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Pomona professor Kevin D.H. Dettmar has an essay in this week’s Chronicle Review, titled “The Discreet Charm of the Bad Voice,” where he argues that listeners find atonal singing uniquely empathetic because it is easy to imitate. Dettmar’s examples are sometimes dubious—Neil Young, John Mayer, and Thom Yorke aren’t exactly the three tenors, but I would hesitate to call their voices bad by any pop standard—and he devotes a lot of space to name-dropping that might have been better used exploring the sociological underpinnings of the bad-voice appeal. But his basic thesis is worth considering: Are we drawn to certain “bad” singers because their badness makes their music more accessible? To put it in Tocquevillian terms: Is the popularity of imprecise singers like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Tom Waits due to the equality of conditions in America, and the democratic tastes it engenders?
It’s an intriguing question, but I think it ultimately misses the point. The difference between Dylan, Cash, Waits, et al. and Joe Karaoke is that those three write extraordinary songs. That is their primary appeal. A shitty song can be popular if a great-sounding vocalist sings it, and a great song can be popular if a shitty-sounding vocalist sings it, but a shitty song by a shitty singer has won’t draw democrats or anyone else. The gap between the musician and the listener must still exist. In the Kurt Vonnegut story “Harrison Bergeron,” set in a dystopia where absolute equality reigns, the characters react with a justified lack of enthusiasm to a ballet performance featuring dancers that are no more or less talented than anyone else who might care to don a leotard. Surely a bad voice alone does not capture the democratic ear; it is merely an ornament of an otherwise moving melody, composition, or narrative. A more honest vehicle for a more honest song. Style following substance.
And so we have David Dondero, the latest of Team Love’s unconventional crooners (Conor Oberst’s label collects them). Dondero’s promo page at Jammin’ Java, where he performs tonight, calls him “this generation’s Townes Van Zandt,” which is almost certainly a stretch—I’d sooner call him “this generation’s other Conor Oberst,” if slightly more troubadour-ish. But NPR calls him the tenth best living songwriter, which is less of a stretch. Incidentally, his songs are very hard to sing along to. (What say you, Dettmar?)
DAVID DONDERO, TONIGHT @ JAMMIN’ JAVA, 8 P.M. $10