“Over-the-Top” Is Not a Bad Thing

(Let me begin by expressing gratitude to my readers, new and old–I thank you deeply for your support!)

In our Protestant-influenced American society, there is a great emphasis on modesty, propriety, and realism, even in our entertainment. We might dislike something because it is not realistic, because it is outsized or pushing the limits. However, one can argue that this makes for good art and humor. Playing it safe instead of taking risks can lead to boring outputs, and some might say it is better to go big or go home.

Some of the most wonderful works of art, in my book, are the ones that do just that–they go big or over-the-top. Well, not just a work of art but an entire genre: opera, even the more verismo works, is not meant to be real. It is exaggerated, grand, emotional, and most certainly not realistic. In what other art form, in the span of three hours, could there be blood, lust, murder, seduction, and trickery the way there is in Don Giovanni? Or what other kind of music could be as grandiose as a Rossini opera overture, complete with crescendo/accelerando, or a Wagner opera overture, scored for so many instruments that they make the floorboards thunder? In the world’s best theaters and stages, the productions are lavish, and you might get live animals, a car, dozens of dancers like the Radio City Rockettes or any other manner of showy set design–who wouldn’t absolutely love it? Old Hollywood gave us this abundance of performers on screen, such as with Busby Berkeley films or the splashing human mermaid Esther Williams.

But think of visual art as well. Picasso’s “Guernica” will leave a profound impression on the viewer when it is seen in his full, huge majesty, and the gory images recall the tragedy of war. You can walk through a Richard Serra sculpture in a museum, provided that the museum actually has enough space for it. Similarly, Frank Gehry and the late Zaha Hadid’s magnificent buildings are out of the ordinary, something futuristic that looks like it has arrived from another planet (think Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall or Hadid’s Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University.)

Another area in which being over-the-top is welcome is in humor. Consider the 90s classic film “Election” starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick. At first, it looks like a simple, plausible tale of an ambitious, goody two shoes student running for student body president and a disgruntled teacher who wants to thwart her. But the stakes get upped as the satire unfolds: a brother steals a girl from his lesbian sister who decides to avenge him, the teacher cheats with his best friend’s wife, and more. The movie gets funnier and funnier as it becomes more unrestrained, and in the end, everyone gets their due. All of this suggests a particular artistic device that helps things become more bombastic, and that is caricature. Think of our love of cartoons, and how the characters can do things and be in situations that humans can’t. “The Simpsons” is a prime example, for everything is exaggerated, outlandish, and beyond normal. Finally, no discussion of over-the-top humor can be complete without a mention of the late genius Robin Williams. We loved him because he was like a human cartoon, full of funny voices, outrageous statements, and zany energy. There would have been no humor had he sat quietly, making modest observations about the human condition.

Certainly, there is always the risk of the over-the-top becoming grotesque or vulgar, unpalatable. Many people felt this way about Madonna when she arrived on the scene, decorated with O-ring bracelets and lace midriff crop tops, writhing and dancing and singing about her sex life. There is always going to be the question of taste, and people who do not like overly dramatic, exaggerated art. But when done well, great artists really have something to say when they do something out of the ordinary on a scale that is larger than normal.

In the Spirit of NPR’s 50 Great Voices

NPR did a brilliant series on 50 great voices they chose from among some of the greatest artists in the world.  Naturally, there were many omissions, much to the chagrin of some listeners.  Being a singer myself, this inspired me to simply riff on the NPR program, to simply comment on, in an unscientific, completely random way, what it is we might find appealing or unique about a particular singer or artist, what makes each artist so unique?  Each type of voice conveys something, each style of performance (and very often it is just that, a performance or a stage persona) evokes certain emotions in the audience, and it just might be fun to talk about it in detail! 

Here is a list—-purely for fun—-of some well-known, well-loved performers, in no particular order:


-Mick Jagger.  That unmistakably guttural voice, leering, taunting, daring the listener to accept the lure to go to bed!  Jagger is unabashedly uninhibited, sexual, unhinged both as a vocalist and as a performer.  The famous strut, like a proud rooster, is all bravado and confidence.  And yet one never feels a dark or hard edge to Jagger’s sexuality—-he always seems to do it with a wink and a smile, a modern-day Don Giovanni with a warmly remorseless “Oh, baby, just had to do it, and I ain’t got no regrets” demeanor that has made him a legendary ladies man well into his 6th decade.

