In the series Make Your Kid a Rock God, we have covered all of the most important aspects of putting together a kid rock-and-roll ensemble. From the rhythmic anchor of drums and bass to the melodic component of lead guitar, we’ve got the band situated. (Where are the keyboards, you might ask? Maybe we’ll cover that in a piece titled “Have you seen my DX7? The Death of Keyboards in Rock-and-Roll.” But I doubt it.)
Really, the only thing we haven’t hit on it the lead singer. There’s a pun in there somewhere, I’m sure, and we only reluctantly venture into lead singer territory. Singers – vocalists, as some like to refer to themselves – are rarely great singers. More oft, they are great entertainers, front-men and front-women who command attention, maintain a rapport with the audience and keep people interested in their wacky personal lives.
Lead singers are, by their very nature, the most narcissistic members of any band, and it’s somewhat justifiable. The true test: Name a rock band that would have achieved the same level of commercial success without their lead singer. Led Zeppelin may have made some great music without Robert Plant, but the sexiest singer in rock-and-roll history secured the band’s fame. The Smiths may have been a moody indie fave among their die-hard fans without him, but the record shows that Morrissey is god.
The Stones. U2. The Cure. Wendy O and the Plasmatics. Queen. Sly and the Family Stone. Motorhead. The Who. Bon Jovi. Guns ‘n’ Roses. Black Oak Arkansas. Pearl Jam. The list is long and formidable.
If you can really sing, however, it’s a freakin’ bonus. And you may even set yourself up for a career long after your band falls apart amid drug addiction and inter-band infidelities. So here, we’ll give you two strategies: One to make your kid a great front-person, one to make your kid a great singer. Combine the two paths, and, with any luck, your kid may actually find success in the music business.
Again, you do this at your own – and your child’s – peril. You have been warned.
Herein we will briefly examine why a lead singer doesn’t need to know how to sing. In fact, knowing how to sing may actually hinder a person more interested in rock stardom than a career as a vocalist. Here, watch this:
If the intro to the song Dr. Feelgood doesn’t tell you everything to know about rock-and-roll, then hang in there till the song starts. The prelude, for lack of a better term, is about the spectacle. Pyrotechnics, costumery, explosions. It’s all about the show.
Then one of the worst singers in rock takes the stage. Vince Neil, a guy whose vocal style more closely resemble the wales of a cat caught in a meat grinder, muddles through a pretty damn good song – for ‘80s metal, that is. It’s not about the singing for Neil. Repeat: It’s all about the show.
Even as middle age, alcohol and drugs ravage his body, turning him into a grubby, schlubby version of his former sveltey self, the man commands his audience, and they eat that shit up. This type of showmanship can be learned. So the first step is instilling a sense of confidence in your child. This is advice any parent can use: Never stifle your child’s creative spirit. When that child jumps up onto the coffee table and starts belting out Kelly Clarkson songs (as my child is wont to do), give her a hands-in-the-air salute, applaud wildly, buy a T-shirt.
(Caveat: Do not go pageant mom on your kid. No forcing, no pressure. Just encouragement and support. There is a huge difference.)
Also, get the kid into acting and improvisational comedy classes. Notice this did not read: Get the child into singing lessons. That’s for the second part of this article. The most important part of being an entertainer is not being yourself on stage, but being a larger, more exciting, more entertaining version of yourself. All art is rooted in self-reflection, but unless you are a performance artist doing a one-person show about your life, no one wants to see just you on stage. They want to see theater and spectacle. So give it to them. Most community theaters and even some public and private art schools offer acting and improv training.
Here’s a great book for kids, from Second City, the kings of comedy improv.
Also, one must encourage the child to experiment with wardrobe. This is a great time for kids, when fear of judgment trails the desire to dress up by a mile. Children will do the most ridiculous things when in costume, and this is a skill that will benefit them greatly as rock stars. Lady Gaga may wear meat, but it put her on the cover of magazines. It certainly wasn’t her voice that did it, as evinced by this early clip of her slumming it on the NYC nightclub circuit.
Singing may be the most difficult of all the musical pursuits. There is nothing there to fall back on, nothing on which to blame your lack of ability. It’s just you …
So, proper training and an innate ability to not only sing on pitch with breath control and a wide range in a variety of styles, but to do it all with personality and a unique approach, is imperative. This is why there are so few great singers in rock-and-roll. Jazz, classical and opera is where the real singers live, because those genres put the voice first. You must know how to sing, how to capture the listener’s attention with your voice, how to interpret a lyric and emote.
Most kids sing along to their favorite records, but how many sing in tune? And how many sing with feeling? And how many do it with a sense of self? Of course, the default response is, “My kid sings beautifully.” But chances are your kid sucks at singing.
If you have one of those children that shows true promise, get him or her in to vocal lessons pronto. And not classical or chorale. You need a teacher who understands pop music and the approach a pop singer should take to the discipline. Jazz vocalists and classically trained singers comprise the list of greatest singers in the world, but they can’t sing a rock lyric to save their goddamned lives. It’s an entirely different world, one your child may take to naturally. But this article is about the rock, baby.
Also, play lots of music for your kid. Make certain that child isn’t just listening to the crap their idiot friends are listening to. Sure, a Katy Perry tune here and there never killed anyone, but your child’s play list should include everyone from the Beatles to Fiona Apple to Cee Lo Green. If it’s pop, and someone is singing, put it on, listen to it, and talk about what is good and bad, and discuss what the singer is doing in the song.
And educate yourself. The worst thing a parent can do is send a child into lessons – for anything – and not understand at least a portion of what the kid is learning. The more you know, the more you can help you child progress.
THE WHOLE PACKAGE
Combining the above strategies will insure your kid has a fighting chance at making a career as a rock-and-roll singer. Why anyone would desire this for their child is a question for the ages. But, if your kid wants it, support him or her with all your heart. That kid may find some level of success, or may fall flat on his or her face, but the experience will be worth every minute. The goal is freedom of expression, parent-child bonding and, ultimately, to have a damn good time doing something you and your child are passionate about.