I am a big fan of American Idol, but I cannot get over the fact that so few of the contestants that make it to Hollywood can carry a tune and how so many contestants — and fans! — are tone deaf.

I realize part of the charm of the show is to make fun of those who
think they can sing when they cannot; but what stumps me is those in
the audience that get behind a singer who cannot sing!

Carrying a tune is a simple job of black and white. You’re either in
tune or out of tune. There is no middling ground between hitting the
right note or not. Many singers today use that irascible “warbling
trill” that tries to hide the singer’s tone deafness and inability to hold one, clear, sound for judging by a discerning, tuneful, ear.

As a child of the theatre, I have had the pleasure of working with
music all my life. I’ve seen people unable to sing who audition for
musicals — I can accept they are unknowing about the limits of their
talent — but when those around you, who are supposed to be experts in
the musical theatre, support a tone deaf talent, I begin to worry where
the musical line of insanity is drawn: In the sand, or in the ear?

When you politely say aloud, to no one in particular, that — “They
can’t sing.” — you are inevitably attacked by your colleagues with
disbelief and accusations of elitism. My response then, as it is now,
is simple: “Singing requires tunefulness and you can’t do a musical
with people who cannot sustain the proper note.”

It is better to cancel a performance than to use sub-par singers that
will embarrass the effort and degrade the theatrical experience by
dumbing down the audience’s expectation.

It hurts my ears when singers sing the wrong note — it is as if my
entire body shudders in horror — but many others are unable to tell
the vibrating difference between being in tune and out of tune and that
is astonishing to me.

When a fan roots for someone who cannot carry a tune — are they
celebrating spectacle over substance? Or do they generally think the
person is actually singing the right tune?
Is having a “good ear” something inborn or learned?

Are those born into tone deafness sentenced to suffer with it for the
rest of their lives?
How do those of us who know the difference between hitting a note and
missing it abide those who claim excellence in singing — when the
opposite is clearly true?


  1. It is truly strange to watch people sing who have no business singing.
    I wonder if they have toxic facilitators in their lives that tell them their singing is great and they’ll have a career or what.
    It’s a difficult thing to abide when you’re teaching a class or directing a show and you have to replace someone or not hire them because they end up not being able to carry a tune. Friends and parents can get very nasty with you!

  2. I sincerely believe that a lot of people that audition on Idol are aware that only two sorts of people are shown on television : some of the people that get the ticket, and a lot of the people who are ridiculously bad and haven’t a chance at the ticket. They want to get on television and know they can’t sing to save their lives and so they do freaky things like dress up like Princess Leia and doing wacky yet annoying ‘comedy’ routines.
    Anything for that 15 minutes, right? You can just imagine that the people’s hometown news stations are thrilled that someone from their little town is on television, even if they are making an ass of themselves.

  3. Gordon —
    Yes, that’s all true.
    But how to people get to the age of say, 21, and they think they are the greatest singer ever? Their friends believe. Their family believes. Then they open their mouth to sing and they aren’t even close to staying on the note.
    Were they being lied to by their friends and family or didn’t they know any better?

  4. i like the show the people are funny
    if they think they can sing so what they find out the truth

  5. Oh, we all get a load out of the show, arin, but is that right? Should we be making fun of those who think they are talented when they are not? Every day on American Idol is April Fool’s Day.

  6. Take for example, this gentleman :

    I imagine he knew exactly what he was doing going into that room and how bad he was.
    At least I hope so.
    I don’t think any of his friends or family said anything other than the truth – that he was rubbish.

  7. Gordon —
    I think a lot of those really awful singers are planted. One of them this year that Simon said “Looked like the Green Goblin from Batman” is one of the producer’s assistants.
    Here’s an interesting shill the other way: Samantha Sidley.
    Here she is all shy and young auditioning with a Norah Jones song:

    Here she is as a real pro singing Georgia on My Mind:

    Methinks Samantha is a ringer!
    Now the Lampkins are my favorite sister and brother act of all time:

    Yes, they were nervous and a bit off, but their energy and talent are there.

  8. I actually sent the brother a message on myspace and he wrote back! He was very friendly.
    A google search on Samantha produces plenty of evidence pointing that she has plenty of training as a singer – but is that forbidden? I think the only thing they don’t allow is if you are already on a label. Something like that.

  9. Gordon —
    I think they change it every year. First year you had to be 100% amateur and very young.
    Then you could be older but you couldn’t be paid for any singing you did.
    Then you could be older still… and publish your own music.
    Then you could be even older and HAVE HAD a recording contract as long as you weren’t currently signed by a major label.
    This year they can sing and play an instrument.
    They’re progressively getting more pro than amateur — and that’s a good thing to increase the quality of the talent — but American Idol should not pretend to be a “discovery” show when most of the talent is already rather well known.
    Samantha is a favorite. She’s quiet and charming — I just wish they’d confess on the show she’s had all these wins and awards before she stepped foot on the show.

