As well as being a member of the choir backing up Dead Man’s Bones in Vancouver last month, Jane Agyeman was picked to perform a solo, a cover of Cher’s Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down). Fully aware of who the packed house had paid to see – the band is fronted by Academy Award-nominated actor Ryan Gosling – Agyeman wasn’t expecting much more than a polite response, like at an elementary school concert, she says, when “the crowd claps because it’s mandatory.” So it came as a bit of a shock when the club erupted with applause following her four minutes alone in the spotlight. And the Georgia Straight’s review of the show, while generous to Gosling, credited the Grade 11 student at North Vancouver’s Carson Graham secondary school with having “turned in the night’s most killer performance.”
Being upstaged by a kid from the choir is something Gosling has been setting himself up for this fall. On the band’s self-titled debut, which came out last month, Dead Man’s Bones is joined by the Silverlake Conservatory of Music’s children’s choir. And at every tour stop, the band selected a local chorus, painted the members’ faces like ghosts, and took them on stage as backup. When asked by a journalist from Pitchfork what they hoped to achieve by including the kids, Gosling offered a rambling, but poignant response: “You know when you’re a kid and you get crayons and papers and just draw whatever you want and it’s just a bunch of messy lines, but to you it makes sense, and then they put it on the fridge? From that point on, you’re always trying to get back on the fridge. We wanted to get back to that place before we were trying to make the fridge. We wanted to work with people who hadn’t been affected in that way yet.”
The guys in Dead Man’s Bones aren’t the only ones trying to capture a bit of that magic. Aside, perhaps, from Whoopi Goldberg’s turn in Sister Act, choirs have never been more centre stage in pop culture than they are right now. The soundtrack for Where the Wild Things Are features Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and 16 untrained children’s voices. A Grade 5 chorus at New York City’s PS22 regularly captures the YouTube generation’s attention (12 million views and counting) with covers of modern-day pop songs, and counts Beyoncé, Rihanna and Lady Gaga as fans. The Choir, an award-winning BBC reality show about a choirmaster who tries to turn inexperienced, and often reluctant, students on to song, has proven incredibly popular in the U.K. (TVO is airing all three episodes of season one on Jan. 1). And then, of course, there’s Glee. Fox’s massive hit, about a high school show choir, has 8.6 million tuning in every week. And the show’s chart-topping music—including covers of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ and Beyoncé’s Halo—has sold more than 2.6 million downloads on iTunes. At the risk of being stuffed in a locker for saying it, choirs are, well, cool.
Over the years it’s been common for big-name rock stars—the Rolling Stones (You Can’t Always Get What You Want), Pink Floyd (Another Brick in the Wall) and KISS (Great Expectations)—to borrow the voices of youth. The gimmick was linking children’s innocence with the “evils” of rock ’n’ roll. “Putting a nasty attitude, a tone of malevolence, in the mouths of children has been done a lot,” says Irwin Chusid, a Hoboken, N.J.-based disc jockey and music historian. And many of the choirs were used because they were classically trained.
These days, perfect pitch isn’t necessarily the top priority when a band enlists the services of a kids’ choir for hire. In many cases, the less polished the technique, the better. Gosling, for instance, wasn’t looking for a classical choir vibe at all. “We had to make it sound like we had been dead for a million years so our voices were very scratchy,” says Matthew Tissi, a 14-year-old at the Etobicoke School of the Arts, and a member of the choir that backed Gosling’s band at Toronto’s Opera House last month. Gosling “didn’t want us just standing there with our hands by our side—we were dancing on stage.” While striving for an equally authentic sound, Where the Wild Things Are director Spike Jonze, in a YouTube clip of the recording session, worries that a music teacher is over-warming-up the kids.
This trend is more in tune with the Langley Schools Music Project’s Innocence & Despair, the gravelly 1976-77 recording of more than 100 children singing their hearts out in a school gymnasium in B.C.’s Fraser Valley. Chusid still remembers getting “tingles” the first time he heard the tracks—including covers of David Bowie’s Space Oddity and the Eagles’ Desperado—which were captured on a two-track tape in one take by music teacher Hans Fenger. “The imperfections were beside the point,” says Chusid, who had been sent some of the lost Langley recordings by a listener of his program who had found them in a thrift store. “I like things that have a certain sincerity to it, where it comes from the heart rather than coming from technique. There was something about those recordings that tugged at the heartstrings.”
The album landed on the pop-culture radar in 2001 after Chusid, a self-described “landmark preservationist,” found a label willing to produce it. And since its release, Innocence & Despair has attained cult-like status. Even Bowie acknowledged that Langley brought something fresh to his music. “It legitimized, without the overtones that you’re merely exploiting kids, that if they don’t get the notes right, if the rhythm is a little dodgy, it’s okay,” says Chusid. Spike Jonze shared the album with Karen O during the making of the Wild Things soundtrack in the hopes of inspiring a similar result.
Fenger, now retired and living in China, where he plays in a surf band called the Clamps, says it isn’t easy to produce authenticity. “It’s one thing recording in a school gym,” says Fenger, 61. “It’s quite another dragging kids into a music studio and saying, ‘Okay, be spontaneous.’ ”
When done right, however, it can be downright moving. On their last album, the Dears enlisted Every Kid Choir, made up of children as young as five, to sing with them on their song Saviour. When the kids, members of the music project organized by the Montreal City Mission and St. James United Church, joined the indie rockers on stage during a show last January, Natalia Yanchak, the band’s keyboardist, had a tough time keeping it together. “They sound imperfect, but that’s what makes it so beautiful and touching,” says Yanchak. “There’s no pretension to it. There’s no ulterior motive.”
While this untarnished sound is big right now, Alan Cross, host of The Ongoing History of New Music, a syndicated radio show heard across Canada, says all sounds and approaches are cyclical. “Over the last two years, we’ve seen a lot of children’s choirs included in rock arrangements since nobody had done it for a long time,” says Cross. “So we’ll probably see it disappear for a while. Otherwise, it’ll sound like we’re listening to Sesame Street records on the radio all the time.”
One thing that isn’t showing any signs of going away is Glee. Having hit a nerve, the show about nerdy teens with killer voices is everywhere these days. The cast sang the national anthem before game three of the World Series. A concert tour is planned for next summer. And the success isn’t just reserved for the Glee kids. Artists who lend their music to the show are also seeing their download sales spike—the original version of Rihanna’s Take a Bow rose 189 per cent after being covered on the show. So it’s no wonder musicians, most recently Madonna, are lining up to have this group of outcasts belt out their songs. The show’s success is, in some ways, a product of the American Idol-ization of society, one that now seems as happy to listen to an unknown singer making a classic pop song their own as they are hearing the original. And, despite all the backstabbing high school drama, Glee is one of the happiest hours of TV. That goes a long way with audiences during these tough economic times. There’s also the notion that this interest in a more innocent sound—be it real or fake—is a reaction to the frequent raunchiness of modern music. Call it a sweet rebellion.
Whether the Glee effect has boosted choir enrolment, however, is tough to quantify. Following last month’s gig with Dead Man’s Bones, “a whole bunch of football players didn’t join the choir or anything like that,” says Agyeman. That said, playing alongside a Hollywood heartthrob earned her and her choir-mates plenty of cred from classmates.
As for the general fanfare around choirs these days, Fenger says there is a risk that the sound of kids’ less-than-perfect singing voices may itself become commercialized. “Soon you’re going to get professionally trained children’s choirs to sound like children’s choirs that are not professionally trained,” laughs Fenger. “Or a Canadian Idol choir contest.”