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Shannon Livewell

‘20 Feet From Stardom’- the truth behind the song

AP Photo
AP Photo

In today’s generation we tend to listen to music in a superficial way. We listen for words, melody, and instruments, but do we ever listen for depth? I say depth meaning the layers of instrumentation that bring the song to life and make it full. Because we listen to music superficially, the industry has grown to meet that level of insight and music is now being made superficially. Due to digital recording and programs such as Protools, artists are able to be their own beat, guitar, and especially backing vocals. With manipulation techniques, looping machines, an unlimited amounts of track layering and artist is able to become a multi-trick pony but what does that mean for the fate of the music industry? Background singers have held the weight of musical numbers on their shoulders since the 1940’s and the documentary; “20 Feet From Stardom” describes the occupation as becoming somewhat of a lost art, stating that technological advances in music have made it almost pointless to bring background vocalists into the studio but have also significantly decreased the value of substance for a hit song.

This documentary follows the stories and careers of five prominent background singers in the industry focusing mainly on Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Judith Hill. The voices on these women are beyond beautiful and soulful; they’re breathtaking. Merry Clayton is most known for her duet with Mick Jagger on “Gimme Shelter,” which was the first time in history that a soul/ gospel singer was brought in to the studio and then on tour for a rock group.

“I was jarred at first,” said Clayton in the documentary. “I got a call in the middle of the night so I showed up in my pajamas ready to sing a little… then I read the lyrics and was just like wow, okay, this is different.”

Lisa Fischer rose to fame with debut album in 1991, “So Intense.” This was a Grammy award-winning album that was sure to be only the first step on her long road to fame but Fischer says her second album brought her career twelve steps back,

“It just took too long,” she responded. “We wanted the second album to be perfect, so we just waited and critiqued to the point where we were just too late.”

Fischer is known for backing artists such as Luther Vandros, Tina Turner, and the Rolling Stones. Fischer is known for her amazing range and style, sounding to be greatly influenced by Ella Fitzgerald.

Judith Hill is the youngest of the bunch who was just about to sing background on Michael Jackson’s last tour before he suddenly passed away. She sang a tribute to him at his funeral and was instantly acknowledged by the media, even doing interviews with E! Entertainment.

“I knew at that point that if I didn’t start turning down back-up gigs I would never be able to start my solo career so I started having to say no to a lot.”

Hill auditioned last year for The Voice and had all of the judges on their feet by her final note in her rendition of “What a Girl Wants” by Christina Aguilera, which is definitely worth looking up on YouTube.

These three amazing voices were caught in the shadows for years and “20 Feet From Stardom” unveils the voices we have subconsciously known and loved for years. With their RnB, soulful styles and amazing ranges these women put some of the artists they’ve backed to shame. Due to the fact that they are back-up singers there is not a lot of solo music available online but I urge you to research each and every one of them, not to mention watch this amazing documentary that depicts the lives of these talented artists who have yet to get the recognition they deserve.

Music today is lacking something. That is because more artists decide it is cost-effective and effortless to do their own backing vocals but how generic does that sound? The amount of auto tune and editing that must go into making the parts fit cohesively is seemingly more work than hiring amazing background vocalists, is it not? The question still stands as to if these careers will be extinct in time but then that leads to the question of whether or not music will die without the voices that are the virtual heartbeat of the songs?