my stern talking to, he actually did get back out there. He also pushed over a stand and threw the odd mic. Of course, because he’s apparently a rock star now and has to get back to the hotel room to trash it.
I’ve done lots of radio and I appreciate that microphones make a difference. That voices can be made thin, reedy, tinny. Alternatively that resonance and warmth can be added with the most minimal of effort.
I also get that if a band call fill a pretty large auditorium then they’ve got a tech person with them. Who can twist knobs and adjust levels. Besides, the instruments sounded fantastic, and the only problem with the audio of their support act - Frightened Rabbit - was the accents. Bloody scots! But otherwise they sounded great. It wasn’t a tech thing.
When I saw them in Boston, the second they started playing England I started crying. Sure, I was probably a bit more fragile then, but the performance was stirring enough for me to not continue with my normal public composure. They played “England” live last week and not even a skerrick of sentiment could be sourced.
On one hand it was just one gig. I have fond memories of the first time I ever heard Boxer, of them playing in Boston. Last week’s effort doesn’t destroy that. But I was listening to them on my iPod the morning after, and I realised I’m irked at them. Irked and needing to give them a rest for a while.
And they never did play “Slipped”. Bastards.