I think it’s an insidious and destructive force on the American media culture (which - let’s be honest - needs all the help it can get), an omnipresent televised influence that is causing Americans to believe that unless your voice meets some amorphous standard of performance quality and style, you should just shut up and stop singing.
Or maybe I should just lighten up. But still.
Everyone who can speak can sing. Really. Singing is just extended, rhythmic speech. Singing is a great gift—a fun, wholesome activity that builds community, expresses joy, sorrow and humor, entertains and binds us together in life’s transitional moments. There is no human tradition that is not made richer and illuminated by good music.
Practice and training can improve singing, by making the singer more aware of pitch, tone production and vocal technique. But just as ice skating is fun for those whose ankles will always wobble, singing can and should be fun for everyone. In fact, singing is unmitigated fun for kindergarteners. They love to learn new songs, and sing them again and again. They don’t worry about what the other kids think. Yet.
What bothers me is that children watch American Idol, and children are now developing this idea that singing is something that should be attempted only by the “talented.” Some children now believe that judging singers is an amusing spectator activity, and making fun of imperfect singers is perfectly OK. Hilarious and justified, in fact: anyone who dares to sing in front of a camera deserves our scrutiny and scorn. None of this encourages children—or their families—to participate joyfully in group or individual singing. In the American Idol paradigm, singing is now reserved for those who have a “good” voice.
Think about it. Our voices are an immutable and very personal aspect of our selves, as unique and unchangeable as fingerprints. When someone says “I don’t have a good voice,” it’s tantamount to saying “I don’t have a good face.” Your voice is your voice. If there is someone in your past who suggested that your singing voice is substandard, that person has done you harm, making you self-conscious about your primary expressive instrument. Thank goodness Bob Dylan didn’t believe the first 500 people who told him he couldn’t sing.
Community singing around a campfire got ragtag groups of settlers across the prairie, and singing has comforted those who remain behind, bereft, when lives are lost. Music releases emotion more effectively than words; while it’s wonderful to listen to exquisite vocal harmonies, nothing is more satisfying than actually singing yourself. It’s what we were meant to do as human beings.
And that’s what I tell my students—that they are born singers. Nobody—not even Simon—can tell you that you can’t sing.