-Bjork.  Like a force of nature, like the wind.  Her voice comes from deep in her soul, and there is a particularly primal quality to it at its core, something she is expressing for us that we all feel at the very depths of our being.  It can be caressing as well, sweet, tender, and soothing, but it never loses its deeply affecting quality.

-Robert Plant.  Indeed the Golden God from the days of Zeppelin who has aged into an ever-evolving artist.  In his Led Zeppelin heyday, Plant whined, moaned, screeched and lamented with such passion that numerous people speculated that his (and his band members’) talent was not human, but unearthly, even demonic.  Plant is music itself, and whatever form his musicianship takes—-hard rock, ballads, rockabilly, Celtic, ethnically-influenced—-this musical chameleon is nothing but convincing.  He is a gifted musician who is (if you have seen him live) also very graceful, a hard-core musician who also happens to be a brilliant performer.  There are those who feel his tenure with Led Zeppelin was his best work, but Plant refuses to stagnate and always moves forward.

-Madonna.  To be eponymous signifies a lot—-that one stands on the trade of one’s given name.  Madonna is not sexy but sexual.  The distinction comes in that she is too aggressive to be desired.  Have no doubt that she is in control; she calls the shots.  But let her.  Has any artist ever captured your imagination so well?  Has any artist gone through as many incarnations (the exception being, perhaps, David Bowie)?  Is anyone a better chameleon?  Madonna is not about music: she is about pushing boundaries and getting you to think/see/feel in different ways.  Not to mention that she is a gifted dancer, a woman of boundless physical energy.  Madonna is an extremely clever businesswoman too; again, this boils down to her being in control, for she knows how to get things done.  There is indeed a vulnerable side to her, but what we love best is her strength.

-Pavarotti.  A voice like melted butter, a voice that never broke but simply flowed, flawlessly, with no chinks in his technique.  It was a warm voice, effusive and throbbing, expansive, just as the man himself became vastly more expansive in his later years.  The classic Italianate tenor sound, an expressive sound that always moved the listener.  He had you in the palm of his hand, he had you there.

-Sinatra versus Tony Bennett.  Is it fair to compare the two?  Both are (well, were, in Sinatra’s case) unique artists who have contributed greatly to jazz and popular music.  But a comparison is warranted simply for examining the differences between the two.  Sinatra is cool; there is a slight aloofness that lets you know he is the star, and he has his people.  Crisp, clean diction, a smooth voice, and a legendary personality that is associated with iconic people and places:  New York, Las Vegas, Hollywood, Kennedys, the Rat Pack, et cetera.  Sinatra was the consummate performer, equally famed for his acting, and was also known for his unsavory connections to the Mafia and other shady dealings.  But one cannot dispute his iconic status, culled from his involvement in so many facets of American life.

            Tony Bennett is, by contrast, associated with warmth.  He left his heart in San Francisco, and you truly believe him when he sings it.  He is known primarily for his singing (though he is a very accomplished painter), a sense of welcoming the listener and embracing you:  we don’t quite sense the aloofness from the audience in the way we do Sinatra.  There is always a smile, and a lack of a sense of the sinister, no matter his transgressions (like drug addiction).  After a lull in his career, Bennett was able to reinvent himself, so to speak, by embracing the younger generation of listeners and musicians.  His willingness to change and grow has always served him well, and though approaching 90, Bennett’s has proven that he will keep on singing and delighting generations of fans.

-Sinead O’Connor.  One of the most gorgeous voices ever to grace popular music.  That ethereal sound, the purity of her instrument, a voice that can by turns howl with rage or coo with sensuality.  Her stunning beauty as a young woman complemented her stunning voice, but equally important were her strong opinions and convictions.  Unfortunately, these overshadowed and sabotaged—-quite unfairly—-her artistic career.  Her “outspokenness” against the abuses in the Catholic Church caused her a huge backlash of hatred, and yet she was decades ahead of her time.  Her music is full of religious and symbolic references that are so integral to her work, and yet she is strikingly singular and unique.  As an artist, we admire her not only for her musical talents that make her famous, but also for her social consciousness and her willingness to speak her mind, come hell or high water.