Mastery of Mimicking: Pure Admiration or Discursive Transcoding?

Recent YouTube video of a Korean high school girl, Lydia Lee, who is attending Seoul Music High School, singing Adele’s Hello went viral. Her singing video, hit more than 14 million views, was noticed by Ellen DeGeneres for which she invited Lee to her talk show to sing last week. I noticed rowdy Facebook newsfeeds of her singing, so I wondered why people were intrigued by her mimicking of Adele’s song. As for my personal opinion, although I do not attempt to mock her performance in anyway, Lee does not have an original voice singing the song. It only seems as if she is imitating Adele’s vocal style – low, gloomy and thick colored voice. Perhaps, it is not easy to attain such a vocal technique of R&B soul for Asian; nevertheless, her sound did not persuade me that it was her true color.

After 3-year hiatus, Adele’s comeback album “25” with a title song Hello smashed the billboard records for the most albums sold in a week.[1] Even my 12 year old niece sings Hello mimicking Adele’s voice (actually it was my first time hearing Hello and I knew it was Adele instantly). Is her voice really a worthy of attraction to impact such audiences across the globe? Are her stories and emotions that are dissolved in her deep voice real? Does it seem exotic to hear such a sorrowful roughness that echoes the shadow of darkness from a white pop vocalist or is it just another reversed stereotyping? One thing for sure is that people are fascinated by her voice. BBC’s Adele impersonator audition pranks may reveal that.[2]

With the Critical Whiteness study, I keep ponder upon the white interests for other cultures and their process of owning the opposite cultures. Gayle Wald’s One of the Boys? Whiteness, Gender, and Popular Music Studies provides an interesting insight to look at the voice of Adele as an example for the racial unconsciousness. Her argument of the “racial unconscious of pop music culture” is explained as a condition that innovates the socioeconomic modes by which a new white cultural sensibility is expressed.[3] With this model, Adele’s transposing her white voice to a black voice should be considered as a way to sustaining a space for the white artist’s predominance in the world pop market.

As Wald attests with an example of Janis Joplin who tried to break the stereotyping of the white female vocalist as small and pretty in defiance toward the “patriarchal gender expectation,”[4] perhaps, Adele unconsciously uses her white privilege to disidentify her “white look” for a “black look.” The process of racial unconsciousness, explained as Discursive Transcoding, could be applied to Adele’s performance; rather than developing her natural voice, she trains her voice taking on a darker tone and rough color, thus creating her original version of black voice which reveals her inner desire to sustain the impression of her “owning” a certain black cultural practice, and she profits from it.[5]

In addition to Adele’s discursive transcoding, I find the Adele’s Hello music video interesting because it strikes a notion of Eric Lott’s analysis in The Whiteness of Film Noir. Adele’s broken love story is shot in black and white only with one black male character, vaguely pictured as her ex-boyfriend. Adele’s music video develops a new racialized subjectivity; she creates a power dynamic positively toward white female character – calm, gentle, and willing to wait and work for a future than the black male character – vivacious, emotional, and eager to quit. Their situated in/outdoor settings for each character are visibly noticeable in their contrast. Hence, they reveal their inner strengths to convey their power struggle of relationship as Lott explains, “Relentless cinematography of chiaroscuro and moral focus on the rotten souls of white folks invoke the racial dimension of the play of light against dark.”[6]

Going back to Adele’s voice, I would like to look carefully on the conditioning of her voice. Adele’s discursive transcoding that transmitted through her recent black and white music video uncovers racial domination through creating a new racialized subjectivity. And this staging of racial unconsciousness made possible by her mastery of mimicking black voice. This claim of her mastering a black voice can be supported by her past surgery for vocal cord hemorrhage in 2011. My vocal coach, Song Young Rang (graduated San Francisco Music Conservatory, played in SF Opera as a mezzo soprano and now teaches vocalists), tells that the reason why singers such as Adele and Sam Smith have vocal chords hemorrhage is that they do not use their muscle “correctly.” In other words, Adele is trying to produce an artificial sound that does not belong to her naturally. Also, some of Adele’s voice profiling note that her “technique to achieve the fuller sounding belts as well as soulful grunts and growls she uses is questionable,”[7] and “Adele uses improper, damaging technique to achieve the resonance of her upper belts, also opts not to use her falsetto/head voice very often live.”[8] Song worries that if Adele continues to sing the way she does, she will lose her voice permanently. Can this conditioning a black soulful voice be a pure admiration to articulate one’s desire to have beautiful voice rather than using black cultures as sources of cultural self-fashioning to “own” their practices as a means to sustain power and economy in pop culture?

