An article over at the Huffington Post (John Eskow, “Christina Aguilera and the Hideous Cult of Oversouling”) strongly criticized Aguilera’s performance of the national anthem at an event not long ago. The article did some nice parsing work about musical style, virtuosity, and when and where to balance the two. There’s something in there for the perceptive worship leader.
Eskow references a term coined by Jerry Wexler, who produced Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, among other artists. It’s called “Oversouling”: “‘the gratuitous and confected melisma’ that hollows out a song and drains it of meaning.'” The discussion here is more about authenticity, stylistic appropriateness, and artistry as virtuosity rightly contained and unleashed. But there are some overlaps here worth hearing when it comes to the worship leader as the song-leader and melody-keeper of the congregation. It all comes down to asking, “What is my job when the people are singing?” Tow the line! Encourage them! Help them to sing more “lustily” (in the words of John Wesley)! Sometimes, depending on the context, I do think that means throwing out some bells and whistles beyond the melody (see my previous post about how we need to have flexible leadership styles depending on our context), but be careful of “oversouling.” Just as it “drains meaning” from songs, it can drain the voice out of your congregation. Here are some choice quotes from the article that have some crossover power for us, but go read the whole thing:
“mangling of the tune itself…”
“turning each song into an Olympic sport as they drain it of its implicit soul, as if running through the entire scale on every single word was somehow a token of sincerity…”
“Time and again I have found that flagrantly artificial attempts at melisma are either a substitute for real fire and passion or a cover-up for not knowing the melody…”