Sunday, September 20, 2020

Waiting For An Embarrassing Belinda Demo To Fall (Into Bootleggers' Arms)

So, my favorite singers. It's funny who might make the list. Not necessarily the singers who would normally appear high on perennial "Greatest Singer" lists - Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey - although some of them might. Not even necessarily the singers who I would count among my favorite musical artists: Paul McCartney, Elton John, Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, David Byrne, Morrissey, Liam Gallagher. I mean, I'm sure I enjoy those voices on some level, but it's not precisely the voices that I connect with. No, my list of favorite singers is even more random than that.

Here's what makes a singer's voice qualify as a "favorite" for me: when I feel like I can hear a part of my own personality in that voice - be it sadness, rage, uncertainty, steadiness, etc. It's when I hear certain voices and they feel like a warm hug being wrapped around my soul. These are the voices that make me feel ever-so-slightly more connected to the human race - a connection that, at times, can feel rather tenuous. Some of my favorite singers are quite highly regarded as singers: Stevie Wonder, Elvis, George Jones, Karen Carpenter, John Lennon, Etta James, Brian Wilson, Ray Charles, Brenda Lee, Bobby "Blue" Bland. Some of my favorite singers have often been called outright "bad" singers: Neil Young, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Roger Waters, Donald Fagen, Joe Jackson, Leon Russell. Sometimes, I just plain like the sound of that singer's voice, even when the song they're singing stinks. But the one quality that I think all my favorite voices share - for me at least - is a sense of directness. When I am listening to these people sing, I feel like there is nothing standing between their being and my being. There's no artifice. Even when they're phoning it in, I feel like I am always getting the full "them." Also, I can pick out their voices in about five seconds flat. They may have had their influences, but somehow, someway, I always know that it's them.

I think it's accurate to say that, in her youth, Belinda Carlisle didn't possess a conventionally "strong" voice. She wasn't what you might have called "versatile." She probably wouldn't have cut it in any scene other than the punk/new wave scene. So why is it that the mere sound of her voice makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside? It's the kind of voice that I had always subconsciously liked, but I had never really given much thought to until I went on my unexpected Go-Go's binge roughly ten years ago. Even on the earliest Go-Go's songs, Belinda's voice always had that little vibrato, or "quiver" or "tremble" to it. In wondering where that vibrato might have come from, I think back to the terror she might have experienced as a child wondering whether her drunken stepfather was about to beat the living shit out of her or not. That could have had something to do with it. All those childhood fears may have become embedded deeply into her bones. To paraphrase Pete Townshend (another "favorite" singer of mine whose voice probably wouldn't be considered conventionally "good"), "sickness can surely take the voice where voices can't usually go."

This anonymous person who commented on an old AV Club article about Beauty and the Beat that was published several years back knows what I'm talkin' 'bout:
Carlisle is obviously my favourite Go-Go (because Wilma vs. Betty is not even a choice since you're obviously gonna go with Wilma every time). I love her voice. I have a thing for raspy female voices that sill sound feminine (listen to the choruses in "Runaway Horses", the song). Her voice is a mix of Bonnie Tyler, Janis Joplin, Stevie Nicks, Siouxsie Sioux, Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, and Dolly Parton. The thing about her voice is, it's not a pop voice, it's a raspy rock and roll voice (listen to the Go-Gos' version of "I Wanna Be Sedated" from the 2001 concert in Central Park). But it's not as harsh as most female rock voices, so you do buy her as a pop singer in the same way you buy Pink as a pop singer. Or I guess a better way to put it would be that Carlisle straddles the fence between pop (solo) and rock (with the Go-Go's) and is a bit too rock for pop music and bit too pop for rock music. But yeah, Carlisle rocks. She may be one of the only women in music who came close to matching Keith Richards' level of drug abuse/partying and came out the other side with her sense of humor (and everything else) intact.
Yes, like Keith, she is truly a modern miracle of science and biology.

Sure, her singing style is not everyone's cup of tea. I can understand someone actively disliking her voice (her detractors have not been shy to make their presence known on YouTube). She's not a "properly trained" vocalist ... but that's a good thing! The great ones either got it or they don't. Witness Madonna after about 1986, who has tried so incredibly hard to train her voice and to become a "conventionally great" vocalist, and yet ... I don't get the warm fuzzies from just the sheer sound of her voice like I do from Belinda's. That voice is like a trusty friend - and it might have been a trusty friend to Belinda too. One aspect of her career (out of many) I find highly amusing is that, while she went through about sixteen different physical transformations, eighteen different hairstyles, and fourteen different hair colors, whenever she opened her mouth, no matter what phase she happened to be in, that same fucking voice would come out. It was her North Star, her Big Mac. (Another irony is that, at the peak of her recording career, she didn't think much of herself as a singer, but now, in her later years, I've noticed that she has finally discovered her singing "self-esteem" and that she puts a lot more thought and effort into her singing ... even though her voice has aged and doesn't sound like it once did. But, them's the breaks.)

