Sorry for the radio silence here recently. I thought I was dying there for a bit but it turned out to be just a really bad bout of pneumonia. Not having contracted it before, I thought it was just a return of the flu, but that changed when I started coughing up blood. It knocked me sideways for weeks, I still have muscle pains from the violent coughing fits. Two weeks of antibiotics have set me back on my feet, with just a lingering cough and shortness of breath still to conquer.
This excerpt from Uproot: Travels in 21st Century Music and Digital Culture is a lovely piece of music writing (even as the excerpt just ends abruptly). I love this passage on Whitney Houston's cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" from the Bodyguard soundtrack. It remains the all-time bestselling single by a female recording artist.
From the outset, Parton’s lyrics and melody become secondary to Houston’s modulations on them. Whitney inserts pauses, extends syllables, redraws the melody to fit the moment. Her arabesque vocalizations become something in their own right, codependent and contingent yet emotionally, viscerally, musically real. The ornament swells to become the heart.
These effects flow from her masterful use of a technique called melisma. Technically speaking, melisma occurs when vocalists use melodic embellishment to extend a single syllable. Emotionally, it’s something else entirely, a mode of expression that bucks against the very limits of language. Indeed, the crushing power of “I Will Always Love You,” its meaning in sound, results from how Houston’s melisma activates a mysterious, even mystical relationship between overflowing emotion, life’s vicissitudes, and ultra precise self-control. Rather than simply sing about the bittersweet conflicts involved in saying goodbye to a lover, Houston deploys melisma to enact in sound a heart-felt struggle between holding on and letting go. Like life as it unfurls, each moment is un-anticipatable until it happens, whereupon we can’t possibly imagine it any other way.
Such is the power of melisma. The technique breathes life-flow into fixed text. Melisma is vocal embellishment’s purest form, almost always improvised and therefore rarely written down. Melisma locates meaning in the instant. It reveals to us the risk and control of a singer at her most unpredictably alive.
I love learning terms like melisma which refer to very specific and arcane things in various fields. Linguistics is full of them, like anaphora, synecdoche, and metonymy. The rest of this passage takes an unexpected, almost Seinfeldian turn to discuss how Auto-Tune rose to prominence in North Africa.
Though Kevin Costner got dragged for playing a white savior of sorts in Hidden Figures, this is one time where he earns partial credit for fighting for the a cappella opening of Houston's cover.
Houston begins unaccompanied, as if the string section and other instruments have, like me, been stunned into silence by the quality of movement inside the filigreed pathways of her voice. Houston doesn’t stretch each word out so much as give it wings to fly around in. I and you—these brief words can last for seconds here, long enough to make sure we all know just how large they really are. The vulnerability of her naked voice ups the bravura. It’s a tightrope walk without a safety net (Auto-Tune hadn’t been invented yet). As with Cher’s Auto-Tune innovation, the record company executives were dead set against the now-famous a cappella opening. It took protests from Houston and Bodyguard costar Kevin Costner to keep it intact. (Tone deafness or outright hostility toward music as an art form may not be required to land a job as a major-label exec, but all indications suggest that they sure won’t hurt your chances.)