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Evie Nagy

Evie Nagy is the author of the 33 1/3 book on Devo’s Freedom of Choice, and a former staff writer and editor at Fast Company, Rolling Stone, and Billboard. Her work was published in Best Music Writing 2010 and she co-wrote the afterword to Out of the Vinyl Deeps, an anthology of rock writing by the late Ellen Willis, the New Yorker's first pop music critic. She’s on the editorial team at Slack and lives in Oakland, CA.

“Too Real: Pop’s Complicated Relationship with Bad Singing”
From karaoke dives to YouTube aspirants to the audition episodes of American Idol (R.I.P.), the uncomfortable entertainment value in terrible vocals is a sub-industry in itself. Beyond the cruel humor in ogling deluded incompetence, there can also be triumph in bad singing—a raw display of not giving a fuck, of overcoming fears to perform for the sake of it, of sharing directly in the joy of music and others who love it. Bad singing can simultaneously trigger empathy and ridicule like nothing else—the voice is, after all, the most ancient, human, and democratic of musical instruments. Most people are born with one and the physical capacity to use it, making everyone an artist and a critic at once.

But the role of “bad” singing goes much deeper in popular music than spectacle. While the standard definition of vocal skill (range, tone, tuning, musicality, emotional force, etc.) is a success factor in pop, jazz, and certain rock styles, there are other genres like some indie, punk, metal, improvisational rock, and others, where “good” singing ranges from unimportant to a liability, and vocal crudeness is associated with authenticity, even when singing is still central to performance. And then of course there’s the fact that America’s most respected rock icon is one of its objectively worst singers.

This paper will explore the many roles and definitions of bad singing that, as the most fallible of musical instruments, make it as important to popular music as honed vocal talent. It will also explore the bad singing gender gap, in which, with a few exceptions, women are more likely to succeed as skilled “singers” than authentic “musicians”—or, in other words, given much less freedom to suck.

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