Secretly, all of us long to be great singers. The number of showerheads that have been abused over the years in this quixotic pursuit is staggering. Alas, truth be told, only a rare few are blessed with the gift, and rarer still are the ones whose expertise is recognized and appreciated by an adoring public. The short list includes such illustrious names as Enrico Caruso, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Marilyn Horne, Luciano Pavarotti, William Hung.
I think it’s safe to say that while William’s 15 minutes of fame are due to run out shortly, his music will live on forever. I’m no expert in the field by any means, but I’ve been a music aficionado since I was a tyke, and I know a memorable set of pipes when I hear them. To me, William has a unique sound, sort of a blend of a young Bobby Darin mixed with the grinding of truck gears. No, that’s not it exactly. More like a cat in heat eating a lounge lizard.
But it is foolhardy for someone like me to try and define someone like him. Every generation produces seminal artists who defy categorization. William is one of a kind. He’d better be.
Still, when a William Hung comes along, invariably there are legions of music critics who will chime in, feeling the need to offer their own assessments for posterity in a self-serving attempt to hitch a ride on his star. Rather than allow these leeches to sully William’s career with their rank pontifications, I decided to seek the opinion of a real working professional.
William’s hotly anticipated debut CD, “Inspiration,” hits the stores this week. As you would expect, it’s a lively and exuberant celebration of a man and his music. My friend Suzan Hanson is an opera singer who, one night at a dinner party, said something rather complimentary about William’s work. I think that she said he had “perfect pitch,” but she could have easily said, “Pass the broccoli,” because by that time we were deep into a second bottle of wine.
Looking for the positive
Anyway, I figured it would be interesting to run one of William’s singles by her and get her thoughts. I could be wrong, but I detect skepticism on the part of American audiences, as if William’s sole claim to fame is as a failed contestant on “American Idol.” So the idea that a true pro with an extensive body of work could find some positives in William’s singing piqued my curiosity.
Suzan, by the way, is a marvelous soprano who has starred in many operas and musical theater around the world, and is currently in New York doing a reading of a new production. Both her parents taught voice in the music department at Northern Arizona University. I could list all her credits here, but even on the internet, we don’t have enough space. So do a Google and take the day off.
I first presented Suzan with “She Bangs,” William’s smash single. But after listening, she said she could not provide a fair analysis because there were too many other voices and distractions on the cut. It seems to me that when Andrea Bocelli puts out a CD, the producers don’t muck it up with a lot of background noise. So why in blazes would they do that to William? The term that comes to mind here is “vocal integrity” people. Learn it. Live by it.
Then I played for Suzan what promises to be William’s signature theme, “I Believe I Can Fly.” When you hear it, you’ll believe he can fly, too. You just may not believe he can sing.
“I think he has a pleasant enough voice,” Suzan explained. This might be a good time to mention that Suzan is one of the nicest people on the planet.
“I would say that his voice hasn’t been well tapped,” she continued. “He hasn’t explored it fully. Stylistically, it’s sort of tepid. A little flaccid stylistically.”
Then she went on to break his voice down technically. She said that because he apparently doesn’t have as much training as he probably could have, he has trouble making a register shift. “He reaches a break, but can’t go through the break,” Suzan explained.
Playing the kazoo on MarsShe then offered a vivid and useful analogy. “He adjusts in kind of a surreal way,” she added. “If you were playing a song with a guitar, and then got to a place where your fingers couldn’t do the fingering because you couldn’t spread your hands wide enough, so you picked up a kazoo for that part of the song, then picked back up on the guitar where you could. It’s like he went to Mars for a bit.”
Playing the kazoo on Mars. I think we have the title of William’s second album.
But before you start to think that this is “Pick On William Day,” think again. This isn’t an exercise in elitism. O.K., so Suzan is a songbird, while William sounds more like a songbird that’s being strangled. In the United States of America, we applaud pioneers who buck the odds and thumb their noses at convention.
“I think all of us respond to the desire to sing,” Suzan said. “He has the guts to get out there and do it and be O.K., and then to suck so completely, and we respond to his daring. It’s the courage to not be so good in public.
“But the thing we all respond to the most is how much he loves doing it. That’s something you can’t teach anybody.”
Now I understand why his first CD is entitled, “Inspiration.” There are thousands of William Hungs out there, just waiting for their chances. You’ll hear them singing out loud at the dry cleaners, on the subway, in line at your local Starbucks. Their voices crackle with hope and shriek with desire. All because William Hung dared to dream.
Soon, at your local karaoke bar, people who have had way too much to drink will take the microphone and attempt to provide the vocals to a William Hung song. If there is any justice in the world, I hope they get the same reception that their hero is getting. They deserve it.
Michael Ventre is a Los Angeles-based writer and a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.