From Melisma to Idiocracy: A Couch Potato's Guide

Embrace your inner coach potato this weekend.

While you wait for the Tuesday night return of American Idol (admit it, you watch it), learn about and listen to the musical art of melisma.

24 kicks off its sixth season Sunday. We have a preview of the twisted new day to come.

Borat fans will laugh like little girls when they see Idiocracy, a harsh satire of an stupendously dumbed-down future from the man responsible for Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill and Office Space. How dumb is the future? Costco offers law degrees, and the most popular movie in the land is a shot of someone's butt.

We also have an exclusive clip from the sitcom with the best name ever: Little Mosque on the Prairie, courtesy of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Finally, in case you decide to leave the comfort of your couch, you'll get a jolt out of Stomp the Yard, a new movie in which dancers lord it over us mere mortals.

How 'American Idol' Uses (and Abuses) Melisma

The Details

Musical technique: Melisma

What It Is: Turning a single syllable into a vocal run — sometimes with dramatic or bluesy effect, sometimes with disastrous overkill.

Where You'll Hear It: When American Idol returns to the air on Tuesday

Jennifer Hudson

hide captionJennifer Hudson's got a Golden Globe and mellifluous melisma.

David James/Dreamworks LLC

Jennifer Hudson's Golden Globe-winning turn in Dreamgirls has critics raving about her stunning vocals. But fans of the singer have known about her talent since her humble beginnings on American Idol. And even if you're not one of the 30 million addicted viewers of the Fox TV show, you've probably heard one of Hudson's musical tricks: melisma.

Melisma is the musical art of creating a run of many notes from one syllable. In the United States, singers in the African-American church popularized the vocal practice, which dates to Gregorian chants and Indian ragas. When Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin began singing popular music, they brought melisma to more mainstream audiences. Whether you love it or hate it, Whitney Houston's hit "I Will Always Love You," with its elongated "iiieeee-eyes" and "ooooeeeooos," is a prime example.

American Idol contestants (and pop singers) sometimes abuse and overuse the technique in songs. At worst, they can fracture a word into a soulless slur of syllables that feels both alienating and groan-inducing. Plus you have no idea what word they're singing.

To get ready for the new AI season, spend a few minutes this weekend with our guide to melisma, courtesy of Anthony Heilbut, music producer and author of The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times.

How was melisma used in the early days of the African-American church?

Usually one person would recite a lyric or line of a song. Then congregants would repeat the line with their own variations. The ultimate choral effect was immense.

Can you describe that sort of melisma?

The melisma of a traditional gospel singer is rooted in folkloric moans and blue tonality. The most transcendent moments occur when a melismatic line is saturated with blue notes.

What can melisma accomplish in a song?

As some crucial moment in the lyric, the singer will worry a word to the point of abstraction. Ideally, the vocal distortions, the intricate and convoluted division of one syllable into as many as breath will allow, convey an eruption of feeling. But melisma can become so predictable that the singer's passion can be questioned, even though the singer is usually making "ugly faces" to convey the soul's torments.

How has melisma changed over the years?

As gospel singers became more professional, they would try to outdo [each other], much like a jazz musician in a cutting contest. The fancier the runs, the more amused or delighted the audience might be.

About 20 years ago, I dubbed these elaborations the "Gospel Gargle" and the "Detroit Disease."

Why blame Detroit?

Some of [melisma's] earliest and most audacious practitioners hailed from the Motor City. [Their variations] are much more self-conscious. In more recent years, soul singers, and ultimately pop singers, adopted these very busy and self-advertising forms of phrasing.

So while a great gospel singer such as Aretha Franklin can employ melisma for dramatic purposes in a manner that seems true to the song's message, singers today seem to indulge themselves in a manner that is both virtuosic and anonymous. And the more it is done, the worse it is done. Something that might have seemed fresh and charming in the beginning began to seem self-indulgent and, to many of us, exhibitionist.

What are they doing wrong?

Often, there isn't any musical justification of what they are doing. [Their runs] interfere with the flow of the melody, of the lyric, of the harmonies, sometimes of the rhythm itself. It's frequently a very vulgar and ugly display. [That's] the style of American Idol singers, most of whom are amateurs. [They] are simply mimicking the devices of the style's most famous practitioners — singers like Mariah Carey, who indulge in runs.

How can melisma serve singer and song?

It can carry both the singer and the congregation to a higher sense of the song's meaning; until it really becomes really a form of musical catharsis.

For example...?

When [the late gospel singer] Marion Williams sings "The Day Is Past and Gone," her subtle use of melisma helps turn a lullaby into a cosmic blues. The note-bending begins with the third word, "is," which is echoed in the next measure by a moaned hum, which is also melismatic. The listener understands at once that she is singing about something deadly serious. By the time she has reached the penultimate line of the second verse, "but death may soon disrobe us," each melismatic turn has led us to the song's crux.

With all the attention and backlash this style receives, how subjective is any of this?

In and of itself, melisma can be a great thing, it's just been terribly abused by some untalented and insensitive singers. But I think the practitioners like to think that this is a sign of their engagement in the song.

The irony is that melisma is one of the glories of gospel music; I feel a real loyalty to it. I don't think you can get very much better than gospel singers at their best.

A Little Bit of 'Little Mosque on the Prairie'

The Details

TV: Little Mosque on the Prairie

What It Is: Classic fish out of water sitcom: Muslims in a rural Canadian town

Where to Find It: Only on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, but we have a clip — see below. There's more info at the show's Web site.

A scene from 'Little Mosque on the Prairie'

hide captionWelcome to the Muslim-run diner!

