Earlier this month when Lady Gaga released “Perfect Illusion,” a scream-pop explosion that edges on rock, my immediate reaction was a physical cringe. Produced by Mark Ronson, BloodPop (Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”) and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, it’s the first single from her next album Joanne. While Gaga is known to take her vocals to extreme heights, “Perfect Illusion” sounds—to put it in simple familiar terms—like she doesn’t have the range.
My colleague Rich Juzwiak did a great job describing the single’s jarring qualities in his post “Why Is Lady Gaga’s New Single So Unpleasant?” where he referred to the song as “a wall of shrill sounds.” He also wrote: “There’s the distorted wail that opens the song and pierces the eardrums with a metronome’s precision, a hair-metal guitar riff that gets buried under the screeching, and Gaga’s own voice.” First impressions were typically mixed, but others have similarly noted the dissonance, like The Guardian’s Richard S. He, who observed that “there’s zero pitch correction on her vocal. Gaga’s taken a page from Sia’s book, and amidst pop radio’s artificial perfection it’s a bold move.”
Dear reader, do you love it or does the song wreck your ears? If so, then why? I reached out to Justin Stoney, founder of New York Vocal Coaching (I used the term “shrill” in my email request), to break down Gaga’s vocals from a technical standpoint and he told me, “She’s singing aggressively on a high larynx, which is what you must not do.” Here’s our brief, lightly edited phone conversation.
Jezebel: You got a chance to listen to “Perfect Illusion” for the first time. In technical terms, what is it that people are noticing about it that they don’t like?
Justin Stoney: If people are hearing that it’s shrill or they aren’t liking it for some reason, I think what’s going on here is pop music has gone increasingly higher and higher in the female belt range. What we call belting. There are artists like Jessie J, Tori Kelly, Ariana Grande, who are living higher up in that belt range than we’re used to hearing. Lady Gaga historically has not had a belt that has gone as high as those other ladies. This particular song starts sort of in that higher range and then later in the song, it changes key and then it’s definitely up there, a little bit higher than she’s used to going.
Now, she has been singing jazz of late, with Tony Bennett and on her own. Jazz is a lot lower. Lady Gaga has historically lived in a little bit lower in her belt range and she has just gone on a little hiatus singing a lower style of music. We use the word tessitura, which is how long a song lives up high. [UPDATE: Stoney later clarified to me that the word is used in many different ways among vocal coaches, but generally the term means the range of the song.] Now she’s singing in a range and a tessitura that is uncommon for her but is common for many of these other leading female artists. I honestly believe if the key was just a little bit lower, it would’ve been a better move. It’s not a bad song. It’s just a little bit out of her comfort zone and I think that’s what people are noticing.
Is there a name for the range she’s in versus the one she should be in?
I don’t know how technical you want to get, but there’s a sort of passaggio is what they call it, which is an Italian word. It means passage or transition, and there’s a passaggio in a female voice where you don’t really want to go above a B natural or a C natural. Most of Lady Gaga’s songs in general go to about that B or C. This song has a lot of C sharps, which is just above there, and then when the key changes it goes to B. So she’s one or two keys higher than that transitional area. The majority of women, in general, when they get past that passage are going to sound like they’re straining and pushing. So it’s not just Lady Gaga. But you’ve got Tori Kelly, Ariana Grande, Jessie J, who are living up there all the time.
Maybe Lady Gaga or her producers said, this is what’s going on; let’s do one of those pop dance hits like the rest of them. She’s not a superwoman as a vocalist. She’s very good. But Ariana is destroying everybody with her chops. You could call that territory a high belt if you wanted. You could say that it’s notes that live in a high tessitura. Or you could say notes above the passaggio, or above a standard female transition.
Ariana manages to live in that range. What’s different?
I can explain this even more technically if it’s helpful. The larynx is the voice box, that’s where our vocal cords are. Pop music requires the larynx to come up. That’s how you get that sound, but when the larynx comes up, if you’re not skilled with it, it can sound shouty. It can sound yelly. And anytime somebody yells or shouts, their larynx goes up. Ariana knows how to sing with that high larynx position without putting stress on her vocal cords. She knows how to let go. She knows how to use her resonance. She knows how to not get too loud or too yelly when she’s up in that range and that’s very impressive to have that kind of control.
What Lady Gaga’s doing is she’s hiking the larynx up, but she’s kind of pushing on it. She’s kinda shouting on it. You even hear her add some rasp and grit in this song. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t sound like it’s—it sounds a little foreign to her to be doing that. She’s been experimenting a lot. I know she’s done that pop dance stuff in the past. But this song does not sound like her other songs. She’s singing aggressively on a high larynx, which is what you must not do.
People don’t hear all that going on under the surface.
This is what I listen to for 10 hours a day, singer after singer, and my ears are used to analyzing artists and sounds. If she wanted to do this style, she would have to learn how to sing with less volume and more give and slack to her vocal cords in that part of her range. Right now she’s too aggressive with the higher larynx.
Anything else you noticed in other areas or is it mostly range?
It is, and that larynx situation. It sounds like a high larynx. It sounds like she’s sort of pulling up weight from the bottom of her voice. And again, I think that’s ’cause of the jazz. What I will say on a positive note is that we have to admire Lady Gaga for her ability to reinvent herself and to experiment with all these different styles and sounds. ’Cause back when she was wearing all those weird outfits, you kinda thought, it’s too weird, what’s she gonna do next. It’s all downhill from here. You’re, like, already down in left field, what can happen. And then she comes and does a jazz thing. And now she’s back doing what these other pop ladies are doing. So if the seams show through a little bit as she does that, I think we can forgive her.
I would include Sia on that list of belting pop artists.
Sia is on that list. I do think when you hear Ari go up there, it’s effortless. Sia is hiding behind a veil and things like that because I don’t know how sustainable, how easy that is. I think it’s the kind of sound she gets in the recording studio by doing a bunch of takes and then can’t do it as sustainably as like an Ari or a Jessie J. I wouldn’t include Sia in a list of technique that I admire, where I say, wow that singer really knows what they’re doing with their voice. But as far as are those recordings way up in the stratosphere and super impressive? Yes, yes, put her on the list. That could be another person that Lady Gaga could be trying to emulate. Lady Gaga’s shout, with her high larynx, does not sound as good as Sia’s.
Technically, how different is this song from “Bad Romance”?
I would have to revisit that song, but from my recollection “Bad Romance” is a tessitura that is significantly lower than this new song. Like I say, pop keys are sneaking up higher and higher and there’s a lot of temptation to do that. I don’t know if she wrote this song. They might have presented it to her in a higher key and she tried it and they thought they could make it work. Remember in singing, even one half step can change a song entirely. It doesn’t have to be down five steps. Because it’s all about that transition area. If you write a song that’s above that transition, then the female voice if they mastered it will sound like they’re pushing it. It will sound like they’re pushing. You drop this same song down one or two keys, I could pretty much guarantee she’d have an easy time.
(Note: If you’re curious about Gaga’s vocal belting from a health standpoint, here’s what a different, well-known vocal coach to the stars told me over email: “The ‘shrill’ can be perceived by some as annoying, but by others as awesome. The real healthy way should be to not have an annoying ‘shrill sound.’ But for some artists like Sia and or Lady Gaga, it’s a perception they must adapt sometimes to please their fans and a particular vision by record producers, even if it will become a real risk in terms of longevity of their vocal instrument.”)