Jan 20

Musical Mimesis - the business of vocal sound-alikes

Category: Music   — Published by goeszen on January 20, 2016 at 6:38 pm

For decades, composers have been battling in and off court about stolen or "borrowed" melodic ideas, patterns or even whole songs. In recent years now, I've been observing a new way of ripping of - or let's say - finding a creative way of making your own profit off from someone else's work. Something that helps to produce a familiar sounding track, while navigating around the actual musical part of it. It's not about notes any more, or rhythms, or patterns, but about how something sounds.

(Note that this post is heavily biased, subjective and only one opinion)

In movies and celebrity culture, there's "likeness", physical appearance - which can be copyrighted. But is a voice, can a voice be copyrighted? Is it possible to protect the sound of a voice, the sound of a person? So far, diversity and a person's uniqueness, was, sort of,
protecting the industry from this similarity between artists. But with globalisation and the giant amount of very prominent artists and performers today, you'll find someone who sounds like someone else if you look around. It's like finding a look-alike. Producers seem to hunt down voices that sound like somebody else, and when they furnish their songs with these voices and add a production that seems in line with previous releases of the tonal twin, the audience will greet a new release with more attention. It seems, you can even trick an audience into attributing emotion, fandom, a welcoming state of mind, associations of any sorts with a completely unrelated song or artist, by simply emulating vocal expression, vocal design, intonation or whatever it takes of another well-known artist. Mimesis and Mimikry.

These days, the holy grail and touchstone of all mimetic endeavours in the sound-alike biz seems to be Rihanna. Numerous releases over the past few months have tried to imitate her voice and have proven that doing so is a recipe for success. And it seems that Rihanna herself is giving way for these sound-alikes. Her next release is postponed? The album release pushed back? No problem: someone else will fill the void. Rihanna is reinventing herself, finding or exploring a new sound, leaving pop further behind? Be sure someone else will produce an old-skool Rihanna single.

One of, if not, the first single bringing vocal mimesis to a global audience was in 2011 "Mr. Saxobeat" where Romanian singer Alexandra Stan tried hard to fool everyone into believing Rihanna is contributing vocals, well, only with a heavy Romanian accent. And as if this wasn't enough already, the song was also banking on Stromae's 2009 "Alors on danse" saxophone loop element (which in turn was already borrowing from anything with a solo sax dating back to 80s hip-hop and dance). Result: certified multi Platium. No surprise even lesser known artists like Teze on her single "Touch My Body" end up sounding like the Barbadian original. Others even base a career on being a sound-alike, like singer Era Istrefi, which is touted as being the European Rihanna.

But this phenomenon isn't only revolving around Rihanna, and is finding busy application on a smaller scale and in other corners of the world as well. In Germany, the career of singer Adel Tawil really launched (opinion!) when producer Annette Humpe casted him for her musical project ich+ich and releasing a song very much "in the tradition of" songs of well-known German singer Xavier Naidoo. Actually, the German market is where many other similarly "smart" releases take off. Andreas Bourani is already the second Naidoo "spiritual-twin" coming to fame. And both have ventured into more unique / personal vocal styles after their initial entry on stage with borrowed plumes.

Another example: Felix Jaehn's song "Ain't Nobody (Loves Me Better)", already a cover of Rufus' 80s hit, features a very authentic rendition
of Ellie Goulding's iconic hushed intonation, but sung by lesser known singer Jasmine Thompson. I think we'll see many Ellies pop up everywhere in the coming months, even German singer Lena of Eurovision fame is currently, probably encouraged by her producers,
moving into a more Goulding-y-esque way of singing, more or less.

Thinking about this phenomenon, it might actually be vocal mimesis is going on since forever. Think about Michael Bublé as a Sinatra surrogate, or Amy Whinehouse, or the early Adele, or Robbie Williams as Dean Martin, or probably many more not coming to mind just now. You can either interpret this as vocal archetypes, a style or voice people simply like and thus these types bubble up to the top, or as bankable memes on which producers rely, as being proven paths to success.

But back to Rihanna. In mid 2015 Swedish singer Zara Larsson released "Lush Life", where she contributed her version of Rihanna style vocals. Just listen to Lush Life and you'll know why Time magazine's Nolan Feeney very appropriately summed it up as Rihanna's "song of the summer that never was". Here Rihanna is back, the brighter Rihanna, Rihanna before the good girl had gone bad. Zara Larsson sounds just like Rihanna. And you've already guessed it by now: it happened again: Lush Life has already gone multi Platinum, and in early 2016 is still on heavy radio rotation. A bit of luck, and it will survive until summer 2016.

It seems, while Rihanna's Wikipedia article already has a section "Legacy", her actual impact on the pop biz is very active and a lasting one.

If you agree or disagree with the mentioned opinion / theory, make yourself heard by joining the conversation in comments below.

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