I write all these observations as a prelude to a discussion of Belinda's less-than-impressive vocal performance on a demo of the song "Waiting for a Star to Fall."

Flying in straight from a rejected sitcom pilot near you, allow me to present Boy Meets Girl's "Waiting for a Star to Fall," a 1989 #5 hit that I didn't care for much at the time, which, considering I had the taste of a nine-year-old, was a fairly harsh verdict. Yes, even back then, the tune struck me as an over-calculated piece of radio product, utilizing a corny metaphor (stars are actually massive bodies of gas that burn out over the course of billions of years, and don't technically "fall" anywhere), self-consciously dramatic pauses, and a TUKC at the start of the sax solo (to be fair, the key change usually comes after the solo, so I guess they were trying to shake things up a little?). I just find something so artificially "sloppy" about the chorus: "Carry your heart into my arms, that's where you belong, in my arms, baby, yeah!" with the whole "arms, baby, yeah!" bit coming off to me like a freeze-dried, pre-packaged Robert Plant ad lib - tacked on for a touch of "spontaneous" flavor, but ending up tasting like undercooked microwaved Swanson's pot pie? And they apply this little "delay" effect to the lead singer's last "yeah" so that he appears to sing it twice, as if he's so smitten by this overpowering crush of his that he can't even deliver his words on time. I can see why the song was a hit, and I can also see why the radio quickly banished it to Siberia right around, say, February of 1991, presumably for all eternity, only for the mutant robot remnants of the track to return with a vengeance in the UK circa 2005 as "Star2Fall" by Cabin Crew, "Falling Stars" by Sunset Strippers, and "In My Arms" by Mylo. Moral of the story: you can try sweeping those '80s ghouls under the carpet, but eventually, their dusty remains will morph, shift, coagulate, and re-emerge to terrorize the world once again in kitschy electronica form.

But let's go back to the original culprit. If you're listening to "Waiting for a Star to Fall" and thinking, "You know, this kind of sounds like a Whitney Houston reject," well ... from Wikipedia:
Boy Meets Girl is an American pop-music duo consisting of keyboardist and vocalist George Merrill and singer Shannon Rubicam. They are perhaps best known for their hit song "Waiting for a Star to Fall" from 1988 and for writing two of Whitney Houston's number one hits: "How Will I Know" and "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)."
Oh. I've heard of those. Wikipedia goes on to mention that "Waiting for a Star to Fall" was "inspired by an actual falling star that Rubicam had seen during a Whitney Houston concert at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles." Well there you have it, the stars were literally aligning for Merrill, Rubicam, and Houston to score their third #1 single, and then ... Houston's manager, the one and only Clive Davis ... didn't like it. He said that it "didn't suit her." Why the hell not? It sounded just like the other two songs. Guy was nuts, but anyway. We're not here to talk about Whitney Houston. Oh no. We're here to talk about the next singer to whom the song was offered.

According to Wikipedia: "The song was then offered to and recorded by Belinda Carlisle for her 1987 release Heaven on Earth, at the insistence of her label, but Carlisle disliked it and refused to include it on the album. This version has, however, circulated on an unofficial compilation of that album's outtakes."

[twirling mustache] Oh reeeeeally. All right, YouTube, I know you're going to come through for me here.

That's what I'm talking about. Let me guess how this went down:

"Belinda, we've got a hot new song, it's from Whitney's people, but she doesn't want to do it, come on, it'll be huge!"

"Uhh, I dunno guys, it's pretty cheesy."

"So were all the songs on your last album, like 'I Feel the Magic' and 'Shot in the Dark,' I mean, why stop now?"

"Well, if Whitney didn't want to do it, then why would I want to do it?"

"Belinda, baby, we're your record label! Have we ever let you down?"

"Look, I don't think it's for me. Can we just pass here?"

"Tell you what. At least do a demo of it, all right? One lousy demo. Let's just see what we've got here, see what it sounds like. Do a demo and then we'll talk. Capice?"

"OK, fine. If I do a half-assed demo version that's totally fucking terrible, then we can move on to something else?"