After careful listening of Lydia’s singing Hello, I cannot help myself thinking that if she does not find her true and natural sound, but just stay in her mastery of imitation of R&B voice, she would not grow to be an authentic singer. Her temporary spotlight of her “talent” satirizes the major Korean Pop trend, audition programs such as the America Idol, which focuses too much on the new and young singers to imitate the western pop cultural products. The Korean younger generation is very much attracted to the sound of the Western pop, especially the black soul of R&B music. It is because they think the black voice carries free-moving “uncaged” grooves and rhythm with exotic bending of the sound. Another reason why they are drawn to the R&B technique is that the black soul music has a similar sorrowfulness emotional sensibility that Koreans can relate to. Although I find, sometimes, a few Korean pop singers have natural R&B sound (since Korean traditional narrative song, called Chang or Pansori, has resounding bend and curve similar to R&B music, fitting to carry the notion of Han, a complex Korean emotion of loss and resentment), they never seem to match up with true black R&B singers. On the other hand, the Korean traditional ballad, Chang, expresses a unique sound of depth and beauty. One good example of a young Chang singer, So Hee Song, brought the Korean traditional ballad to the pop scene in Korea. Unfortunately the sad reality of unpopular “traditional” music pushes Song to mix Chang with the pop music, creating a fusion Chang. (It seems impossible to separate Korean pop culture away from the Western influence.) Nevertheless, her attempts to reach the mass media with an unpopular music genre are worthy of applause.

Source: KBS Music Program, “If I Leave,” Immortal Songs, Episode: The Legend of Jo Su Mi, aired October 3, 2015

 

(This song is dedicated to the last Empress Myeongseong (1851-1895) of Korean Empire who was raped and murdered by Japanese invasion)

[1] Joseph Neese, “Adele smashes sales record, sings ‘Hello’ backed by kids’ instruments,” MSMBC, November 25, 2015, accessed November 25, 2015, http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/adele-smashes-sales-record-sings-hello-backed-kids-instruments.

[2]  “Adele ‘auditions’ to be Adele impersonator,” BBC, November 21, 2015, accessed November 23, 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/34889346.

[3] Gayle Wald, “One of the Boys? Whiteness, Gender, and Popular Music Studies,” in Whiteness: A Critical Reader, ed. Mike Hill. (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1997), 152-153.

[4] Ibid., 153, 156-157.

[5] Ibid., 158-160.

[6] Eric Lott, “The Whiteness of Film Noir,” in Whiteness: A Critical Reader, ed. Mike Hill. (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1997), 82.

[7] “Vocal Profile of Adele,” Diva Devotee, October 25, 2015, accessed November 23, 2015, http://www.divadevotee.com/2011/02/adele-vocal-profile-range-in.html.

[8] “Vocal Range and Profile: Adele,” Critic of Music, May 31, 2013, accessed November 23, 2015, http://www.criticofmusic.com/2013/05/vocal-range-and-profile-adele.html.

3 thoughts on “Mastery of Mimicking: Pure Admiration or Discursive Transcoding?

  1. Here is another example of Korean traditional folk song that was mixed in R&B Pop in comparison to “If I Leave.” The term used in the song, “Arirang” is the most representative to the soul of “Han.” The interesting point here is that these female vocalists sing in the same musical crossover, yet their singing methods are very different – one being “Chang” sound and the other being R&B sound. And I think “Is yellow taking on the black culture a “discursive transcoding?” Does this carry a similar implication as white taking black culture?

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  2. This is awesome Jo! I too saw the clip of Adele imitators and thought to myself “but isn’t Adele an imitation in the first place?” But then what are the emotive traits of indigenous British music? In a global world artists are bound to influence one another but what is the line between influence and imitation? I’ve included a clip of some traditional music from the British Isles where I think you can hear the difference between how the voice is used, but also hear some contemporary influence in the overall sound. What blew me away was the amount of similarity between the vocal sound here and that of traditional Korean singers you posted!

    Scottish Traditional Music: http://youtu.be/oLUY_WLMQoc

    I particularly appreciate you bringing up Han. There is a concept (Han) that we have no translation for, yet I would imagine that it is something that has been communicated through song. I personally think there is great synchronicity between Han and “the Blues” because both have a certain amount of ambiguity and flexibility, yet are clearly identifiable.

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  3. Jo,

    Echoing Adam, this is spot-on. Thanks for bringing up this set of questions about the fine line between imitation and discursive transcoding, which you complexify by opening up the black-white relational dyad to include a third arm: the “yellow” (as it were).

    Certainly what we have is a transnational circulation of blackness (in the form of soul music) that has been refracted through white performance–on the part of Adele, to be sure, but also on the part of this young Asian woman whose rendition is really no rendition at all. It is simply a stripped-down imitation, as you say, of a white person imitating black vocal stylings. As per Carl Rux’s insight in “Eminem: The New White Negro,” what is ultimately being performed is a whiteness stylized by black music. On that note, I’m curious as to what happens to/with this young woman’s Asian-ness in the process of this transcoding.

    Thinking of the buzz her performance garnered, how is her ethno-racial makeup both amplified and erased in the attention she’s received? You touch on this when you highlight the fact that she is singing in a way uncommon to Asian vocal stylings (and capacities). I wonder, too, how is her Asian-ness both amplified and erased in the very performance itself? You note the influence of Western (pop) music, specifically American music, on Koreans. I wonder that this young Korean woman is performing a whiteness-as-Americanness or an Americanness-as-whiteness in her imitation of Adele who is herself performing a specific kind of racial identity tied to American whiteness.

    In the end, it seems that there is an “American Africanism” (Morrison, 1992), an unseen and white-washed black presence, at play in her performance (even in her ASian-ness) and its reception.

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