I want them to just sing. Let me backup a little and explain. First, it must be said, that while I am most definitely Black, I am by no means, a singer. Sure, like many Preacher’s Kids, I sang on the choir (really had no choice in the matter), but that is where my singing skills began and ended: I sang soprano while being drowned out by a number of other kids (mostly my cousins), the organ (played by my dad, the “Preacher”), the keyboard (played by my brother Joe), and the drums (played by another one of my cousins).
To be fair, I was not, and am not, tone deaf. I didn’t sound horrible. I just sounded… a lot like how I speak: high pitched, a little nasally, and kind of like a back up singer for the Chipettes. Curiously, although my sister and I had nearly identical speaking voices, she actually could sing. Go figure.
I’ve always admired those who could really sing, no matter if you sounded like Jasmine from “Aladdin,” Tatyana Ali, Frank Sinatra, or Julie Andrews. Talent is talent, no matter the singer’s race, nationality or gender. It didn’t really matter what the musical genre was, either. While I’ve always been pulled toward Soul, Gospel, and R&B (I really loved me some Al Green at 3. Big Bird and Al Green.), I also enjoyed Pop, Smooth and Classic Jazz, Hip Hop, Rock, and some Country. Good music is good music.
But… uhmmm, I realized at a still rather young age that sometimes, Black folks would go overboard on the riffs and runs. Some singers could turn a rather simple word like “amen” into a ten syllable behemoth. Or they’d insert a number of extra words or phrases into a lyric ( “Jesus loves, oh yes He does, MY JESUS, I’m sayin’, Jesus loves the little, the teeny, tiny, children…”). By the time I was about 9, I was pretty over it all. While other parishioners would yell, “Oh, yes, SANG, Mother Thompson!,” I’d be sitting wondering why Mother Hattie Mae couldn’t just SING it? After all, if I, one of those wee little Savior beloveds was ready for the next song, I was sure Jesus had been sufficiently praised in that particular hymn. Showboating, even wrapped in Sunday best, is still showboating.
I remember an episode of The Simpsons perfectly captured this problem around the same time I lost patience for excessive runs:
A recent episode of The Daily Show had Trevor Noah making note of the seemingly never-ending feel of sanging:
I’m sure some readers are wondering why I’m picking on Black folks when there are non-Black artists who definitely overdo it. Let me just say, “Duh”. I mean, I’ve loved Christina Aguilera since she declared herself a genie in a bottle, but she has become notorious for riffing. There have been whole TikTok challenges dedicated to mimicking her. Ariana Grande (who also loves to riff and run) can do a mean impression of her, so much so I need you to check out Ariana doing Christina singing “The Wheels on the Bus” on Fallon:
While she’s scarily good (I mean, wowee), this clip demonstrates what I’m talking about. Yes, it takes talent (and some good lungs) to use one’s voice the way classic jazz greats used their trumpets or saxophones. It’s exciting to hear a person scale octaves in mere seconds, only to turn right around and end where they began. However, it’s takes true genius to know how and when to sing it straight. And sometimes, those geniuses do just the right mix, and magic happens.