The Scourge Of 'American Idol': Oversingers

Vocal gymnastics often kill a contestant's chance.

They appear every day, all across the world, but this time each year, they come out in droves. They seem harmless at first, sometimes even attractive, but in the end they can be severely dangerous, especially to the ears. They are "oversingers." And they drive the "American Idol" judges mad.

"The problem is that everyone wants to impress us," Randy Jackson said of the thousands of "Idol" wannabes who turn out for auditions each season. "So if you can sing a run like Whitney Houston, which is more of a church or gospel kind of thing, people try and do that and think, 'Oh, the judges will be wowed by that,' but it's really quite the opposite. We're looking if you can sing in tune, have an interesting tone and you actually know the melody and you adhere to it."

Oversinging is a disease that's infected every season of "American Idol" from beginning to end, or at least until the top five or so. Some even said it was the reason for the shocking demise in season three of Jennifer Hudson, who is now starring in the upcoming flick "Dreamgirls" alongside Beyoncé and Jamie Foxx (see "Beyonce Slimming Down And 'Completely Becoming Deena' "). It's always in the initial auditions, though, when it rears its ugly head the most, and this season it seems to be worse than ever.

Ken Warwick, one of the show's executive producers, is blaming it, at least partially, on nerves.

"The show has got a track record now, and it's intimidating," he said. "They know now that if they're not good, they're just going to be torn to pieces. It's really frightening, and strangely enough, we get more nerves on that first day when the thousands are waiting to audition than we do later on. They somehow get accustomed to it and they kind of get into it a bit more. But they oversing early because they're trying to impress and nerves push them over the top."

"Oversinging" is not in the dictionary (at least not yet), but there are a few definitions of the word, depending on whom you ask.

"Typically it refers to using too many riffs, runs and embellishments in their singing," said Hollywood vocal coach Roger Burnley, who has worked with Brandy and Macy Gray. "Some people also refer to it as 'vocal gymnastics.' "

"Oversinging is pressing too hard from the throat rather than letting the sound come out naturally using diaphragmatic support from the belly," added another Hollywood vocal coach, Chrys Page, whose resume includes a stint touring with Frank Sinatra. "It's also singing every line with the same volume and having an absence of nuance, style or interpretation."

Christel Veraart, a San Diego vocal coach and trained soprano, refers to oversinging as "belting."

"The voice can roughly be divided into three sections: chest, middle and head," she explained. "In order to have easy access to all three sections of your voice you need to learn how to blend, among other things. This means that you don't ever try to make just a chest voice sound, but always try to blend it a little bit. And belting is pushing the chest voice beyond its natural place so it feels and sounds like pushing a truck up the hill."

However defined, one thing all the experts seem to agree on is that oversinging is a growing problem, one that can be partially blamed on power singers like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Christina Aguilera.

While Burnley believes all of those divas to be oversingers in their own right, Page argues the opposite. "They don't oversing, but some young hopefuls, trying to sound exactly like those artists, consistently do it because they haven't yet found their own voice and style," she said.

"I just want people to realize that they can't sing a Whitney Houston song and sound like Whitney Houston, or they can't sing Celine Dion and sound like Celine Dion," added Nigel Lythgoe, another one of the executive producers of "Idol." "The worst was Britney Spears years ago, where everyone came with a slightly affected 'Oh, baby, baby.' Nobody sings like that. I mean, that was done with production, and God knows, not very well. And they come in and they try and repeat that sort of vocal and you go, 'Oh, for God's sake, how stupid.' "

The best advice can actually be taken from one of the compliments most often heard from Jackson and his fellow judges, Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul: "Nice control."

"Undersinging requires more vocal control, as demonstrated by more of the standard and jazz singers who typically had much better technique than many of today's pop singers," Burnley explained. "The thing that a lot of singers miss is that the whole point of singing is to communicate a story or message in a song and that can be lost with too many embellishments."

Page, however, cautioned not to think of it as undersinging. "Undersinging is singing softly but without support, so no intensity," she said. "Singing softly with support can be magnetic if done correctly."

"It's actually harder [to sing softer] and it's also harder to sing low than it is to sing at the midpoint in your range or slightly higher," Jackson added. "I think what everyone forgets is these kids are amateurs. Most of these kids probably haven't had a lot of lessons or they probably had lessons from the wrong people. If they had it all together, they probably wouldn't need this show. So you're listening to people that no one's ever told them, 'Don't oversing.' No one's ever said, 'Stop it. You're never going to sound like Mariah or Whitney.'

"I mean, no dis to Whitney Houston," he added. "I would hope that any one of the 'Idol' contestants, winners, whatever, would be half as good as Whitney Houston."

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