The latest piece in Slate’s excellent daily audio podcast was Bigger Than Elvis, an encomium of Mariah Carey. In it, writer Jody Rosen repeatedly uses the term ‘melisma’ to describe Ms. Carey’s singing style:
Mariah’s accomplishment begins, of course, with her voice, or, rather, The VoiceÃ¢â‚¬â€that cyclonic force capable of hurtling unnumbered octaves, shattering crystal ware, and inducing musicogenic epileptic seizures in Japanese women. Carey is the most influential vocal stylist of the last two decades, the person who made rococo melismatic singingÃ¢â‚¬â€the trick of embroidering syllables with multiple no-o-o-o-o-o-tesÃ¢â‚¬â€the ubiquitous pop style. Exhibit A is American Idol, which has often played out as a clash of melisma-mad Mariah wannabes. And, today, nearly 20 years after Carey’s debut, major labels continue to bet the farm on young stars such as the winner of Britain’s X Factor show*, Leona Lewis, with her Generation Next gloss on Mariah’s big voice and big hair.
I expect this word is familiar to musicians and music historians out there, but it was new to me. Wikipedia says that the technique has its origins in “early mystical initiation rites and religious worship”. Apparently the most well-known usage is in Gregorian chant.
Jody Rosen actually makes a pretty good case for not dismissing Mariah Carey. I’ve never been a fan, but I was reminded of “Heartbreaker”. It’s a half-decent pop song, and has a pretty watchable video: