When dearest makes new mixed music tapes for us to listen to on trips, we play the, "Who's this?" game. Since many of them are from the radio (folk music, mostly) and new CDs (folk, jazz, soul, blues, musicals, even some pop or rock) which we deliberately save until she's used them for mixed tapes, we haven't heard most of the music before. We have to recognize the artists by their style. Daughter and oldest son are pretty good at the game, and getting better all the time, but I'm probably the best at it.
The way I recognize even a singer I don't know well, some we might only have in one or two pieces on tapes from years before, is by letting my mind drift a certain way and letting the pattern of their singing bring other pieces of music to mind. The other tune is possibly more familiar, and their name pops into my head.
This has led me to gradually notice what it is that makes a singer's voice or style unique. It might be the tone color of their voice, or an accent that comes through the singing. But more often, it's got to do with technical accuracy.
This surprised me. I hadn't really considered (not being a musician) that there was much room for being "off" the note, or off the beat, without seeming unskilled. But in reality, the most distinctive singers have something different about the way they treat notes, rhythm or both. Some hit the notes a little late, or a little early. Some hold them a little too long. Some are just the tiniest bit flat or sharp (while I don't play music, I come from a family with many musicians, some professional, and I'm sensitive to pitch). Some don't nail the note when they hit it - they reach for it, and slide into it from a little to one side.
And it's these imperfections, which have to be very slight to be OK, that actually make their singing BETTER. Perfection would be mechanical. It's the nuanced stretching of the technique that lends charm, personality, humanity, charisma, life to the performance.
I thought about that more and realized that many things are like that. A face like Marilyn Monroe's was made more alluring and charming by the addition of a beauty mark. Women used to add them to their face artificially. During WWII, when nylon was all going to the war effort, many women painted stocking seams down the backs of their legs - the seam was sexier than bare legs - the imperfection of that line revealing the complex beauty of the leg curves. When I was learning to tie a bow tie I was advised that if I tied it too perfectly people would think it was a clip-on. A little imperfection proved it was the genuine article. I listen to classical guitar being played and if there is no sound of fingers squeaking on the strings, I feel robbed. Someone erased the human being from the performance.
So if you don't think it ruins pleasures to look under their surface, you might get additional pleasure from listening to distinctive singers and trying to hear what makes them THEM. On the way back from a walk downtown, recently, we were listening to Patty Lupone sing Your the Top, by Cole Porter (it would have been even better to hear her rendition of Blow, Gabriel, Blow from that same musical). I was enjoying her incomparable power and brassy sound, reminiscent of Ethyl Merman, several of whose signature roles Ms. Lupone has also sung to acclaim (like Gypsy). But I suddenly realized that her power and brass isn't what really makes her singing unique. It's the way she beautifully misses and nails the notes. She slides into them slightly, in a jazzy way that is more like a high trombone than it is like a trumpet. You're aware of how much room she has to play with - more room than most people could command, I'm sure - as wide as her incredible smile. She makes it sexy and very female, not like the perfection of a straight line, but more like the beautiful sway of a woman's hips.
>>>> Appendix de Grenouille #19 <<<< Several years ago I drew this portrait of Grenouille for my dearest (it's on her dresser). I took some liberties. I realized that his shape and the placement of his eyes, as well as the little curve of the center of his lips, were the real distinguishing qualities I loved. So I left off his back stripes, and I didn't feel I needed to stick to his real color or size.
I would draw him differently now. No outline, for one thing - I've largely stopped using them. And lately I notice his stripes more, and I would probably add them to a portrait. They show off the curve of his back.
But his shape and eyes are still the best thing about him. Unless it's the perfect way he fits in my hand when I carry him around for photos...