Should We Have More Faith in Pop Stars’ Talent?

Days ago, whilst skimming this blog’s Twitter feed (follow us here!), I came across a delightful treat of Europop courtesy of the ever-entertaining Euro Popped. I promptly sent the link to a friend, and in doing so unwittingly prompted an exchange on the quality of pop music in general. So deep were the insights which ensued, I’ve decided to reproduce our conversation in full below, lightly edited for clarity and concision. If the format proves successful, it’s something we’ll consider revisiting in the future.


EPThis is pretty fun. And, extra bonus, she’s Greek

KR: I’m digging the 80s quality filming. This one is also fantastic. I’ve got it on loop now. And this one proves she can sing, which makes me respect her talent even more.

EP: I don’t know why we’re always so surprised when pop stars can sing – it’s not like it’s that hard a skill to become at least decent at.

KR: I think I’ve just become cynical because of all the auto-tune and computer editing that’s used in pop music. For example, Britney Spears’ single “Work Bitch” is so over-engineered that her voice contributes very little to the body of the song.

EP: I’m right there with you; I fully include myself in the set of people with initial skepticism. I just wonder if it’s not a bit misplaced sometimes. Even with Britney, if you dig up older videos of her, she can clearly sing live – or at least, well enough that she wasn’t picked to become a star solely on the basis of all-American looks.

A quick Britney aside: I’ve read a couple things from Jody Rosen suggesting she’s made a pretty wise, and possibly calculated, decision to let her voice be used by producers the way it is on “Work Bitch”. Not to say that if she could sing like Adele she still wouldn’t, but that she’s been kind of happy to let her voice serve as a canvas for producers/sound engineers/Pro Tools wizards. It’s an interesting idea, though I guess it doesn’t really solve the problem of, she’s shit live these days.

KR: That’s a fascinating suggestion about Britney’s work – I just read the Jody Rosen review in Vulture for Britney’s new album; he says Spears has let “some of the world’s most talented producers treat her voice like sonic Laffy Taffy” (he goes on to provide a scathing review of her latest album, because its contents don’t apply the “Laffy Taffy” strategy). It’s too bad her voice has gone to shit; I really enjoyed the vintage Britney sound.

And you’re right, she never would have made it in the industry back then without that voice. But I think for today’s emerging pop stars, who are entering an industry dominated by audio engineers, it would be easy enough to choose a pretty face with a mediocre voice to turn into the next pop sensation. That’s where public skepticism lies, but it’s a shame that instead of giving new artists the benefit of the doubt, we automatically assume they have no discernible talent.

EP: That’s exactly the review I was thinking of (though I think he made similar comments writing for Slate about Femme Fatale). And that’s definitely true that you can get a lot more out of a shitty voice with today’s audio technology. I’ve seen clips of turbo-folk stars in the studio and it’s just painful to see the live inputs.

The other thing I wonder about is how much of this is done because they can and how much of it is done because “we” as the consumer nowadays would revolt at anything less. Personally, on a studio track I’m not sure the enormous amount of engineering that goes into songs even bothers me – if it’s going to be on the radio thousands or millions of times, why not make it sound perfect? Where I think “we” as consumers are more culpable is live performances and the use of backing tracks/lip-synching. If Katy Perry goes out there and isn’t absolutely perfect she’ll probably get skewered, whereas there are plenty of videos of say, The Stones, or Led Zeppelin, or whoever, sounding all told pretty poor on any given night.

KR: That’s a good point. What the hell has become of music consumer taste? It’s bizarre – makes me wonder how pop music will evolve in the next twenty years.