  10. It’s all so very subjective, David. You hear stories all the time about folks who were told by others that they can’t sing and then go on to make it in the business.
    So if someone is passionate enough about singing and their music, I say more power to them, even if they don’t have the finest singing voice in the world.
    Now the William Hungs of the world are another matter.
    But I can tell you, I’ve heard some god awful singers in my day and given the opportunity to sing and take voice lessons, they got sooooo much better.
    So I say, Keep singing!!!

  11. dmtessi —
    How is being in tune subjective? Is being pregnant subjective? Is adding two numbers to get a sum subjective?
    Who are these people who were told they could not sing, yet made it big in the business? Names, please!

  12. If I remember correctly, Bob Dylan was told in his early days that he wouldn’t make it. I just read about a lady here in my hometown who was told she wouldn’t make it as a singer and now has a recording contract and several music videos out.
    It’s well known that Elvis was told he couldn’t sing and had no talent which seems ridiculous.
    Tom Petty didn’t even want to be the lead singer in his own band because he felt he wasn’t very good. And he’s not a great or even good singer really. But he’s been around for over 30 years because he sings, he plays, he writes. He does his own thing and people enjoy it.
    Now this is just off the top of my head. I know I have read this same kind of story over and over again. Folks being told they have no talent.
    I’m often in amazement myself. There’s a singer who’s quite popular now by the name of Regina Spektor with the squeakiest voice imaginable. God, her voice absolutely grates on me. So she’s in tune, but here voice is awful. Another singer–songwriter–guitarist Liz Phair is quite successful. I’ll tell you that she cannot hold a tune, but has had quite a following for about twenty years now.
    So I say if you have the passion, go for it! Someone may connect with your singing style, your music, your presentation or what you have to say, even if you’re not that great in the singing department.
    But you’re right. You cannot be completely out of tune. But certainly there are plenty of successful singers and groups out there that you have to wonder how they made it because they’re not that good live or vocally and are sometimes out of tune. The recording studio can work some major miracles.

  13. dmtessi —
    Bob Dylan can’t sing. He sings because he writes the songs. He can’t really carry a tune. Brilliant songwriter. Terrible singer. His pal Joan Baez has mocked his singing in concert.
    I’m surprised people told Elvis he couldn’t carry a tune. If you have a link, that would be a great read.
    Tom Petty can’t sing, either. He’s whiny and flat. He sings because he writes the songs. There’s a lot of power in that role where you can, basically, decide who sings your songs.
    Billy Joel had a beautiful voice when he started out. Now he just lazily growls through his songs. Such a sad, far, fall from greatness.

  14. But Bob was a so much better singer in his earlier days. Although I’m not a fan of that song Lay Lady Lay, Bob’s voice is gorgeous. Now it’s almost embarrassing the way he sounds in concert. But he’s the great one. . .
    I love Billy Joel and I’m afraid I’ve not seen him in concert in many years. I know he at one time was touring with Elton, but I didn’t get to see them. He just stopped writing songs one day and went the way of composing classical music and symphonies and then there’s that Broadway dance musical Movin Out. That’s what happens when you don’t keep singing and dont’ take care of yourself. The voice is an instrument that needs to be exercised regularly! Keep an eye out for his daughter. She writes music and sings.
    I hadn’t quite made up my mind about her talent.
    I’ll try and get you some backup info regarding dear Elvis . . . Can you believe that one? But they may have been knocking him down for other reasons. All that sexy shakin’ and rock ‘n rollin’ made people very nervous back then.

  15. dmtessi —
    I have all of Bob’s records and I can’t name one song where he sings every note in tune. That’s part of his charm, but it doesn’t make him a good singer. Here’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” from 1963:

    “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Newport Folk Festival, 1964:

    Bob has a memorable voice, he is a mesmerizing performer and a genius writer — but he isn’t a singer!
    Billy Joel seems to have fallen into the bottle and no genius can survive that sort of unfortunate stewing.
    His daughter is an interesting matter. She has his looks and not her mother’s: What sort of evil curse is that, I wonder?
    Will that loss of looks affect any sort of performing career she might hope to have?
    Can you name an ugly young woman — other than a pre-surgery Ashlee Simpson… we’ll call her the hundred year fluke — who has found a stunning and ongoing success in entertainment?
    Youth and fame require beauty — true, mainstream, classic beauty that endures and not a unique, fleeting, of-the-moment look — and I don’t think the Joel daughter has the everlasting beauty that has served her mother so well.
    She looks like Billy in a dress!

  16. That’s actually a beautiful picture of Alexa Joel . I think that people would probably not criticize her looks if it weren’t for her cover girl mother who remains the ultimate California girl even at 50-something years old! Which I always find kind of sad. A fifty-year old who looks and acts like she’s twenty-something!
    But to answer your question: There’s plenty of room for talented young lady musicians/singers who don’t possess that Carrie Underwood classic kind of beauty you speak of.
    Kelly Clarkson is a good example, not a gorgeous girl, but knockout voice. I know Amy Winehouse had been very successful but then drugs got the best of her recently. Google her and you’ll see what I mean in terms of looks. Madonna is not a classic beauty, very unconventional. Celine Dion is not a beautiful woman, but makeup and costumes do alot for her!
    Regina Spektor not a classic beauty but some say a talented singer, pianist, and songwriter.
    I think if Miss Joel develops her talent, then her unconventional style and look will not be an issue. I don’t know so much about her talent. I find her songs, voice, and performance a bit amateurish. But she’s young . . .
    Look at Barbra Streisand. No one could deny that talent and voice!
    But you pose an interesting question. Would a Barbra Streisand be able to make it in today’s music world where there is such a focus on looks.
    I have to believe that talent such as that will always rise to the top . . .

