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Vocal Phrasing

Before it was the title of an Ann Patchett novel, bel canto was a semi-popular school of singing in the mid 19th century. The term, referring to beautiful song, is relatively vague, and lacks a clear definition. In her review of Robert Toft’s book, Bel Canto: A Performer’s Guide, Hilary Poriss describes bel canto as relying on a singer’s operatic co-creation and co-composition (Poriss, 2014). Beautiful music, in belief, comes from within the producer of song. In terms of technical expertise, the style focuses heavily on phrasing, tonal contrast, and accented singing, emphasizing legato technique to create a unity in articulation across the piece.

Sinéad O’Connor has always identified herself as a classically trained bel canto singer, and it is something easily seen in her performance work. In a Facebook post dated 2015, O’Connor wrote that, to her, the “first principle” of bel canto song, is to “never sing a song we don’t emotionally identify with”(Larson, 2015). This commitment was evident in her recording of Nothing Compares 2 U, as O’Connor refused to compromise on her unique vocal performance techniques and vocal phrasing throughout the production process.

O’Connor imbues the song with a deep sense of loneliness and emptiness, a cry to find oneself in the midst of heartbreak. Right at the beginning of the song, O’Connor reveals her unique vocal phrasing technique: the wavering half-notes on “hours,” “away,” “night,” “day,” “away,” “I want,” and “restaurant.” The initial sound of her first “nothing” is wide open and unpredictable. These vocal moves suggest uncertainty, underscoring the riveting nature of the piece. O’Connor has often attributed this performance to the predictable emotions she finds when thinking of her deceased mother, a way to tap in to the emotional depth bel canto calls for (Laurence, 2016).

Guided by an interview with O’Connor’s co-producer Chris Birkett, music writer Richard Buskin analyzed the unique blend of influences that took O’Connor to Nothing Compares 2 U (Buskin, 2012). Birkett was driven to work with O’Connor due to her apparent lack of egocentrism, and a shared bel canto-esque belief in music production:

I believe that real creation comes from the divine, that there’s a flow of energy from the divine to the material, and that you have to just let it happen without getting in the way or trying to over-think things… I just let the creative process happen and try to capture it, and that meant Sinéad could manifest whatever she wanted. (Buskin, 2012)

That hands-off commitment to co-creation would allow O’Connor to bring her entire self into the recording booth, including her misconceptions about music production. Birkett notes that O’Connor had a lack of understanding of compression, likely due to the reverse mic technique she used during performances. As a result, Birkett had to edit vocals in-the-minute, attempting to salvage “every single syllable” from distortion (Buskin, 2012). What Birkett calls “terrible mic technique” was made up for in an uncanny ability to double-track her songs perfectly (Buskin, 2012). Nothing Compares 2 U was done in a single take, Birkett sharing that the emotional performance was also sourced from her breakup with manager Fachtna O’Ceallaigh, along with the recent death of her mother (Buskin, 2012). As a result, O’Connor stumbled across the right mixture of mistakes, talent, and emotional turbulence, to create a song that would feel hallowed and uncontrived in spite of its popularity.

Miley Cyrus arrived at Wrecking Ball with a highly stylized recording and promotion process in place, thus missing out on some of the grittier storyline O’Connor holds. Even without the background, Cyrus still arrives at the grand emotional momentum that bel canto leads up to. The song is one that carries emotional identification for Cyrus. While the songwriters did not intended it for her, Cyrus and her producers chose Wrecking Ball as part of conscious rebranding for her 2013 album Bangerz. The song came during a time of upheaval, Cyrus claiming that she found it in the midst of “devastating heartbreak.”(McGahan, 2014)

“I wrote this song after somebody broke my heart, and I just wanted to say f— you. I wanted to write a No 1 hit, something that would be on the radio, I wanted to make sure every time he turned on the radio he would hear my song and will keep hearing it for the rest of his life.” (McGahan, 2014)

This story Cyrus shared in 2014 finds a place for the song in heartbreak, despite the incorrect statement that she had written the song. Cyrus exercises the heartbreak through sometimes broken vocal phrasing, similar to O’Connor’s wavering half-notes. The words break at critical moments, such as, “break me” and “wreck me,” creating an interesting and emotional turn toward the heart of the song rather than just the composition. The vocal phrasing quite obviously underscores the words, such as “break” being broken, and provides a profound connection for Cyrus between her story and lyrics that are not hers.

Everything about the sound elements of Wrecking Ball provide listeners with an image of fragility mixed with power. While her voice is crisp and precise throughout the song, Cyrus never moves away from legato in her pre-chorus. The bel canto method emphasizes a smooth production in vocal range, and Cyrus makes small steps through her range without sounding labored (Poriss, 2014). The height of Wrecking Ball is the richly colored melody that erupts during the chorus, telling listeners how to feel through vocal force. With access to better resources and an understanding of recording methods, Cyrus owns a more polished song, but one that did not sacrifice each critical syllable in a bel canto style.

Despite the two artists not seeing eye to eye on feminist pedagogy and best practices, they took inspiration from a canon of music devoted to authenticity. On either end of the feminist spectrum, there is an emphasis on being true to oneself, a belief which ultimately shape-shifts due to generational differences. In the case of Cyrus, emotional impact delivered via bel canto vocal phrasing was a point of authenticity worth honoring.

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