Mariah Carey’s New Year’s Eve lip syncing debacle has garnered a lot of media attention, but it’s hardly the first time a celebrity icon has crashed and burned in a major public performance. New Year’s Eve 2015 brought you Idina Menzel eating it at the end of “Let It Go,” and 2011 brought you Christina Aguilera’s memorable “Star Spangled Banner,” in which she mixed up the words and essentially yelled the high note. So why does this seem to happen with great singers so often? Why do celebrity singers go off so much in large public performances? The short answer is because they’re humans singing very difficult songs in very difficult conditions.
Stop Blaming Poor Technique!
Every time a non-classical singer-celebrity has a terrible performance, there’s a whirlwind of activity from other singers on social media claiming that it’s poor vocal technique finally catching up to them. “Those ‘whistle’ tones [Mariah] used to do? Those are NOT good for the vocal chords,” someone commented on YouTube. “If [Idina] knew how to use her diaphragm when singing she could have avoided that voice crack,” commented another immensely helpful viewer (who, no doubt, could have nailed that high belt in “Let It Go” in freezing cold weather using her superior breathing techniques).
Let’s get one thing straight. This type of singing can be damaging. In fact, I don’t think anyone would call Idina’s New Year’s Eve rendition of “Let It Go” fantastic healthy-belt technique. And if Mariah had to churn out those whistle tones for every live performance instead of lip syncing, there’s a good shot she’d hurt herself. But “poor technique” can’t be the go-to reason for these bad performances.
Celebrity Singers are Human
Anyone who’s taken years of voice lessons knows how difficult perfect consistency is. I hear students say all the time, “I’m having a good [or bad] singing day!” Every day we’re faced with a variety of factors that affect our voices in different ways: the amount of sleep we got, the amount we’ve had to speak or sing that week, how hydrated we are, what our stress level is, the temperature of the venue, the pollen count…the list goes on. Even singers with expertly trained voices will have days when everything is working and days when it just ain’t gonna happen. It’s the same with celebrities. Some days Idina can crush it, like at this recent Disneyland performance, and other times she can go way off on the high notes. Just like you and me!
Celebrity Singers Sing in Difficult Conditions
Celine Dion sings in a very controlled climate in Vegas. Conditions are roughly the same each evening, and she even requires that the temperature of the theater be set a certain way. But not everyone chooses his or her environment. If you’ve ever tried to sing a difficult song in a chilly room or in front of someone who made you nervous and felt you weren’t at your peak, try to envision belting out “Let It Go” outside on a winter’s night in Manhattan. In the snow. Close to midnight. Over a massive screaming crowd. With the whole world watching on TV. This is hardly a controlled environment optimized for singing. No wonder singers like Mariah Carey choose to lip sync!
People’s Voices Change Over Time
No, this doesn’t mean that you have nodes necessarily, but your voice, regardless of your vocal health, will change as you age. You may have a perfectly healthy whistle register at age 20 that has gotten lower by the time you hit 40, and if you’re expected to sound exactly the way you did in a recording from when you were younger you’ll probably end up straining (unless you’re lip syncing). You may be practicing with the healthiest technique in the world, but if you aren’t able to adjust your music to your changing voice, you’ll probably run into problems down the line.
Touring is Exhausting
It doesn’t matter if you’re singing pop, musical theatre, or opera. If you have a rigorous performance schedule that you don’t get a break from, especially when you get sick, it’s going to take a toll on your voice. Getting enough rest is imperative for vocal health, and if canceling a performance is going to force you to return thousands of dollars in ticket sales, you’re going to have a hard time getting the break your voice needs.
So What’s to Be Done?
Train, Train, Train
Perfect vocal consistency is not going to happen, but you can mitigate the guessing game with lots of vocal training. Knowing how your voice works and building up the right muscle memory (instead of opening your mouth and hoping for the best) will go a long way toward making your performances more predictable. Oh, and run your lyrics a lot!
Have Some Compassion
The next time you see an iconic singer butcher a song, try not to jump to the go-to list of critiques we all hear (“She shouldn’t be belting–it’s unhealthy”; She obviously can’t really sing and entirely relies on autotune”; “she should be banned from America for forgetting the words to the National Anthem”…yes, that was a real comment). Instead, think of how hit-or-miss performances can feel, and realize that it’s the same for everyone.
In case you haven’t already read between the lines, my main reason for writing this post isn’t to protect or defend celebrity singers (Mariah Carey doesn’t need my protection). Instead, I’m writing this so that you don’t judge yourself so harshly for one bad performance. Very little makes performing more terrifying than watching a celebrity screw up and then watching the world pounce on how awful they were. If you have a bad performance, it doesn’t mean that your technique is awful, or that you should only sing with autotune, or that you should just give up, or that you as a singer are in any way defined by that performance. It means that all of us, from vocal students just performing for the first time to celebrity singers, have off days, and the best thing we can do is to brush it off and make the next one a little better.