What defines good singing? Technique or feeling? That argument, a perennial among music lovers, roared back into the foreground last week after Harry Connick, Jr. appeared on American Idol. The fortysomething pianist and crooner found himself trending on Twitter for the first time since his acting run on Law & Order: SVU ended in 2012 after bullying the four young finalists about their failure to grasp the basics of the American Songbook. His cruelest moment came when teenager Amber Holcomb revealed that she thought "My Funny Valentine" was about a boy who told good jokes.
Connick adopted the demeanor of a self-satisfied high school history teacher as he told to Holcomb to go do some Google research on the miserable life of lyricist Lorenz Hart. The young singer, flustered beyond repair, sang terribly and was eliminated the next night. As for Connick, his stern-professor schtick paid off: pundits all over the Web lauded his insight, and his name was soon floated as a possible Idol judge.
Connick was certainly right on one level — when it comes to the standards to which he's devoted his own career, the words do matter, and in any case, it's helpful to learn a song before performing it. But what happens when his criteria for quality singing are applied to today's most popular music? A complicated reality emerges, one that goes beyond Idol to show that there are many versions of "classic" today, and many ways to be good.
The No. 1 charting album last week was Michael Buble's To Be Loved — a well-measured leap beyond the standards for the retro-Canadian, who made his fortune following Connick's advice to the letter. He's been changing up his style lately, though, and on this new album, Buble inches even further away from his son-of-Sinatra persona. He's mentioning Frank Ocean as an influence, and is blithely discussing his use of Auto-Tune with interviewers, including NPR's Rachel Martin. Buble wants to get on pop radio; he also wouldn't mind some love from critics who've long considered him too safe. It seems to be working: Buble's received friendly write-ups in both The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and Sarah Rodman of The Boston Globe declared that he's found his "true voice." For Buble, originality currently tops craft when it comes to being a good singer.
Two ubiquitous pop ballads also show how different contexts produce different definitions of pop vocal success. Pink and Nate Ruess's "Just Give Me a Reason" is the nation's most popular song, a mid-tempo ballad that epitomizes what might be called the post-Glee take on standards-style singing. It's grounded in Broadway-inspired interpretive belting, but it also uses rock and contemporary R&B as touchpoints. Pink, one of those versatile stars whom the Idol judges would identify as being able to "sing anything," tones down both her diva runs and her rock shouts here. She honors the melody in a way that's very current. This relatively simple but emotionally charged approach taps into two distinct but related sources of the modern-day singalong: emo, the punk offshoot that stresses feelingful melody and romantic confessionalism, and theater-kid culture, where countless teenage pop fans get their own first taste of the thrill of performance. Not coincidentally, these two strains are exactly what Ruess's band, fun., has mined to become both critical and popular favorites. "Just Give Me A Reason" defines good singng as method acting — there's a theatrical quality to Pink's and Ruess's emotionalism, but it's in the service of communicating big, hard to master emotions. (In terms of standards singers, think Judy Garland here, not Billie Holiday.)
Close on that song's heels on the Top 40 is Rihanna's ballad, "Stay," a single that's been hanging around since January, and which started gaining steam after the controversial singer performed it on the Grammys in February. Rihanna is the kind of multi-platform star whose core talent as a vocalist has often been questioned; she's a mistress of arena pop, a fashion icon, and a tabloid omnipresence, but few would call her one of this century's great singers. In her recent article on the simmering tensions between Idol judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj, the writer Heather Havrilesky argued that Minaj's brand of identity-driven stardom has replaced the more convention-driven ideal of the "pop-star factory" that favored big voices like Carey. Rihanna's success reinforces that view. Her singing style is the opposite of pyrotechnic: it's flat and malleable, though also instantly recognizable, like a streak of iridescent green paint added to the canvases of the many dance hits it embellishes,
Yet "Stay," a song that shows no sign of fading away, is Rihanna's bid for respect as an old-fashioned vocalist. Its minimal arrangement puts her imperfect voice at the center. Her delivery is conversational, but not in the clever, carefully modulated way that Connick prefers. If anything, it's amateurish — nasal, with its breaks and strained moments left intact. The legacy Rihanna taps into with "Stay" is that of the rock balladeer: she's invoking Janis Joplin in the first verses of "Me and Bobby McGee," or Mick Jagger singing "Wild Horses." Those singers dared rawness and almost painful intimacy; good singing, in those moments, was made stronger by being a little bit bad.
In the end, no definition of good singing can suffice when it comes to popular music. The very purpose of pop — whether in the American Songbook era or now — is to absorb the energy of its time and give it back, illuminated and intensified. And that spirit always moves in many directions at once, wafting out like smoke from tiny cabarets, bursting forth in the shape of praise from churches, clanging through the walls of the rock basement, bouncing in rhyme against city pavement. Learn the song? Sure. But there's never one clear lesson plan.
American Idol at its infrequent best gives fans a framework for debating these very issues. The show's lost so much steam this season that only Connick's outright condemnations have resonated beyond its shrinking fan base. And that's too bad, because even as it Titanically sinks, Idol is shedding light on a new top talent — and she's the kind of singer that in 2013 could only gain mainstream attention from a singing competition. Candice Glover, the gospel trained striver from the South Carolina sea island of St. Helena, is neither a glitzy diva like Carey or a mistress of the current like Minaj — in fact, she's so unconcerned with (or unskilled at) projecting a marketable image that she's currently undergoing personality training to increase her odds of winning against her more easily branded competitors.
But Glover can make a song — or even the snippet of a song, which is what you get on Idol — tell a story that's compelling and complex. You can see her mind working as she diverges from a melody or employs her mighty voice on a churchy run. She's passed the Adele test by mastering that singer's take on The Cure's "Lovesong," in what instantly became the season's most talked-about performance. She's bent hits by Bruno Mars and Drake to her will and delivered on classics, too. And after Connick tried to get her to tone down her delivery, she hit him back with a version of the torch song "You've Changed" that did take liberties, but only deeply intelligent ones. Like Kelly and Carrie before her, Glover is an Idol-slayer: she opens her mouth and the show's silliness gives way to sheer beauty. That's a way to sing well, too.