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.
As are parts of the Sugababes’s second album, Angels With Dirty Faces, though its purview, including a near-reggae track called “No Man, No Cry,” is very Euro. As the group says in an interview for iwanttoworkinmusic.com (not making it up): “It’s fairly similar to the first; a bit of r&b, anything you can move to really.” Daniel Bedingfield could have given the same answer about his debut album. His big single is pure garage, jacked-up and ecstatic, but Gotta Get Thru This gives the genre a workout—stretching it from cinematic melodrama to bona fide pop-rock. The album sounds like the direct output of a lifetime spent in the pub, spinning 45s through the spectrum. Did we mention the low melisma content?
The critically acceptable face of garage in the U.K. is Ms. Dynamite, winner of the 2002 Mercury Prize, much cooler than a Grammy but not as cool as the Nobel. A Little Deeper, due out here on Interscope, became even more relevant after a spate of recent gun killings spurred MP Kim Howells to denounce gangsta rap lyrics as partially responsible for the violence. (OK—the evil hip-hop lyrics thing? That we made up.) The crisis is presaged in Ms. Dynamite’s first album hit, “It Takes More”: “If it’s not too complex, tell me how many Africans died for the baguettes on your Rolex?” Originally a ruff ‘n’ tuff garage MC, Dynamite has “gone all Lauryn Hill-y,” say the devotees. A Little Deeper is roughly American hip-hop shot through with bits of garage and reggae. The only American woman adduced here is Queen Latifah, a figure miles from current r&b. It isn’t just the womanist politics—the chorus of “Dy-Na-Mi-Tee” is a direct paraphrase of Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” and the overall goody-goody vibe is reminiscent of those early Latifah records that nobody ever listened to. Melisma? Not in this yard, friend.
Though Bedingfield and Dynamite are truly English blends, Abs is weirder and lighter, and possibly more illustrative. After the breakup in 2001 of ultra-lite boy band 5ive (yeah, England did that first, too), singer Richard “Abs” Breen was signed to BMG by American Idol‘s evil Simon Cowell. Abs has triangulated his Euro worldview by doing covers of Monie Love and Dead or Alive, but his first single, “What You Got,” which he says has a “real reggae vibe,” skanks like a karaoke machine on the “Jimmy Cliff, 90 BPM” setting. Abs sings a teen-dating/consumerism paean lifted from Born to Do It, and then delivers an odd one-two punch. The chorus is sung by the whitest squadron in Britannia, more Mitch Miller than garage, and then, as the romantic negotiations peter out, Abs starts to let loose with this chant: “No pop, no style! I strictly roots!” The cultural dissonance is vaguely hallucinatory. Not that he’s gotta be Burning Spear, but it’s a bit like Dolly Parton saying, “Holler back, West Side!” Totally charming, in other words, and blissfully unaware of the genre’s rules, as all good pop should be. It’s a typical British r&b experience, like being at the pub on the far side of three pints, hearing Cilla Black, Althea & Donna, and Kylie all smearing into each other and knowing, somehow, that you couldn’t possibly be anywhere else.