Friday, July 02, 2010

The Miseducation of NPR

I was perturbed to learn this week that NPR chose rapper/singer Lauryn Hill for their 50 Great Voices Series. This is their list of the 50 greatest singers ever, based in part on suggestions/voting from listeners. Each week, for the rest of this year, NPR will feature a new artist. Are you kidding me?

Lauryn Hill? Really?

I guess this is the point where I should add another disclaimer... I am not a fan of Lauryn Hill. (I'm not going to gain much support from this commentary). I have never cared for her music... and anyone reading this blog long enough should know how I feel about rap and the Hip Hop culture. However, I do respect Hill for being a talented musician. I can recall flipping through the channels several years ago and stumbling upon her unplugged performance. She's talented, there are no ifs ands, or buts about that.

She's a pretty good singer in my humble opinion. But one of the 50 Great voices in the entire world, EVER? Let's stop with the nonsense. Who made this decision at NPR? This is the point where NPR's 50 Greats adventure went from a serious project to more of a joke. This seemed to be more of a PR effort on the part of NPR to reach out to a younger, more Hip Hop oriented demographic... a group that doesn't listen to NPR in great numbers on a regular basis.

One big irony here is that Mary Christine Brockert & Roberta Flack have yet to make the list and may never be chosen. I doubt if NPR will pick both, and chances are slim that even one will be recognized. Yet Hill has borrowed heavily from these two singers during her career....covering their performances, using their riffs, their phrasing, their style and so on. Hill doesn't come close to Brockert or Flack when it comes to the art of singing. They would both blow Hill off stage. Hill's voice has a limited range...and her singing style is much more forced, her delivery more contrived. Her voice may be natural, but she's not a natural singer.

Another issue is the fact that Hill has had a limited career compared to the all-time great singers around the world. There is not that much material to base such a big decision on. Hill has benefited from an era of sampling and technology to enhance her performances and boost her career.

I was lucky enough to have seen Brockert live in concert in St. Louis back in 1994. I was stunned by the performance... to this day I shudder thinking about what I saw and heard that night. How could such a powerful voice come out of such a small package, I thought to myself. THAT is a singer.... I can recall how she held one note for somewhere in the ballpark of 30 seconds...(not hyperbole), just to play with the crowd...which was screaming & throwing roses on stage at that point. Circular breathing perhaps? I'm not sure. But I had never heard a singer like her before or since.

The generations of "singers" who came after Luther Vandross and Whitney Houston (in her prime) just never quite measured up for me. Perhaps it's my old age (only 37 this month). But I have always identified with older generations of artists. That's not to say that the current crop of young singers isn't talented... there are definitely good singers still around...but they are hit & miss.

The list of 50 Great voices were supposed to be the very best in the world...the best ever...the best that some Countries had to offer...the best that some cultures had to offer. On an exclusive list like that, a Lauryn Hill just doesn't measure up in my book. If this were a list of 500 Great voices... then there might be enough room to fit her in. But this is a list of 50 of the best throughout modern human history.... since the introduction of the vinyl record over 100 years ago.

Hill is a folk hero to generations of young Black Americans (those 35 & under), although I don't really understand why. I have never understood this phenomenon. But that folk hero status may have something to do with the admiration her supporters have for her and may ultimately be the reason for the selection. That probably played a bigger role in her selection than her actual impact, voice, or singing prowess.

The cult of Lauryn Hill is one of many things in the "Black Community" that never made any sense to me...someone looking at it objectively from another perspective. Perhaps its that identity thing again... The fact that I don't identify with today's Black culture, and certainly don't identify with Hip Hop culture (which has largely taken the place of a real Black culture), probably has something to do with my bewilderment. But that's not a bad thing... because it allows me to make an unbiased assessment. I have been a connoisseur of good music for a long time...and I think I can say objectively & with confidence that Lauryn Hill doesn't make the cut.

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