Saturday, August 13, 2011

From the Vault: The Pretenders "Back on The Chain Gang" or, The Hardest Pop Song On Earth

I've been trying to get back into singing lately.  My friend and Odd Couple co-star Tio was a finalist for the local Idol competition, and I've been thinking about trying out.  I did a lot of singing in high school--musical theater, showchoir, chamber ensemble and all the terrible things that come with them.  That, and I never scored below a 5 out of 6 (usually getting a 6) at NYSSMA.

But a neck injury in college and a bout of infection that left me sounding like Tom Waits for six weeks when I was 22 more or less ruined my chances of ever being the screeching soprano in a metal band (or opera, whichever) and my descision to no longer persue musical theater left me with very few options for professional singing.  I don't play an instrument and there aren't a lot of karaoke options here, so I just sort of reduced myself to singing in the car and, occasionally, karaoke.

But I was listening to the Pretenders, and I was thinking about all my friends that do Idol every year, and thought that maybe I should get back into it.  I put "Back on the Chain Gang" on my record player, looked at my cat sitting politely on the couch, and, as I began to sing, I made a discovery.

"Back on the Chain Gang" is the hardest song in the world to sing.

My friend/writing partner Matthew makes fun of me for loving this song.  He calls out Chrissie Hynde as being a proto Natalie Merchant, a whispy little thing with a fairy voice.  Her voice is a little on the fey side, but what she does have is a master's control over it.  "Back on the Chain Gang" is riddled with grace notes, which less-talented singers usually gloss right over.  This explains why American Idol-type covers of The Pretenders always suck so monumentally.  Because they key isn't sliding up and down the scale, it's about hitting each one of those notes individually and moving to the next one.  It's a lot harder than it sounds.

This, by the way, coming from someone who routinely (and against her will) sang "Seasons of Love" from Rent, which a lot of musical theater types will agree is the hardest song in the genre to not screw up.  "Back on the Chain Gang" is a million times harder. Because not only are you trying to hit each of those notes, but you're trying to convey the same tough/tender/melancholy/hopeful tone of the song.  It's not about making it sound "pretty," it's about making it sound as real as Hynde makes it.

Maybe someday I'll get it . . . but for now, I'm having fun trying.

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