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Here's one television show you probably won't be watching this year ... unless you live in Canada. The show is called Little Mosque on the Prairie, and it's bringing the funnier side of Islam into living rooms all over Canada.

The first episode aired this past Tuesday. Zarqa Nawaz, a Canadian Muslim originally from Pakistan, created the sitcom, which follows the congregation of a rural mosque as they try to live peacefully with the locals in a small prairie town. In the first episode, those locals are suspicious when a new imam comes to town.

But even getting to the town is a challenge for the new spiritual leader. While waiting in line at the airport, he makes the mistake of yelling into his cell phone, "If Dad thinks that's suicide, so be it." Um, he meant career suicide.

So What Idiot Kept This Movie Out of Theaters?

The DVD for 'Idiocracy'

hide captionAn early working title for the satire was 'The United States of Uhh-merica.'

The Details

DVD: Idiocracy

What It Is: A satire of an incredibly dumbed-down future that barely made it into theaters but is really very funny

Catch Phrase: "Whoa, you like money, too?"

Price: $29 (worth paying whether you do or don't like money)

In the year 2505, a 90-minute film of someone's butt will win an Oscar. America kills its crops with a Gatorade-esque sports drink (because plants crave electrolytes, right?) Costco awards law degrees. The House of Representatives has long since become the House of Representin'. And a popular newsmagazine is called Hot Naked Chicks & World Report.

That's the dystopian vision of director Mike Judge in Idiocracy, newly released on DVD. He's the man responsible for TV's Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill as well as the cult movie favorite Office Space.

In Idiocracy, the world is so dumbed-down after centuries of devolution that most people can barely tie their shoes. The smartest man alive is Joe Bowers (Luke Wilson), a 2005 Defense Department employee tapped for an experiment in cryogenics. When the project gets scrapped, he's buried beneath a Fuddruckers for 500 years, until an avalanche of garbage dislodges his cryogenic chamber. The movie is darkly funny, although it does have a few flaws: It goes on a little long, it basically has just one joke (Duh, we are dumb.) and the narrator gets a bit annoying.

The film itself almost shared its main character's fate. Last fall, Fox Studios pulled the project before a major theatrical release. But now that the film's unthawed, it may be the smartest comedy until 2505.

Jack Bauer's Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Kiefer Sutherland

hide captionThe reluctant G-man swings back into action.

Fox

The Details

TV: Season premiere of 24

What It Is: Jack Bauer is back to fight terrorism another day.

When It Airs: This week, two-hour installments at 8 p.m. Sunday and Monday, then hourlong episodes at 9 p.m. Mondays on Fox.

Another day, another existential threat to the city of Los Angeles. And only Jack Bauer has the power to stop the terrorists and save America. Even two or three years ago, some viewers of 24 were wondering how many more "worst days" the show's haunted hero could suffer through before ending his own miserable, split-screen life. And how long it would be before the series lost its creative drive.

So here we are, at the dawn of Day Six. Bauer is back from 20 months in the torture chambers of China and ready to aid the hapless president yet again. Sure, we knew the producers would find a way to bring him back into the fold. But who could have imagined that the two-night, four-hour premiere would deliver some of the finest episodes of the entire series?

The producers do what they've always done best: test the limits. After five seasons of chasing evil-doers, the characters confront the domestic consequences of a prolonged war against elusive terrorists. Enemy combatants fester in detention centers, foreign nationals rot inside a Guantanamo-like facility, Middle Eastern-looking citizens face constant harassment, and federal agents pursue Muslim organizations without warrants.

To show how much things have changed, there's a new twist in this already tangled series. Bauer teams up with a reformed terrorist, brought to life with steely eyed intensity by Alexander Siddig.

The new season might come as a surprise for viewers of the last two years, when producers seemed to justify Bauer's brutal anti-terrorism tactics because of the magnitude of the threat (and the conservative Heritage Foundation was among the show's admirers). Now the closet fans at the ACLU can proclaim their love, too.

You'll Be Floored by the Dance

The Details

Movie: Stomp the Yard

What It Is: A dancing duel set in the world of African-American colleges.

Opening: Jan. 12.

A scene from 'Stomp the Yard'

hide captionRival college teams dance for the step-dance championship.

I've long had a theory that every movie generation feels the need to let its tough guys dance. Stomp the Yard, the supercharged step-dancing musical, is just the latest iteration in a form that goes back at least as far as the 1930s, when machine-gun toting gangster James Cagney morphed into a machine-gun tapping George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

What's step-dancing? Well, it's been a tradition on black college campuses since there have been black college campuses, and high schools across the country are developing teams of late. Think martial arts meets marching band meets Busby Berkeley, and think competition between dancing fraternities. The film's music-video style, with slow-motion, fast-forward and lots of other editing tricks to add even more ferocity to the percussion-driven, macho challenges and choreographed insults of step-dancing.

Which is much in the style of previous tough-guy dance movies — everything from dancing gangsters in Guys and Dolls and gangs in West Side Story to the athleticized disco of Saturday Night Fever and Footloose, which made the working-class hoofers hot. Later variations include everything from Michael Jackson's Beat It music video (yeah....well, he's supposed to be tough) to Drumline.

Stomp the Yard begins with an urban step-dancing face-off that leads to a gang killing (sort of starting where the last scene ends in West Side Story). Then it morphs into the kind of college musical that June Allyson and Peter Lawford used to make in the 1940s. Rival frats compete in a national step-dancing championship, and star Columbus Short (who's a choreographer offscreen and can also be seen on NBC's Studio 360 on Sunset Strip) brings urban moves to the mix. The plot's just silly, but the dance is undeniably galvanizing.

Books Featured In This Story

The Gospel Sound
The Gospel Sound

Good News and Bad Times

by Anthony Heilbut

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