The “Baby” Project (a series of covers of the Justin Bieber song “Baby” across genres) is on hiatus, but Bieber Fever still burns strong here at Overthinking It, in spite of the conspicuous absence of new material from him over the past few months. What’s going on?
Puberty. The kid’s voice finally changed at the late age of 16, and he spent much of 2011 working with a vocal coach to manage the transition. It appears he’s made it to the other side, as his first new single in months now features a decidedly lower-voiced Bieber. Ladies and Gentlemen, the sound of post-puberty Justin Bieber in his new song, “Mistletoe”:
So how much lower did his voice get? Well, in musical terms, in this new song, he peaks at “A,” while in his 2009 debut hit, he reaches the “C” above the previous “A.”
Using these two songs–his biggest pre-change hit and his first single post-change–we can approximate his downward shift as a minor third. Which, in the music world, is quite a lot.
So what does this seismic shift mean for our young phenomenon? In practical terms, his old songs are unsingable in their original keys, which means that in order for him to sing them live, he’s going to have to sing transposed versions that are taken down a few notches to accomodate his new, lower vocal range.
And this is really sad. Because in doing so, the songs are, well, neutered. Allow me to explain why this is such a big deal after the break.
I actually complained about the neutering effects of transposing songs before on this site. While explaining The Karaoke Quotient, a formula for objectively determining the appropriateness of a song for karaoke, I made a big deal about being able to sing a song in its original key :
Soaring ballads and screaming metal songs kill singers with their range. Most men can’t hit those high notes in “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Bon Jovi himself can’t even do it these days (Ritchie Sambora does it instead). But note that I mentioned in the original key. Songs with high notes like “Livin’ on a Prayer” are often transposed down a step or two [for karaoke], which helps with singability, but kills in terms of remaining true to the feeling of the original song.
I didn’t cover it in too much detail in that article (as there were nine other parts of the formula to explain), so let’s do that now. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of coming across one of these transposed tracks, you may have noticed that even competent singers have trouble starting on the right pitch, even if there’s plenty of lead-in. After they’ve stumbled around for the first verse, they typically lock into the right key during the chorus, which just doesn’t get as high as it should. The energy and power of that impossibly high chorus is just sucked out of the song because we expect it to be, well, impossibly high.
It’s not just my personal theory on song keys and transposition, either. In the book This Is Your Brain On Music, author and neuroscientist Daniel Levitan describes an experiment in which he asked non-musicians to sing, unaccompanied, their favorite songs from memory:
The results were surprising: the subjects tended to sing at, or very near, the absolute pitches of their chosen songs. I asked them to sing a second song and they did it again. This was convincing evidence that people were storing absolute pitch informat in memory; that their memory representation did not just contain an abstract generalization of the song,but details of a particular performance.
In other words, almost all of us, musicians and non-musicians alike, are finely tuned to the particulars of a sound recording to the point that we can recall their melodies in their original keys without any help. So when we hear a familiar song with familiar instrumentation but in a different key, our minds rebel. We don’t enjoy the song as much as we would if it were in the original key. When the song is at a lower key and the high parts just aren’t as high, we notice that difference and interpret it as a reduction in the song’s energy level.
This is the problem that Bieber will face when he takes the stage with transposed lower versions of his songs. They just won’t carry the same punch that they used to.
Don’t believe me? Try this on for size. Here’s perhaps the most famous singer to manage the pre/post-puberty transition, Michael Jackson, singing “I Want You Back” in the early 1970’s with the Jackson 5:
and here he is as an adult, singing the same song, but transposed down from A flat to D (four and a half steps, for those of you keeping musical theory score at home):
Yikes. Now, don’t get me wrong: the second version isn’t bad, but it’s different. And more importantly for Justin Bieber, it feels foreign to the artist. Like it’s…not his song anymore.
Which is actually true. It belongs to a different singer: a boy, not the adult man that the boy eventually became.
I used the word “sad” to describe this situation at the beginning of this post. And I meant it. That boy singer is lost and gone forever. He’s not coming back. The world will no longer be able to hear “Baby” the way it was meant to be performed live, in the key of E flat.
It’ll be interesting to see where Bieber takes his live show, and his career, from here. Even without the voice change, I’m sure there’d be an urgent need to produce new material, but that need must be greater now that he can’t rely on his old material to sustain a live show. Or maybe he’ll try to get by on transposed versions of old songs as a significant portion of his live show for many years to come. And maybe his legions of fans won’t mind the effect transposition will have on their favorite songs. The experiment I quoted, after all, was done well before our current Bieber-ified era.
But what about you, OTI readers? Are you bothered by transposed versions of your favorite pop songs? If you’re not a musician, were you even aware of such a thing before reading this? Sound off in the comments, especially if you can cite other example of artists significantly transposing their songs into lower keys and if people have noticed.