May 25th, 2006

Thoughts on American Idol: what makes a singer great?

I haven’t kept up with American Idol much this season, which is just fine with me. But every now and then I do take a look.

Last night was the final, as the populists among you no doubt are aware. I was out, so I taped it and fast-forwarded through, looking for something, anything, of interest–since I wasn’t the least bit interested in the results, telegraphed long before they were announced.

For some, this thing of interest might have been Prince, who made an appearance, looking sleek and slinky. Not me; not my era, I guess. For others it could have been Al Jarreau, who sounded smooth and soulful. But for me it was the surprise of seeing and hearing an old, old favorite from my youth, Dionne Warwick.

Dionne was looking good, although there may have been some facial plastic surgery in evidence; at any rate, she was never known for her looks. What she was known for was her voice and her intense and light-as-air, make-it-look-easy, effortless musicality.

Yes, the voice wasn’t exactly the same, but what is? It retained enough of her absolutely unique and utterly and instantly identifiable deft touch to be pure pleasure to listen to.

Many of the American Idol contestants can sing, but one of the things I think they almost always lack is the individuality that is the mark of every great singer. Hear Judy Garland or Frank Sinatra or whoever it is you like–Dionne Warwick–and after only one second you know who it is you’re listening to. The sound is as one-of-a-kind as a fingerprint.

A wonderful voice is a wonderful voice, and a great singer has to have one. But to be truly great, the voice has to have some timbre, some quirk, some quality that spells uniqueness. Ms. Warwick had it, and she still has it.

7 Responses to “Thoughts on American Idol: what makes a singer great?”

  1. shaenfromcanada Says:

    i agree with you 100% about Dionne! She has class and you instantly who she is from the first note…i love the texture of her voice, it has matured like fine wine! After 45years-what a legend!

  2. SteveR Says:


    I’m 100% with you on Dionne Warwick.

    She was and is a wonderful singer, but when you put her with Burt Bacharach music and Hal David lyrics, it’s about as good as it gets.

  3. neo-neocon Says:

    snowonpine: I responded, in a new post.

  4. snowonpine Says:

    Neo–On this I must disagree with you.

    Ms. Warwick seemed, to me, to exemplify the inability of a star–be it a TV star, prize fighter or singer–to let go and retire gracefully at the top of their form rather than drag it out, year after weary year until all that made them great has vanished and only an embarrasing croak or just the ability to take punishment remains. When they start to rearrange your charts, so that notes you once sang with ease but which are now unattainable are eliminated and the song is changed, its time to retire.

    Frank Sinatra did this and loyal fans still ponied up a lot of money to hear him sing when his voice was plainly shot. Dick Clark, it could be argued, is another example. Some have said his slurred New Years Eve broadcast showed his courage but, I can’t help seeing this as his pride at work.

  5. Ymarsakar Says:

    The musicality thing deserves its own post. But it is enough to say that the human being recognizes more than just the simple mechanics of melody, tone, pitch, and speed in a song. I’m not talking about the loudness, bass, or beats though.

  6. neoneoconned Says:

    neo we agree on someting! Dionne Warwick! top singer!

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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