The Etymology of Riffing, or, Why 'American Idol' Is Missing the Point

Riffing had its roots in rhythm and blues. There was so much pain in this music that the melody just wouldn't do. But this is not what we hear in contemporary music. It's almost a competition to see who can do the most riffs, the fastest, the highest and the loudest.
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When I was a 19-year-old theater intern in New York City, I befriended an old-school music director named Frank Zuback. To this day -- a great many years later -- I'll never forget a point Frank made about vocal riffing. (Riffing, as you most likely know, is when a singer strays from the written melody.) We were discussing the musical RENT, and Frank pointed out that most of the cast members, who were doing a ton of riffing in the show, had no idea where these riffs came from. Dare I say it: they didn't know the etymology of their riffing?

I remember feeling kind of annoyed at Frank's comment. Just let me enjoy my RENT, man! But even then, I wondered if he was right. Frank went on to point out that riffing, at least the kind heard in popular music, had its roots in rhythm and blues. There was so much pain in this music that the melody just wouldn't do -- the singer had to reach far and away from the known notes, trying (if only in vain) to excise his pain with an even more personal melodic line. It's as if the melody was trying to break free from its reins, just as the singer was aiming to flee his pain.

But this is not the riffing we hear in contemporary music. It's generally not riffing born of pain or some intense experience, but it's riffing born of, well, riffing. Singers hear other singers making use of their considerable technical skills, moving over and around the melody, and they, in turn, do the same. It's almost a competition to see who can do the most riffs, the fastest, the highest and the loudest.

But sometimes, like Emperor Joseph pointed out in Amadeus, it's just "too many notes."

Thanks to YouTube, one can watch the likes of Christina Aguilera or Mariah Carey sing a simple tune like "Happy Birthday" (certainly not a song born of any real pain or suffering), and the melody seems a mere passerby in a sea of riffs. With such an inflated economy of riffing, then, when the same ladies end up performing songs that do have true depth or seriousness (Aguilera's "Beautiful," for example), the effect is so much less powerful -- we're inured to the constant vocal maneuvers, and so the serious and the sexy and the sustained all start to blend together.

Let's not forget that some of the most striking performances are those when the performer holds back. This is especially true, I think, in songs meant to convey a sense of sexiness or flirting. When Marilyn Monroe was tasked with performing "Happy Birthday" to JFK (lovingly recreated last season on Smash), her economy of notes is striking -- there was not a hint of riffing to be found in her vocal seduction. It was all about what Marilyn was not saying -- or, in this case, singing -- that gave the performance such a lasting impression. By stripping the song down to its bare (pun intended) essentials, Marilyn was communicating a world of desire, warmth and sexuality.

If there's any one area in American cultural life where this backwards idea of riffing has seemed to most take hold, it's in the performances of American Idol contestants. Riffing, on Idol, has become the placeholder for real emotion or connection, so much so that I wonder if the audience and judges have stopped looking for anything else. Kelly Clarkson, winner of Idol's first season, did seem to have a modicum of vulnerability and connection -- her riffs, at least part of the time, seemed to be coming from her own experience and challenges. But now, more than ten years later, Idol performers seem to be a copy of a copy of a copy -- mimicking the results of connection without conveying much actual connection.

With all that said, I was encouraged, earlier this season on the show, by an exchange between Idol judge Jennifer Lopez and auditionee Colton Dixon. Colton had almost made it to the Top 24 the previous season, but was ultimately sent home. So, after what was undoubtedly a disappointing first defeat, Colton made his second try. And the year between auditions seemed to bring out some personal (and, therefore, musical) growth for the young singer. After auditioning with David Cook's "Permanent," which, for me, felt totally authentic, with just the right amount/kind of riffing, Jennifer commented:

"Colton, you're amazing. But you know what makes you better? Pain."

Exactly, Jennifer.

Some choice riffing, used as it was originally intended -- to call out while also bringing relief from pain and disappointment -- can land you a job, garner hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers and, most importantly, help create a memorable and honest performance.

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