One of the first things I noticed about the Queen + Adam Lambert collaboration was the furious (and often vicious) debate it has caused on the web. There seemed to be some distinct groups of people involved in it:
- Old-time Queenies (like me) who just wanted to hear the music live again and were prepared to give a new person a chance – or who had already heard Adam and were suitably impressed
- Existing Adam fans who were also Queen fans – these people mostly got very excited about the whole thing
- Existing Adam fans who weren’t particularly Queen fans, but gave Queen a chance and found they liked the whole thing
- Existing Adam fans who felt that the QAL collaboration was taking Adam away from them, and got upset/jealous about it
- Old-time Queenies who thought that the rest of the band should have retired when Freddie died, and who are vehemently against QAL
That’s one hell of a lot of people to get involved in one argument, so it’s no wonder that it’s polarised opinion.
So – is it Freddie or Adam? Adam or Freddie? Should we even compare them?
It’s not surprising that there isn’t an easy, or indeed a correct answer to this, as whether or not we like (or dislike) a singing voice is completely subjective.
There are some fairly obvious reasons as to why we will like one voice more than another, such as how well they can sing in tune, but when you put the technical basics aside and listen to two people with a similar level of vocal training, whether or not we prefer voice A or voice B just depends on our emotional response to that voice. We have little or no control over that response – it is what it is. There are some world-renowned singers whose voices I just am not turned on by – Elvis, for example!
Sometimes it can be related to whether or not we find that person physically attractive, but this isn’t always the case. When I was at college, we all observed the phenomenon that you can find someone’s voice attractive without fancying the rest of them. This was a bit bizarre and could lead to some rather unexpected liaisons when you were thrown together in an opera cast with the object of your “voice lust”. (It’s a bit like the “beer goggles” problem – you regret it the morning after)
Both Freddie and Adam got dealt the “attractive” card in slightly different ways – Freddie had the dark, smouldering looks of his Parsi ancestry; Adam has the sparkling, vivid blue eyes and engaging smile. Fairly equal on that front, I think (depending on your taste in men).
But as for their voices; this is where we go right into the realms of subjectiveness.
Freddie had little or no vocal training. His voice just came out “raw” – he had an astonishing range and an unusual, beautiful sound that just wasn’t like any other rock/pop singer around at the time. Naturally, he was a baritone, which you can hear in his lower and middle voice (singers usually refer to this as the “chest” voice). This was probably enhanced by him smoking like a chimney! He had a huge top extension to his voice, and could use both head voice and falsetto. He also had a wide range of vocal colour which added to the overall sound he made. I’ve always wondered how he would have sounded if he had started voice lessons as a teenager; he could well have been an operatic or music theatre high baritone.
In my opinion, this is Queen at their excessive, operatic best; you can hear the whole range of Freddie’s voice, through his chesty baritone to those fabulous high notes. I’m tremendously sad I never got to hear this song live.
In comparison, Adam has done a lot of training and coaching. He has a great natural voice too, but over the years he has learnt the tricks of the trade – the breathing, support, and colouring the tone. His stage training means that he has been coached in performance and delivery, how to pace yourself through a performance (very important for all serious singers), plus acting and dancing. That’s a lot of resources to draw on when you’re performing; my first teacher always used to say that your technique was the autopilot – you learn it, then it carries on by itself without you interfering with it. Adam has the technique in the background, so he can spend a lot of time thinking about how he is going to perform and engage himself with the music. The stage training will naturally give any performer an advantage when you are standing on a stage; you will be confident about the way you move and the internal technique means that in general, you don’t need to worry about your voice too much; it’s lodged in your muscle memory and it will come out as it always does.
The muscle memory thing is incredibly useful when you’re having to multi-task (i.e. singing, dancing, moving) as Kinkykiedis’s great video from Nottingham demonstrates. Warning: clips of Another One Bites the Dust tend to warp the mind somewhat!
So, they’re both uniquely gifted, but very different. Does that mean one is any better than the other?
This is where the debate rages.
Some of it is about this subjective issue of whether you like the sound of Freddie’s voice over Adam’s, or Adam’s voice over Freddie’s. Because Adam’s voice is a tenor, to pretty much any ear it will sound higher/thinner. Also, Adam does have more ease at the top of his voice as it naturally “sits” a bit higher than Freddie’s, so he can do higher notes in live performance. Brian and Roger have remarked on this, and it’s well known that some Queen songs were performed live in slightly lower keys than the recorded key. This was largely a self-preservation measure to enable the band to get through a setlist – there is no value at all in your frontman running out voice at a critical moment!
Because of the physical differences in Freddie’s and Adam’s voices, some people are naturally going to prefer one voice over another simply because of their emotional response to it. There is no right or wrong answer, and this is down to personal taste.
The other, nastier part of the debate lies in whether Adam “should” be doing Queen’s music or not. We go back to the list at the beginning – the oldtime Queenies who think that Brian and Roger should have retired along with John Deacon after Freddie died. Unfortunately, these are the people who have heaped vitriol on Adam for daring to try and step into Freddie’s shoes. The point of their ire is that they feel it is an insult to Freddie’s memory that someone else is doing “his” songs; they are sacred and should be preserved in recordings only. They’ve even abused Brian and Roger for choosing Adam to perform with them and have suggested they should retire as they’ve got senile dementia. This is just appalling, and I don’t understand how they can still call themselves Queen fans.
Hang on a minute; this is a rather odd view and one that has been challenged by “Phoebe” (Peter Freestone), the guy who used to be Freddie’s personal assistant and who spent years with him, including during his final illness. He wrote a wonderful, generous post on Facebook recently about his experiences seeing QAL. He loved it, and he made the point that he thought Freddie would have loved it too. Most importantly, he reminded us that most opera was written with a specific voice in mind; for example, Mozart wrote a lot of roles for his wife (and other sopranos that he fancied). If we stopped performing music when the designated singer died, thousands of pieces of beautiful music would be completely dead to us because we would not be “allowed” to perform them. Why should Queen’s music die when Mozart’s hasn’t?
In my opinion, this isolationism about Queen’s music is narrow-minded. Brian, Roger and John weren’t Freddie’s backing band. The four of them together were Queen.
I feel more than a bit sorry for the Adam haters, as they are missing out on a fabulous experience. Their old heroes have got a new lease of life; they have played this tour with smiles on their faces as they have found someone who can make their music live again. They clearly have a wonderful rapport with Adam and it’s obvious they adore him (and he them), which has made many an old Queenie shed a tear or two of joy. I think this wonderful photo of Adam and Brian says it all (credits on pic)
The final point of all this is about how Adam performs Queen’s songs. He’s not trying to be Freddie; he doesn’t need to be as he has his own voice and his own contribution to make to the music. He’s also exercised great sensitivity and respect, which is a measure of how seriously he’s treated the whole experience. Importantly, he’s being Adam, and we Queen fans are so lucky he has come along to give us “our” music again.