  17. Hi David,
    I guess “a good ear” is inborn, I feel sick in my stomach if someone/ something (instrument – I mean) is out of tune – be it international or Indian.
    A wrong note hurts.
    I am a die – hard fan of American Idol – but I do understand what you are talking about.

  18. dmtessi —
    You look at that image and all you see is her father. Her mother is wholly missing. That’s a heavy burden to bear when your mother is Christie Brinkley.
    Kelly Clarkson has a fine face as does Amy Winehouse. Madonna has made her money by imitating the classic beauty memes.
    Streisand wouldn’t make it through the door today.

  19. Or Joe Cocker. I never got him either.
    Listening to him sing You Are So Beautiful is downright painful. But really a man like him has no business singing. And he’s not even tolerable to look at . . .
    And that’s why I say if you love to sing and aren’t that great, keep singing. You never know about these things. . .
    I have to disagree with you about Amy Winehouse. Ghastly. Miss Joel is lovely, even though she looks so much like her father. I agree it is a heavy burden to bear having Christie Brinkley as your mother. But let’s face it, no person could live up to that kind of beauty. The woman hasn’t aged albeit a few crow’s feet around the eyes. Who could compete with that. Who’d want to?
    But then again that kind of beauty brings on other problems. Ms. Brinkley has been married three times and has three children by three different fathers. Her talent is that she’s beautiful. What is so fantastic about that?
    So congratulations to Miss Joel who plays piano, writes her own songs and sings and performs them. Good for her!

  20. That’s wild, dmtess!
    I think Joe Cocker is a great singer and performer. His voice is raspy, but he hits the right notes, doesn’t he?
    You’re right about competing with beauty. Few woman can be successful and when you have a superstar model mother — the burden of expectation is especially heavy.
    There does seem to be something wrong with Ms. Brinkley’s choice in men. Obviously beauty doesn’t last forever because at least three men, for whatever reason, tired of looking at her.

  21. See what I mean about it being subjective!
    I swear Joe Cocker cannot hit that last note in You Are So Beautiful. Remember when he tries to get there on to “me.” Yikes. Beautiful to you, but excruciating for me!
    And do I dare imagine who this song was about or who he was singing this to? No doubt it wasn’t Christie Brinkley!

  22. I don’t think being in tune is subjective, my dmtessi! 😀
    I also argued that being an ugly and male in the music business is easier in finding success than being ugly and female.
    I’ve been listening to Joe all day. Inspired by you. His rendition of “One” and “Let it Be” are stunning.
    I think Joe was singing “You are So Beautiful” to Caroline Kennedy.
    Oh, wait… that was Neil Diamond. :mrgreen:

  23. Okay. Okay. I concede that being in tune is not subjective. But will you concede that the judgment of singing voices is indeed very subjective as evidenced by our polar perception of Joe Cocker and the differing opinions of those very fine American Idol judges?
    That would be funny if that song was inspired by Caroline Kennedy as well. I’d love to know some background info there because that song is so very easy to mock even moreso with Joe singing it (Remember Belushi on SNL?) God, I’d never want any man to sing that to me! That’s how I felt the first time I heard that song.
    For some reason I had the image of Joe singing that number to Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show!
    I wonder if Joe was ever a guest on that show.
    Or maybe I dreamed that. . .

  24. dmtessi!
    I never argued what you are asking me to confirm. I understand personal choices for liking the sound of one singer of another is an issue for discussion, but the point I was arguing in my article that being in tune or not is the mark of those who sing and those who should not sing.
    Being in tune most of the time is not a proper practice for any singer.
    The song was written by Billy Preston and Bruce Fisher with some unofficial help by Dennis Wilson. It’s had a long, and popular life in the throats of many fine singers.

  25. Yes, I did get a little off topic. Nonetheless I’ve enjoyed the banter, Mr. Boles!
    But David I still say, If you love to sing, sing anyway! That’s the way I really feel about it.
    That is the only way a god awful singer can get better. Singing lessons can also help. I’ve seen transformations at my church because those in charge of music ministry encourage everyone to sing. It’s beautiful to see something like this when it happens . . .
    Have a great weekend, David. I’m off to watch my daughter play basketball–

  26. dmtessi!
    All is forgiven, then! 😉
    I say only sing if someone else — a professional — tell you you’re a singer. Otherwise… play the drums instead.
    I hope you win tonight! Good luck!

  27. David Archuleta

    Aiken, a Raleigh native who gained fame as a runner- up on American Idol; once worked as a YMCA counselor. The committee’s Web site said it advises the president on issues pertaining to people with intellectual disabilities. The committee was establish…

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