Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson has used his Resonant Frequency column this month to reexamine one of indie rock’s core assumptions. He discusses how hearing the technical facility and sheer beauty of the voices of the members of Fleet Foxes (who I also blogged about a couple days ago) caused him to think about the ways in which singers who can’t sing very well have become so common in indie rock that no one ever gives it the slightest bit of consideration. He discusses his mixed feelings on the matter, noting that he certainly does still like the music of many bands that employ singers who lack anything resembling conventionally “good” singing voices, but that it all the same felt refreshing to for once hear a new band who can demonstrate some real vocal abilities.
Richardson (accurately) points to the source of this long-running aesthetic: Lou Reed, whose no-range, half-spoken vocals with the Velvet Underground set the template for generations of independent-minded singer-songwriters to come. Reed, as Richardson points out, was an incredibly gifted songwriter, and also possessed an indelible cool in the 1960s. Combine that with the band’s rather astounding record as stylistic innovators, and it’s no wonder that many sonically adventurous bands in the years since have taken Reed’s so-so vocals as permission to sing in a similar way. Nearly every aspect of indie rock’s aesthetics can be found in those four Velvet Underground records—their influence runs so deeply in all areas (including vocal styles) that it now often goes completely unobserved.
In addition to the historical and aesthetic reasons for this, I think there’s also an important philosophical one. Indie rock tends to value ideas and expression over performance. High levels of technical achievement are respected only when coupled with high-quality songwriting, inventive studio craft and/or involving performances. Underlying all of this is the idea that anyone can make great music. For some in indie rock (like Half Japanese or the Beat Happening), this idea is taken very seriously: amateurism is prized, and it’s considered a virtue to warble off-key or neglect to tune up before playing a song. There’s an alignment with the values of folk music here, and also with the DYI ethos of punk and 1960s garage rock. For most, though, amateurism is valued only so far. Technique is devalued, but deep-running knowledge of popular music styles and history is seen as extremely important. If a band demonstrates the ability to reference and coherently incorporate the ideas of both well-known and obscure musicians from years past in a self-aware and stylish manner, they’ll meet the approval of their peers. Whether the singer can sing or not is seen as being beside the point.
Another thread worth teasing out here is the influence of Bob Dylan—a man with a very weak singing voice, but who (as Richardson points out) is a wonderfully expressive and moving singer. Of course, Dylan also reinvented popular music in his image as a songwriter, and in the process created a space in which his work as a singer could be appreciated. I think understanding Dylan’s success is key to recognizing which indie rock singers with conventionally weak voices are more likely to succeed as singers. Singers who take their cues from Dylan, and actually strive to sing well, tend to do better than those who more closely follow the example of Reed, and sort of shrug off the question and focus on other things entirely. Perhaps why many indie rock singers working right now fail to be compelling is that they’ve assumed that Reed’s example is all the need to know. Their problem isn’t the inherent weakness of their voices so much as the fact that they haven’t thought about their singing enough, and haven’t worked hard enough to develop their vocal style in a way that suits their songwriting and music.
I also think it’s interesting that in recent years indie rock’s suspicion of virtuosity seems to have eroded a little bit. Strong singers like Neko Case and the members of the Fleet Foxes are widely admired, and new performers like Marnie Stern (who it seems could outshred just about anybody on her guitar) are also attracting at least a little bit of positive notice. Even Stephen Malkamus—the king of the mumble-mouthed ironic delivery as the former frontman of Pavement, whose earliest work was famed in large part for its rough-edged, freewheeling, borderline-incompetent imaginativeness—has now drafted a crackerjack band, and his most recent record, Real Emotional Trash, features a number of lengthy guitar solos and elaborate arrangements requiring high degrees of technical proficiency. I welcome this trend—better chops are a good thing for indie rock, just so long as the musicians don’t forget that technical proficiency alone is never sufficient for the creation of great music. But there’s no reason why a band can’t adopt the core aesthetic values of the Velvet Underground—strong songwriting and sonic adventurousness—without also learning how to sing and play their instruments.