This is the first blog post on my new website (woo!).
The other day it occurred to me:
“Have we reached peak falsetto?”
The thought has been floating around in my head for a while, but finally bubbled up while listening to the beautiful Aromanticism (2017) by Moses Sumney. It’s a wonderfully-produced album, full of complex vocal harmonies and layers of delicate instrumentation*.
Mostly sung in falsetto.
Now, admittedly male pop singers have been singing in the falsetto register since the year dot. From Justin Timberlake, to Jeff Buckley, D’Angelo, Prince, etc etc.
What I have in mind though is different. It’s the kind of music for which Bon Iver’s first two albums are the archetype. What set his/their debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago (2007), apart for me is not just the fact that it is mostly sung in falsetto. It’s the production, particularly the use of vocal effects and how this shapes the overall sound, which felt groundbreaking and totally new.
On the one hand, musically, the hit songs off the debut album and its successor, Bon Iver, are pretty simple. Lots of open guitar tunings and very good vocal melodies, which are easily reproduced. But the production on songs like Flume, Towers, The Wolves is what really brings them to life. Bon Iver’s early songs are often described as being “folky”, but they’re very far from the traditional folk arrangement of one guy/gal and a guitar. They also expanded our idea of how big a solo singer-songwriter could sound.
My argument in this post is that Bon Iver was the standard bearer of a big revolution in pop music, particularly in guitar-based music, which was enabled by technological changes. Essentially, Bon Iver was an “early adopter”, one of the first singer-songwriters to take advantage of the innumerable creative opportunities enabled by these changes. I think that technology has changed the type of music we listen to in many ways, and this recent falsetto phenomenon is just the tip of that iceberg.
In the last decade or so there has been a big increase in the accessibility of producing music without the need for a dedicated studio, engineer and lots of musicians. An individual armed with just a reasonably powerful laptop and a MIDI keyboard can produce quite a complex piece of music.
While electronic music has always required a familiarity with technology, until recently bands/singer-songwriters have been much less innovative.
I’m not ignoring the fact that guitarists have long had a penchant for dozens of pedals and keys players for synthesizers since the late 60s. And for vocalists, live looping has been around since the early 90s. What’s new is the capacity of an individual musician, as opposed to a band, to create multi-instrumental music, at unprecedentedly low cost.
From around the early 2000s, improvements in computing power, and the subsequent growth in laptop sales and improvements in music software, have given the individual musician unprecedented opportunities to create a vast array of sounds. The quality of digitally sampled instruments in software such as Pro Tools, Ableton, Logic etc. these days is genuinely comparable to real instruments.
What you might call the democratisation of music production (“a couple of blokes in a bedroom”) has resulted in the rise of self-produced albums which replace “real” instruments/musicians, with MIDI. Going back to Bon Iver….the debut album was recorded pretty much in its entirety in a hunting cabin in Wisconsin using a Mac and Pro Tools LE!
I think that this evolution has significantly changed recorded music and also, what is of most interest to me, the voice and its role in popular music.
- Success in popular music is less about virtuosic vocal and instrumental talent, more about being a successful arranger and producer. Would musical luddites like Oasis have such an impact in this day and age, with just guitars, voice and drums?
- Genre-mixing: A particularly important feature of this evolution is that MIDI beats are replacing traditional percussion…. essentially, electronic beats are replacing the classic drum kit. Why stick to a limited palette of just bass, snare, hi-hat and cymbals when you can programme something totally original? In my opinion this shift has also resulted in the merging of genres. Popular music can no longer be defined in the traditional single categories of “rock”, “dance” etc. It’s a wonderful example of technology changing the landscape of music, perhaps equally as important as the rise of the electric guitar in the ’50s and ’60s.
- How does it all relate to the voice? My slightly tentative take is that the wealth of sonic opportunities which are now available has relegated the voice (and narrative songwriting) to being just another sound effect and not the primary means of communicating the message of a song. The voice has become part of a soundscape and in this role the smooth tone and limited dynamics of the falsetto fit very well. It is particularly suited to melancholy/dark music, almost wordlessly shaping the mood. Think James Blake for example.
The question I’m left with though is whether our musical tastes will eventually revert back to more traditional musical arrangement/sounds at some point in the near future. Having been exposed to heavily processed vocals, perhaps we will begin to yearn for something more natural sounding. In terms of falsetto, I personally find it less exposing and less personal to listen to than a singer using the full range of their voice.
Which makes me wonder whether music is increasingly consumed as a soundtrack to our lives, as opposed to being the singular focus of our attention in any given moment. Seen in this context, lyric-driven, linear narrative songs, which demand focussed listening, may be too obtrusive to the way in which the public are listening to music (at parties, while on their phone etc). A question for another time!
I’m a contemporary vocal coach based in Oxford. Click here to find out more about my singing lessons.
**Here’s a top-of-head list of male pop falsettists that I love:
Low Island-Brilliant Oxford-based group
James Blake-One of the electronic falsetto “first movers” (yes, I’m using economics terms totally tongue-in-cheek)