Anthony Kiedis cannot sing.
I don’t know that I ever realized that, or even gave it much thought up until possibly my ten-thousandth listening of Under the Bridge. At that pivotal moment, the instant his voice sounded through the speakers it hit me like a truth I’d always known but was never conscious of: Anthony Kedis has an “ugly” voice. That said, his voice is also perfect for the Chili Peppers. Not because their music is “ugly,” but the complete opposite: it’s unique, and so is Anthony. And personally, I think originality is more important to art than “perfection.”
List some of the best-selling musical artists of all time: Tom Petty, U2, Bruce Springsteen. Think of interesting singers: Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Tori Amos. Remember the first time you heard the high-whine falsetto of Sting on Roxanne. Not a single person listed has a “good” voice in the classical sense. Many are limited in range, and therefore have to write music to suit their restrictions. If they cover another artist’s song, they have to completely change the arrangement in order to make it work.
Now list singers with amazing voices, those who can hit notes all across the aural spectrum: Mariah Carey. Beyoncé Knowles. Rihanna. Whitney Houston in the 1990s. Each of them can (or could; Whitney) sing any song they want and do so with the confidence of a perfectionist. The thing is, they all do so without any emotion. They all emote very well, but that’s a completely different skill, one that doesn’t involve the human touch. It’s as if each singer has studied human feelings, but can’t quite replicate them. This separation keeps listeners at arms length, and when you compare the singers in the first batch to those in the second, the “ugly” voices and songs are superior every time.
There is an intangible something in true artists that comes from within and creates soul. It is well known Beyoncé was trained from childhood to be a perfect singer, dancer, and performer. This means her drive came from without, not within; her father instilled it in her. On the other side of that spectrum, Bono once said he raged to have his thoughts and ideas heard. He would hit a single key on a piano, and immediately want to find the corresponding note he could hear inside his head. That desire created passion, which is something lacking in a performer who sees art as a series of pantomimes, not a form of expression. Yearning creates a more unique confidence than aspiration; yearning leaves a shade doubt hiding behind the performer’s eyes. Aspiration can be programmed, and the humanistic touch known as uncertainty is never found in a robot.
Contrast some polar opposites in the music world; in 2003, South Africa held a concert to raise awareness for World AIDS Day. Both Peter Gabriel and Beyoncé performed. Peter, older, and with a more-tired voice, sang Biko. This song, originally written in objection of South African apartheid, evolved into a song defined by protest of injustice. That day, Biko represented the frustration felt by those who believed first world nations were ignoring the violence AIDS was ravaging upon their continent. As the song played, a stadium full of people shot their fists in the air, demanding acknowledgment.
Beyoncé, for her selection, played Crazy in Love. She and her singers writhed around the stage and created a sexual energy/tension that could almost be considered inappropriate, given the focus of the concert. Though Beyoncé’s performance was a thousand times more energetic and modern than Peter’s, her show was a failure on two fronts: one, because she had nothing of substance to offer the proceedings, and two, because she just didn’t understand that fact. At no point did she or any of her handlers ask, “Is this relevant to the proceedings?” To me, it was like watching the telecast of the 9/11 fundraiser all over again. On that night, Sting performed Fragile, while Bon Jovi sang Livin’ On a Prayer. The former is about violence being an untenable solution to world problems, the latter an anthem designed to be shout-sung by drunken louts at karaoke.
Both Jon Bon and Beyoncé probably had the best of intentions, but each was in over their head. Maybe it could be argued that charity concerts take on too much weight, and to prevent things from collapsing under serious earnestness lighter fare is needed, I don’t know. It certainly didn’t feel like that was the intention in either situation.
But I’ve digressed.
The idea “original is better than perfect” runs the creative gamut. It can be argued in cases involving art, writing, or comedy.
- Thomas Kinkade was a hack painter that appealed to the masses, but Jackson Pollock became a respected legend. If anyone ever makes a film about Kinkade, it will not be an honoring biopic like Ed Harris did for Pollock, it will be a Lifetime movie showing his drunken escapades and Disneyland urinations.
- Nicholas Sparks may be an author successful beyond words, but no one could ever argue he is a good writer. Erik Larson, on the other hand, has probably sold far fewer books, but draws people in intellectually with his work.
- In the world of comedy, legend Richard Pryor surprised listeners with sudden, left-turns within stories; his jokes developed organically, and drew listeners in. On the flip side, Jay Leno crafts “perfect” jokes—set up, punchline, set up, punchline—but he garners almost no respect in the artistic or critical community.
Obviously mediocrity can be successful—every example offered involves a multi-millionaire—but it is rarely admired, even when honored. Ordinary has been awarded Oscars, Grammys, and many other statuettes, but such an offering is hardly a guarantee of historic relevance. Which movie is more widely remembered and respected: Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture for saying “OMG, racism is bad,” or Brokeback Mountain? The devaluation of once-important awards is most likely one of the reasons fewer and fewer viewers tune in to witness the glad handing these days.
Maybe this is all horseshit I use to justify what I do on stage. In the end, my attempts to be creative are what fuel my thoughts about art and the human imagination.
To me, attempting to be original—talking about my life and ideas over asking, “What’s up with airline peanuts?” or stating “Shit be CRAZY!” as a punchline—is more important than writing standard, albeit banal, jokes. It might be easier to swim with the masses, but I didn’t get into my field of work to be like everyone else.
And in the art I surround myself with? In that I would much rather have the “ugly” of an Anthony Kiedis over the beauty of a Rihanna.