Friday, April 1, 2011

The Paul McDonald Question: Do you have to sing well to be a good singer?

Some say that I have been brutally honest, others say just plain brutal, in my weekly critiques of American Idol contestant Paul McDonald. The 26-year-old singer (?) from Alabama has been fronting the band The Grand Magnolias (previously Hightide Blues, proving just how hard it is to come up with a decent name for a band) since 2005.  They have recorded an LP and set up shop in Nashville, but not yet hit it big.

In an attempt to get him and his band a wider audience, he auditioned for Season 10 of American Idol.  Despite the fact that his singing voice is comprised of creaks and breaks, hoarseness and shaky whispers, he has made it thus far to the top 9.  What I hear as a broken down car crashing through a dilapidated, haunted house, fingernails slowly dragged across a chalkboard, or a rasp being pulled across a jagged rock, others hear as "quirky" and "unique."

He sounds like Rod Stewart, some say.  Others remind us that Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan.  I will not sully any of those great artists by paying any heed to these farfetched comparisons.  But, the discussion of a singer not being able to sing -- which one would think would be a deal breaker on a singing competition show -- caused me to think about singers who I have liked who might not have traditionally good voices. Resulting in this, a list of my favorite singers who can't sing -- but who I love despite their vocal shortcomings.

Elvis Costello -- While his aim is true, his voice sounds a lot more like someone under water or perhaps choking on phlegm.  The older he gets, the more aggravating'y awful his voice is.  But he wrote this, What's So Funny 'bout (Peace, Love and Understanding), Watching the Detectives and Radio, Radio, so all is forgiven.

Arlo Guthrie -- He brought nasally signing to a new high, or low, depending on how much of a stickler you are for proper singing technique.  You could tell he was influenced as much by Bob Dylan's legendary shortcomings as a vocalist as his prowess as a songwriter.

Graham Parker -- He can't sustain a note, his voice gets awkwardly twisted around the words he's trying to articulate and he has no power. Oh, and he sings too high, his voice gets weaker as the song goes on, and he has a really creepy sound augmented by a slight rasp.  So why is The Mona Lisa's Sister in heavy rotation on my iTunes?

Jackson Browne -- He has been quoted as saying, "I never was a very good singer," and I remember he once told a story of him siging up in his room and his father asking what that horrible noise was.  But he sang well enough, if not traditionally well, to sell his songs.

Billy Corgan  -- He is of course a brilliant songwriter and, as with the others on this list, I cut him slack because of that.  But knowing what his voice sounds like -- a cat being choked and electrified at the same time -- the fact that he would cover one of the most beautiful songs ever written just tickles me to no end.  And you know what, with all his squawking and sputtering, I love his version.

John Darnelle -- I think he only has one key, and it's flat.  It is more spoken-word than singing.  He's never been taught about breath control, or singing from your diaphragm, or how not to sing through your nose.  He was busy learning how to write songs that cut right through your heart.

Ben Folds -- He doesn't even try and sing, basically talking his way through most of the song, before trying to squeak out the melody in a voice so flat and tuneless you think the Brick of the title is an apt analogy.

Tom Petty -- The owner of possibly the most grating voice in all of music, Petty is a talented as writing songs as he is incapable of singing them in a pleasing manner.  When he gets to the chorus and has to sing in the higher register, it's as painful to hear as it seems to be on his poor, strained vocal chords.  But I woudn't want him to stop if it meant no more songs this good.

Here's Paul McDonald singing his own material, a song called American Dreams.  For me, the song is not nearly in the caliber of any of the songs above -- it's typical lightweight, forgettable pop.  If you can't sing well, you need to overcompensate with your songwriting.  Until he does that, I'll continue to point out his vocal deficits in my American Idol recaps -- especially since not to do so would be like shooting into a barrell of fish and missing.


  1. As an aside, I disagree about Jackson Browne being a bad singer. I think he has a very pleasant, rich voice. That said, some of the more famous performers you have highlighted may have been trying to sing quirkily to be different and hip. I think Paul also may be doing this to a certain extent, but I also think the high-pitched, hoarse, squeaky and weakness of his voice may be due to vocal cord nodules, a condition I have read caused by vocal cord abuse. I don't know this for sure, and you can't believe everything on the internet, but I have read that he has this condition and that it causes some of what we are hearing in his voice. This may also be why he was singing softly/whispering last Wednesday, maybe trying to not abuse his voice too much or lessen the effects of this condition. If this is true, I think the jury is still out on his potential as a singer. With vocal therapy and voice lessens maybe he can diminish some of the qualities many people dislike. I agree that the strained quality of his voice is unpleasant, but truly think he is a talented songwriter, creates good and unique arrangements of cover songs, is a charismatic performer, and that there are indeed pleasant aspects to his voice. I happen to like his song Sing Out (link below). Label it whatever you like, but I think it's a good song.

  2. But to answer your question, No, you don't have to sing "well" to be a good singer. What is "good" is subjective and it all depends on what a person likes and the mood they're in when they're listening. Also, as you said, a good song can make up for voice shortcomings.

  3. Karen Smith from HillsboroApril 1, 2011 at 4:07 PM

    I love Taylor Swift's songs. But do you think she would have made it past the stadium if she'd have tried out for American Idol? The studio definitely makes her sound better than her live performances. I still say it's the song. Would Jimmy Buffet have made it out of Margaritaville or did we all have too many margaritas to notice? If we love the song, we tend to love the singer. So my answer is no, you don't have to sing well to be a singer. I loved Paul the night he did the duo in Hollywood. Where did that guy go? IMHO

  4. Hey Shari...liked your clips! This was fun! Though my jury for Paul is still out, I'm sending you my personal fav (IMHO: missing from your list). I hope his song will help assuage your mood:-)

    BTW: I think it would be cool to hear Casey cover Neil's "Cowgirl In The Sand".

  5. OMG, How could I have forgotten Neil Young!!!!

  6. I think it does have something to do with the song itself.Neil young,Janice Joplin,Tom petty,and so many others actually have horrible singing voices,the songs just happen to go with the person singing.but I just don't get it when people say Paul has a unique voice to me it's like fingernails on a chalkboard.but who know maybe there will be a song that'll fit his voice.nahhhhh couldn't possibly happen.when I think of unique voices I think of Casey James,I swear if I would hear him on the radio without an intro I know i would recognize his voice.He sounds like nobody else that i've heard.he's one in a millon!

  7. Burnthismedia - You could say that 46,000 people like listening to Paul sing, but only 17,000 like listening to Casey James sing. Perhaps this is the cause of your problem!!! I think Paul is brilliant.

  8. ^ ^ @Anon: Well, we'll see if those 46K Donald followers will get him far post-Idol. Good luck, hope Paul will get a major record deal

  9. he won't,along with Casey A.and Jacob L.

  10. Not sure if Twitter followers is a measurement of anything. Andrew Garcia has 61,000 followers. Nice guy but I heaven't heard any label investing on him. Just stating facts.