An experienced singer walks onto the stage with the strong desire to elicit emotion from their audience. The best singers have an arsenal of techniques at their command. It is their job, in part, to make us feel something beyond our daily range of emotions.
With each song, they take us on an emotional journey. But few singers can actually bring us to tears. Why is that? But more importantly, what are those rare, gifted singers doing when they have that effect on us?
There are a few things involved that are pretty easy to define. There are some fascinating mysteries, too. Let’s look at the attributes of several great singers in concert, to unravel some of these things.
I think we can agree that no matter your chosen style of music, we love singers for their looks and for what they represent to us. With the marvellous singer Andrea Bocelli the fact that he is blind and is often walked ceremoniously onto the stage by a guide and yet sings with such passion and beauty is hugely appealing.
With the handsome Bocelli, the stage is set for us to feel full of emotion, even before he opens his mouth. Then there’s his beautiful voice.
With some singers, the voice is so extraordinary that almost nothing else matters. A close friend of mine who is 75 now, is a bit of a tough guy and a lover of Steven King novels and horror movies. Yet the one person who could bring him to tears, when she was in her prime, was the elegant Julie Andrews.
When I asked him why he thought she could do that to him, he said: “Her voice was perfect. She could hit the right note with the right volume and the right colour on just the right words. It was hard to believe that such perfection existed. She was also a truly lovely person. She could make me cry.”
My friend is not alone in being swept away by Julie Andrews. On one crowd-rank website, Andrews is #21 in the list of best female singers of all time, just after Barbra Streisand.
For sheer magnificence of voice, Pavarotti often stunned his listeners to tears. You need only watch him sing the opera aria Nessun Dorma to understand how great vocal power accompanied by the fervent “cry” in the voice could shock the tear glands of his listeners into brimming over.
From having read interviews with Pavarotti, I know that he knew how to milk a moment – to hold a note much longer than required in order to lift a musical phrase to breathtaking heights. Manipulation? Yes, but perhaps it was in service of a greater cause.
He lets us see onstage the unbelievable mix of feelings that we all have inside us yet cannot begin to express. He did that for us, in song.
Sometimes it can be the sheer beauty of a combined sound that can pull some people up and over the edge of the emotional glass. The Eagles’ song Hotel California is a good example.
With driving rhythm, exotic lyrics, ease of execution through great musicianship, accompanied by the plaintiff energy of Don Henley’s voice backed by inspired harmonies, the Eagles created a sound environment that made it easy for us to let go of emotional inhibitions. We were primed to open the flood gates in awe.
But there are also quieter, simpler moments to consider. Some singers invite us to lean into their solo acoustic world and feel awestruck in quite another way.
Dolly Parton sings her poignant song, I Will Always Love You, with a lot of tenderness. But it was the stellar voice and physical beauty of Whitney Houston that brought the song to another place entirely. From the first acapella note, she delivered a majestic siren’s song of longing.
Did she plan this? Absolutely. With a lot of training and a lot of experience, she knew when the moment was right to hold a note aloft until the breaking point. And we loved her for it. We poor humans can feel so small in life. Singers can sometimes help us to open up to our grander selves.
But let’s go even quieter. VOCES8 is a group of 8 vocalists who sing like they are one voice that has many colours. They create such a unified palette of multicoloured tone, and they breathe together with such apparent ease, that it creates an otherworldly sound.
I would describe it as spiritual. It’s a sound-field that reflects a state of peace that many of us long for but seldom find. We do find it with these 8 singers. Their unified energy can bring us to grateful tears.
Are we being manipulated? In a way, maybe. The group’s choice of music and way of singing is almost always near to unbearably uplifting. That is their style. But a style is not necessarily trickery.
And even when our tears flow as a result of a planned moment in a song, is this a bad thing? Well, sometimes, yes, when the music is propaganda – when there is an eerie underlying motive. But that is a different kind of music; another issue to explore.
Here, I have been talking about popular singers and their power to evoke such strong emotion that we cannot hold back our tears. Some singers do this by accident. Many great singers have the tools to reach for that pinnacle regularly. Sometimes it happens. Often it doesn’t. When it does, the singer and the audience are taken on an emotional flight that is not easy to define.
The British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie wrote memorably about this gift in his book, The Ground Beneath Her Feet: “Our lives are not what we deserve; they are, let us agree, in many painful ways deficient. Song turns them into something else. Song shows us a world that is worthy of our yearning, it shows us ourselves as they might be, if we were worthy of the world.”
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Is there a singer or a song that makes you cry? Are there singers that you cannot listen to without feeling choked up? Do you feel that you are being manipulated? Or do you wait for those moments of emotional release? Do you listen to some singers for just that reason? Please share your emotional experience to music.