And so, somewhere beneath 200 tons of tape hiss, we have Belinda's demo version of "Waiting for a Star to Fall." You know Plato's concept of the Cave, which posits that most of what human beings actually perceive is merely a shadow of reality being projected onto the wall of a cave? Well, this demo's backing track sounds like the shadow of an actual recording, projected onto the wall of the recording studio's cave. And then we have Belinda's vocal performance, which I presume was given at gunpoint, as she sounds like a woman undergoing extreme discomfort and duress. Your mother singing "Waiting for a Star to Fall" in the shower would have probably sounded more confident than this. Bottom line: she just ... wasn't ... into it.

And yet! Several YouTube commentators have taken this less-than-stellar outtake as evidence that Belinda couldn't actually sing, but I think it might prove the exact opposite. For someone recording a practice vocal of a song she didn't like over a Casio-generated musical backing ... she sounds pretty good to me! Choice excerpts from the debate:
Belinda, go home. You're drunk.

Yikes! It's like a birthday cake with a big spider on it.

Waiting for this song to end.

1:43 is where I stopped hoping for a good part and just laughed my way through the demo.

It sounds like a cow being run over.

Hey Belinda, I love ya, you've got allotta my money in your pocket but thanks for turning this song down.

To be fair it's a demo but Belinda cannot hit the notes very well. Boy Meets Girl did it with passion on vocals and instruments.

This gives me hope that, being a total lay singer, my own singing isn't thaaaat bad after all. It's interesting how weak Belinda's vocals sound without fancy sound effects.

Belinda's vocals get cut a lot of slack due to her looks.

This needs like 500% more sax.

c'mon all!! This isn't that bad! It's pretty good!

Unpopular Opinion: I think this is good.

amazing what happens when you have to actually sing before all the editing to make you sound good is added in. I never knew she was actually a terrible live singer omg lol she''s all over the place, way out of tune

She's a very strong live singer, this song just doesn't suit her. Bear in mind too that this is a demo and could be 1 of many takes, check out some of her live video's she can really nail it.

I'm sorry but those making fun of her voice; she's by far better then any 'teen' singing now.

This was probably a scratch take rather than anything that was meant to sound decent. I mean, the backing music is just as bad as the vocal. If you watch videos of her live performances you can see she can actually sing. If she had done a version with a serious vocal and full-on instrumentation, I'm sure it would sound good.

This sounds like a practice recording while she's trying to learn the song.I wonder who released this,it appears they don't like Belinda.

There are so many negative comments. It's obvious she was just going through the motions seeing if she liked the song. I mean their are no real instruments even. It's all synthesized/drum machine junk. I love Belinda. Even with no auto tune or real musicians she sounds better than most, even good I will venture to say.

This was way too far from the finished product. Even if she had recorded it, it would have sounded much better than this. I do think it was more a Whitney song than Belinda. Having said that Merrill and Rubicam own it.

Belinda's lovely voice is the best thing about this recording. The musicians were farther off of their marks on this spiritless arrangement. Had they drafted a serious producer/arranger and put in some positive rehearsal time, they would have come away with the best version ever recorded. A sweet, yet tragic, orphan of the muse.

Do people not know what a "demo" is? It's a rough cut of a song before you go in the studio to fully record, polish and produce it. This song was thrown at her and she didn't want to record at all. For those comparing it to Boy Meet Girl, that's comparing apples to oranges - the original songwriters version of the song with full production (as everyone knows and loves) compared to a demo of someone who never wanted it. And thank God. This song has no place on "Heaven on Earth" at all and would've killed the album. Boy Meets Girl should be glad they got to keep it for themselves and have success with it. It's just the industry.

What a delightful little find! These days they auto tune the demos so it's kinda nice hearing a good old traditional slightly off key in parts grass roots demo - 80's style!

I pose that my demo from 1988 is better than Belinda’s version of this song...but barely
Here's the deal: as crappy as this demo is ... somehow, someway, I still feel the magic. I still feel the warm and fuzzies. That's the deal with your favorite singers: even when they're terrible, you love them regardless. It's like a marriage: for better or worse, for richer or poorer. If Belinda's voice is like a warm hug wrapping itself around my soul, this demo is more like a sweaty, gross hug after she's just come back from the gym. But I'll take it.

In the end, "Waiting for a Star to Fall" was simply "waiting to fall" into the hands of the duo who wrote it, providing them with the glory and status that they so richly deserved, and allowing Belinda to dodge a cheesy '80s bullet. Apparently, she just couldn't stoop so low as to record a peppy Whitney Houston reject. The woman had standards. I mean, it's not like she was filming Christmas ads for L.A. Gear or something. Oh, wait: