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Sean Nelson

Sean Nelson is a Seattle writer, musician, and actor. He has recorded and performed with Harvey Danger, Robyn Hitchcock, Death Cab for Cutie, The Decemberists, Nada Surf, The Long Winters, and as a solo artist. He wrote the 33 1/3 book Joni Mitchell Court & Spark and has been published in the Talkhouse, Entertainment Weekly, Best Music Writing, and, fingers crossed, the next Pitchfork Review. He is the Arts and Music Editor of The Stranger.

“No Expression Whatever: Is Bad Singing a Moral Issue?”
The popularity of singers whose voices don’t measure up to traditional standards of excellence was one of rock and roll’s great gifts to the world of aesthetics. Though complaints about popular singers’ lack of classical skills are as old as popular music itself, the celebration, even consecration, of what for the sake of brevity we’ll just have to agree to call “badness” reached a new zenith in the mid-’60s with the full flower of Bob Dylan from crypto-exponent of the folk revival into full-blown weirdo innovator. Though his pop moment didn’t last much longer than anyone else’s, Dylan’s singularly wrong-as-better-than-right singing was year zero for the aestheticization of badness (as well as the continued conflation of that badness with authenticity). This famously paved the way for countless descendants and inaugurated a never-ending argument about not just the acceptability, but indeed the stylistic, artistic, and maybe even moral superiority of bad singing. (Consider David Byrne’s famous self-interview quote, “The better a singer’s voice, the harder it is to believe what they’re saying” and David Berman’s great lyric “All my favorite singers couldn’t sing.”)

This paper will examine the implications of this insoluble argument, appreciating the unorthodox beauty that emerges from singers who have to combat natural deficiencies of pitch or projection to vocalize at all, while also considering how race and class prerogatives inform the badness school and its discontents across genres and generations, and how both sides of the argument tend to make a burlesque out of values like passion and authenticity. “What is the expression which the age demands?” wrote Leonard Cohen, one of the greatest of all bad singers, in 1979. “The age demands no expression whatever.” Then as now, the age begs to differ.

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