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Just sing the damn song, will ya?

Tuned Out

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Lately, after watching the Super Bowl halftime show, the American Idol auditions, the Grammies and a few late-night talk show appearances by bands whose guitarists play all down strokes all the time, I've just got to tell y'all two things. First, wannabe guitar players need to learn how to use their wrists, fingers and thumbs and keep in mind that the Guitar Hero guitar is a plastic toy — kinda like a foam baseball bat that you'd give a 6-year-old. You Guitar Hero kids listen to me: You are not playing guitar. You're mashing buttons on a piece of plastic that doesn't even have strings. Babies can do that. If you don't believe me, just check out this baby banging on his toy piano.

It's more worrisome, though, that the art of singing has pretty much gone to hell. I freely confess that I'm a semi-skilled singer at best, a baritone blues growler tuning all my old key-of-C songs down to G and all my A songs down to E. Somehow, I can still get along in D. But I digress.

When it comes to wretched singing, I blame American Idol. Over the show's 10-year run, the number of notes sung by any given singer has multiplied by the dozens, if not hundreds. Every singer sings a thousand notes, shoehorning in a barrage of unidentifiable in-between notes in the manner of a sitar player.

What should be a simple rendering of "The Star-Spangled Banner" now sounds like a roomful of pots and pans getting thrown down the stairs. Even the longhaired hillbilly acts that sing before Titans games try to scat like Ella Fitzgerald. For cryin' out loud, the national anthem should not end with a singer noodling, "And the hoooooome of the bray-ee-ay-ee-whoa-ee-oh-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-ave."

As everybody in town knows, Auto-Tune has changed singing into something more like yodeling. A little Googling will turn up endless sound effects and mixes, including digitally altered squalling babies, dog howls, cat cries, newscasts, political discussions and even Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech from 1963.

Lately, I've heard singers who sound less like skilled vocalists and more like these hellish electronic gizmos. It's as if these singers have heard digitized voices for so long that the jams and mixes have seared robot sounds into their brains forever. Don't go by me, but it seems that quite a lot of singers are styling their vocals — intentionally or unintentionally — to fit the digital sounds banging around in their heads, so they can sound more like machines. Crazy, ain't it? If a singer's not quite satisfied with the sound of her own singing, why not just stick with a strong shot of skill and soul and the time-tested remedy of tea, honey and lemon?

I know, I know: The missile has left the silo and Elvis has left the building. Who wants to practice singing all day when a techie with a few gizmos on his desk can make acceptable electronic music? Heck, Jimmy Fallon's bandleader Questlove can play drums with one hand and make mix tracks with the other, all at the same time.

Even so, there's something to be said for music created, nurtured and improved by humans. For centuries, musicians have worked hard to make their violins, trumpets, oboes and such sound like human voices. In the early '60s, the Beatles and George Martin made music with the 35-key Mellotron, which contained tapes of instruments and voices that would play certain sounds when somebody touched the keys. That was McCartney playing the intro to "Strawberry Fields Forever." It sounded good, but it didn't sound as good as real-time human voices.

So, you people who like to make electronic sounds with machines that don't think, don't breathe and have no heartbeat, that's fine. I like listening to the tuned dogs and babies singing on YouTube as much as anybody. But if you want the full musical effect, you've got to get your human ears up close to a human mouth. You've got to get close enough to feel the breath and hear the sounds that come out of a warm human body. If the singer's singing a sad song, you might see a tear. If you're sharing a microphone with a rock 'n' roll singer, you will get spit on. And, though I'm no fan of other people's spit, I say it'd probably be worth it.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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