Worship Leader “Oversouling”

Zac HicksCulture, Worship Leading Tips4 Comments

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…”

4 Comments on “Worship Leader “Oversouling””

  1. Thank you for the post, Zac. I was just thinking about this the other day while at a minor league baseball game listening to the very "oversouled" singing of the national anthem. Someone who wanted to sing along would not have been able to do so because of that. I was wondering if there had been shift recently in whether in popular consciousness at a sporting event the national anthem was something to be sung for us or something sung by us. The difference will shape how the vocalist(s) render the song. And, not surprisingly, wondering if my hunches were right, if all of that didn't have something to do with shifting cultural expectations about the nature of singing in congregational worship.

  2. Thinking about Dr. Lester Ruth's comment, I'm wondering if it isn't so much a shift in the function or role of the national anthem as it is a shift in the function or role of the vocalist(s), which is a broader question. I don't get to hear the national anthem sung at sports events, but I hear many vocalists in worship, and it seems to me they are increasingly becoming more the performers and entertainers rather than leaders, enablers and supporters of congregational singing, complete with "oversouling" of congregational hymns. I'm also struck by similarities between "oversouling" and the practice of lined meter hymns and the Dr. Watts style in the African American church, at least in the highly ornamented rendering of the melody.

  3. Nice find, this has been a frustrating fact to me for years. It's a gimmick, really. But unfortunately it sells. My experience is that the average American is much more impressed by a poor singer who noodles all over the place with a melody than by toned and tuned singing that stays straight. And the national anthem is definitely the representative example.

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