I’m sitting in my usual writing spot in the dining room listening to my stepdaughter Gabrielle sing. She is upstairs in her bedroom and, in full teenager mood, listening to music at full blast. The music is not so loud you can’t hear her voice though, which even she will admit is unfortunate because the poor kid, for all her numerous talents, is somewhat tone deaf.
This has always been the case and she gets it from her dad. The first time I heard him sing, I truly thought he was kidding. But as he continued to thump the steering wheel with his thumb and belt out every single lyric to every single Red Hot Chili Pepper song ever recorded, I realized this was no joke. This was my love’s singing voice.
This came as a surprise as my husband’s speaking voice is actually very charming: deep, comforting, the kind of voice that you can pick out even in a room full of people. I fell in love with this speaking voice quickly and assumed, foolishly, it would translate to song. But the first time he played SingStar, a karaoke-type videogame in which you’re graded on your performance, the man tanked. The line that measures whether the note sung was on key or not was jumping all over like a heart beat. He was either badly flat or sharp.
Of course, my voice is hardly any better. I’m not tone deaf, per se, but I can only sing about five notes. Any higher or lower and my voice starts to crack like a pre-pubescent boy asking a girl if she’d like to dance. Then I try to move an octave up or an octave down to accommodate my limitation and end up sounding mentally unstable.
Of course, I know this now and so sing only when I know no one can hear me. But it’s a hard lesson learning your singing voice kind of sucks, isn’t it? Let’s face it, we all grew up with a pretty sure idea we were going to be famous. And it was our voice, perhaps coupled with some spiffy, well-timed dance moves, that was going to skyrocket us to stardom. The only reason why we weren’t there already is because, sniff, we hadn’t been discovered yet.
So we’d practice in our bedrooms by standing in front of the mirror and singing to really loud music. This starts in earnest around age 12, right around the time when you’re old enough that you ask your parents for a stereo for Christmas. So you get a boombox instead and you’re pretty jazzed because it’s got a dual cassette player so you can record from one cassette to another. This will mean your dad will buy you blank tapes and you can borrow your best friend Kristin’s tape collection and you won’t have to spend all your hard-earned babysitting cash at Sam the Record Man.
So you have your stereo and you have your UB40 “Red, Red Wine” single turned up high and you grab a hairbrush and start belting it out. You can imagine a crowd. You can imagine the boy you like watching you from that crowd. You are flawless. Your complexion glows. He is transfixed, every one is. You are taking the school talent show by storm Glee-style and over the cheers and applause, you can hear your status in junior high zoom up to cheerleader heights.
Of course then the song ends and life is suddenly very quiet and pimpled. So you play the song again or you choose another one. Maybe Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now.” And you start over.
Have you ever noticed that the more you sang a song as a teen, the more creative you got? Like, after a while, you’re pretty sure you kick ass at harmonizing so you decide to one-up Celine Dion and Mariah Carey by adding a few more notes. Then you add a little touch of operatic vibrato to dress up their phrasing:
“When the night fa—warblewarblewarble—lls down
I wait for you
And you come a—warblewarblewarble—round.”
You’re feeling so confident and powerful, you think, “You’re welcome, Belinda.”
In fact, I’d say that, for us girls at least, the death of vibrato in your singing voice usually means the death of the singstar dream or at least an irrevocable graduation from youth into adulthood. After years of thinking it’s fancy, you suddenly realize it’s substantially embarrassing.
Luckily, vibrato is still in full effect from the rock star upstairs. She’s even nailed quite a few notes in the past few minutes, which means Taylor Swift may be knocking on the door any minute now. The best thing about that is she is entirely unaware I can hear her so the very essence of youth is streaming down the stairs: unabashed, hopeful and innocent.