There’s a moment towards the end of a 12-minute YouTube video on the “6 HARDEST Vocals Singers CAN’T/DON’T Sing ANYMORE” when vocal coach Sam Johnson defends Christina Aguilera for lip-syncing. The video, at the time of writing, has been viewed more than 1.2 million times. And in this particular segment, Johnson is analysing how Aguilera’s approach to singing her 2006 single “Candyman” live has evolved over the years.
The song contains a “heeeeeeyyyy” so long that you can close your eyes and practically visualise Aguilera, bending down as though to scoop up the start of the brutally high note (an E5, for the theory heads) before curling her body towards the sky to push it out for eight seconds. Live, it’s almost impossible to execute—Johnson’s acceptance of her lip-syncing it demonstrates as much.
But overall, people tend to be a less lenient with pop stars and other singers who don’t perform their vocals live, when outside a recording studio environment. Who among us can forget Ashlee Simpson doing that little jig before skipping off stage on Saturday Night Live when her pre-recorded vocal boomed out of the speakers while her mic was nowhere near her mouth? If you missed it the first time in 2004: here you go. Women tend to bear the brunt of this sort of scrutiny, with onlookers quick to poke any potential holes in their so-called authenticity.
That being said, when a live vocal take absolutely goes, it can be breathtaking. And that’s the case with this new Moses Sumney video for his recent single “Rank & File,” off this year’s Black in Deep Red, 2014 EP. Sumney is… I mean, whew, Sumney is so good a singer that listening to his falsetto can make your skin tingle as though you’ve added a really high-concentration alpha-hydroxy acid to your skincare routine. High notes seem to waft out of his mouth like smoke. Like, if you’re the kind of person partial to believing people can be possessed, I’d suggest one of his gigs as a spiritual experience for you to chronicle on your mysticism Insta account later.
I’ve written before about Sumney’s live show, and how it turned me into an emotional wreck, initially by way of screaming “FUCK IT UP THOUGH” in between songs. He makes use of a loop pedal in the way that I’d imagine less imaginative pop artists wish they could: hand claps, harmonized and percussive exclamations and finger clicks all layer to create the base on which the performance rests. And that’s before he even emits that piercing falsetto, closer to the three-minute mark.
A quote floats around online, attributed to Neil Diamond, which sort of sums up how much an emotional connection can depend on a truly live performance. “The human voice is the most important instrument at our disposal,” it begins, “Yet it is one of the most difficult to understand or define. You either hear it or you don’t. It either moves you, or it leaves you cold… it is more than just a sound… it is the soul itself.”
Whether Diamond really said those words or not, and whether you choose to believe every part of their argument, it’s hard to deny how much more awe a “real” vocal can inspire. The YouTube comments under that “Rank & File” video show as much, as do the battles between Sigrid fans going to and fro on whether her live video for “Raw” was, in fact, recorded live (everyone: it was). Examples of this style—the slick-looking live video, not to be confused with a taping of a live performance in front of an audience or an NPR Tiny Desk/Blogothèque Take Away Show setup—have bubbled up here and there over the past few years. Ariana Grande’s a cappella rendition of “Dangerous Woman” is still one of the GOAT. Adele fans will likely remember her 2015 live video for “When We Were Young.”
And so Sumney’s take on “Rank & File” taps into a similar fascination with the instrument that rests in our throats. His ability to multi-task while pulling it off no doubt makes the video even more impressive. By that I mean that for the average fan, who may or may not play an instrument, your mind spins watching him build both the song, paying attention to the looping rhythms and harmonies, and pouring his vocals a chosen mic. And I suppose that’s why lip-syncing can make fans feel so cheated. It can seem like a missed opportunity to directly engage with your audience, to stir up a primal reaction to the sound of another human voice. Luckily, Sumney fans don’t have anything to worry about quite yet.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.