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800 Words

Tone Def

April 22, 2007|Dan Neil

I address a nation recently torn asunder. I'm referring to the rift caused by Sanjaya Malakar, the hardy-as-a-cockroach contender on this year's "American Idol." Strange visitor from the planet Hairdo, the 17-year-old with the Colgate smile charmed his way into the top 10 on this, America's most popular TV show, despite his rather modest gifts as a singer. On second thought, I wouldn't call them gifts at all.

For those of you who don't own televisions, let me tee this up for you. "American Idol" is an amateur singing contest engineered in such a way as to pluck an extraordinary talent from ignominious obscurity and thrust him or her into ignominious stardom. Viewers call in to vote for their favorites, week by week, until finally comes the overblown absurdist coronation at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre. It would be provincial to say the show is a reflection of the American Dream--there are "Idol"-like shows in more than 30 countries--but it is peculiarly democratic. The pop culture agita this year came from the fact that conspicuously lame Sanjaya stayed on the show while more worthies were voted off. Democracy, at least the surreal version of it we currently practice, was being subverted. You could blame culture-jamming shock jock Howard Stern, who encouraged people to vote for the worst, or millions of tweener girls caught up in Sanjaya's femme, whisper-thin dreaminess.

In the process of preparing a thoughtful analysis of what might be called America's "Sanjaya Conundrum," I was watching YouTube videos of Sanjaya's performances, and a completely different notion possessed me: My God, how could anybody come in flat on the first note of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me"? Could there be a bigger musical target than the root note of one of the most iconic (and easiest) rock songs in the universe, especially considering it's one of only two notes in the opening guitar riff? And then he did it again after the key modulation (it goes up a perfect fifth, I think).

I saw a blog asking the question, "Who does the best version of 'You Really Got Me': the Kinks, Van Halen or Sanjaya?" The best answer came from a reader who said Sanjaya, because he made a 13-year-old girl in the audience cry, and Ray Davies too.

With Sanjaya's massacre of the innocents in mind, I thought I'd ask an expert: How do people fail to know they are singing badly? Perhaps the world's foremost authority on amusia--tone deafness--is Dr. Isabelle Peretz, professor in the University of Montreal's department of psychology and co-director of the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research.

To begin, says Dr. Peretz, most people can sing. "The large majority of people can carry a tune," she says, "they can maintain pitch and tempo." Untrained and amateur singers have various wobbles--pitch stability, interval deviation, tempo--but generally they can, with practice, approach the singing accuracy of professionals. Only about 4% of the general population is clinically tone deaf--known as congenital amusia--which is roughly the percentage of those who suffer disorders like dyslexia. Except people who suffer from tone deafness cannot hear how badly they sing. And so you have the phenomenon of the drunken dad at a wedding convinced that his rendition of "Three Times a Lady" is the most awesome ever. "Some of these people are often very surprised, hurt and disappointed when they learn the truth," says Dr. Peretz.

Most people can sing? This information is staggering in the context of "American Idol." What it means is that, for each season's open auditions, the producers cruelly select an unrepresentative sampling of awful singers who are not delusional (as they so often seem) but actually neurologically damaged. All so we can laugh at how pathetic they are. Would America tolerate a spelling bee that recruited dyslexics, or Dan Quayle? I don't think so.

Dr. Peretz's research shows that singing is primarily a function of perception. And, if we assume that this perception is high in the general population, it helps explain the waves of perplexity that swept up the "Idol" audience as, each week, Sanjaya trumped better-singing contestants. You can just imagine people asking, "What the hell? Am I deaf or is that kid off-key?"

I believe something like that might account for the recent popularity of University of Massachusetts medical student Jake Mandell's online test for tone deafness (www.jakemandell.com/tonedeaf). As of December 2006, 120,000 people had taken Mandell's free test, which he developed while working at the music and neuroimaging lab at Harvard. (I scored a 90, which means that I have an unusually good ear for music. This will come as an enormous surprise to the cat, which bolts from the room when I play my guitar.)

The Riddle of Sanjaya seems to be driving Dr. Peretz's schedule too. On the day I called, she was gearing up for a television crew to come in. I had heard her interviewed on National Public Radio a week before. Lots of people, it seems, are wondering what it means to be part of Sanjaya Nation.

She had not heard Sanjaya sing, but before she got off the phone she asked me to send her some clips. "I would be very interested to see this person sing," she said. "I've heard so much about the show."

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