Rhythm & Blighty

Melisma Manchester? Not Bloody Likely.

In the car. Me: "Leave it on that station, it's 'Bootylicious.' " Deborah: "Please, no." Me: "What do you have against r&b?" Deborah: "That's not r&b, all that ululating."

The neosoul movement thinks American r&b is suffering from a dangerous lack of Fender Rhodes electric piano. Nick Hornby and other neocon cultural critics think r&b is a victim of the global underground network of cleavage and drum machines. Me, I think it's melisma's fault.

What is melisma? "A group of notes or tones sung to one syllable," says Webster. It's the move pop and r&b singers make when they hit a word that ends in a vowel. The "ooo" sound in "you" becomes a gallop of notes which often sounds like a bad guitar solo. Ululating. The best-known iteration of this strategy is also the point at which melisma became an affliction in pop, especially r&b: Mariah Carey's 1990 debut single "Vision of Love."

How important was this song? Very. In a 2001 interview, Beyoncé Knowles said, "After I heard 'Vision,' I started doing runs." "Doing runs" means, roughly, "singing harmonic variations on scales" or "going aaoooauaaahooaoah when you probably don't need to." The 20th-century instance of this style can be linked to the vocal tradition of the African American church, but don't correlate the pop version with Sunday service. Black folks brought this trick, among many others, into pop. It was repeated on shows like Star Search because the athletic physicality impressed people and signified emotion by being more noticeable than the other parts of the singing. That was nice. But now it has to get gone like the wind, and fast.

The first step? Take a flight at Heathrow and flip through the CD racks at the Air Mall. You'll find funny names, lots of cover versions, and more compilations than you can shake an ambassador at. The most famous comp is Now That's What I Call Music! and England's already up to Now 53 in the series. (That's right, we stole the idea.) If you think it's just kids buying sugary kid stuff, go hit a pub anywhere in England. The social space is the blueprint for the product—pubs themselves are compilations. Unlike those American bars that nurture misanthropy by keeping everyone drunk in near darkness, English pubs are often light and spacious. Some even have gardens out back, and many do plenty of business during daylight hours. Families have dinner, students meet for drinks, kids run around the pool table, and gnarled football nuts plunk down an empty glass, walk over to the jukebox and put on Kylie or Robbie at all times of day and night. Yeah, mate, dance pop. Nice beat, I can sing along, the missus enjoys it. Wot are you looking at? But if you don't like your sociology on a napkin, listen to any volume of Now. When there's no sure move, the next move is always disco. It is the European default position. And melisma? Forget it. Disco singers whisper, wail, and shout, but they do not quiver and wobble.

Disco is a start, but we still need Jamaica, the secret agent of British pop for the last quarter-century. The West Indian influence brings bottom end to all that music-hall humor and high-end harmony, a built-in rebel stance for potential teen customers that doesn't bum out Mum and Dad (Marley fans), and a way to sing sad songs without getting suicidal. Just check Massive Attack's favorite singer, Horace Andy, or one of UB40's heroes, Ken Boothe: long, cool strands of yearn spun inna sweet, simple style. Kind of like what people used to call r&b in America. (No melisma.) But singers like Andy and Boothe are just faces in Mum and Dad's record collections to many of the young performers in British r&b, while disco and sugary pop just form the immediate atmosphere. The real, living dialectic is between the colonizing force of American r&b/hip-hop and the recent establishment of a successful British black pop: Garage means British people don't need to say sorry anymore.

Started in the mid '90s as a tribute to New York house music (which 99 percent of humans would call disco), U.K. garage was slower than drum'n'bass, but borrowed its enormous "fuck off" synth basslines and dancehall chatting. Around 1998, the music traded the house bits for the playful, syncopated beats of Americans like Timbaland and She'kspere Briggs: U.K. garage as we know it was born. The music was upbeat enough to be pop, and graceful enough to convince girls it wasn't techno-boy wank. And as with American hip-hop, the genre was strong enough that chart hits didn't weaken the underground foundation. Artful Dodger and Craig David went Top 10 and garage kept growing.

Cultural borrowings from America dropped the minute garage proved itself. Sugababes's 2000 album One Touch sold big on the back of "Overload," a mysterious and addictive track that capitalized on garage's ability to be light but not lite. It was black and white and totally un-American, just like the band. Simultaneously, Craig David started breaking America, possibly because he does r&b melisma, but he didn't abandon garage to do it. Though the scene branded him a sellout, David tackled the singing seriously, using his nimble voice to hug the form's curves. David's going for the Titanic-sized ballad audience now but his first album, Born to Do It, was all about the grace built into garage. His new Slicker Than Your Average is too Adult Contemporary to make use of the few spasms of brio. But then, it's a pretty American album.

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