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The V Files: Vocalists Vs. Singers

On the previous installation of ‘The V Files‘, I broke down the myth of ‘resonance’. This time around, I’ll be taking on the distinction that people make between ‘vocalists’ and ‘singers’.

Vocalists Vs. Singers

What do K-pop vocal analysts believe is the difference between a vocalist and a singer?

We’re going to go to our three trusty sources — Kpopvocalanalysis.net, OneHallyu’s vocals thread, and Akisame’s twopart guide — and see what they each have to say about this potentially confusing topic.

Here’s the opinion of Kpopvocalanalysis.net:

Differences Between A Vocalist & A Singer
Vocalist: Someone who has COMPLETE control, manipulation, and authority over their voice, similar to an instrumentalist. Hence, they are judged by vocal technique and consistency.
Singer: Someone who uses their voice to deliver a message musically and convey emotions. They are partly judged by technique, but mostly subjectively judged by sense of interpretation wit, musical and vocal delivery, musicianship, and musical and vocal creativity.

Here’s what the OneHallyu vocal thread has to say:

Differences Between A Vocalist & A Singer
Vocalist: Someone who has COMPLETE control, manipulation, and authority over their voice, similar to an instrumentalist. Hence, they are judged by vocal technique and consistency.
Singer: Someone who uses their voice to deliver a message musically and convey emotions. They are partly judged by technique, but mostly subjectively judged by sense of interpretation wit, musical and vocal delivery, musicianship, and musical and vocal creativity.

And here’s Akisame weighing in on this important issue:

Differences Between A Vocalist & A Singer
Vocalist: Someone who has COMPLETE control, manipulation, and authority over their voice, similar to an instrumentalist. Hence, they are judged by vocal technique and consistency.
Singer: Someone who uses their voice to deliver a message musically and convey emotions. They are partly judged by technique, but mostly subjectively judged by sense of interpretation wit, musical and vocal delivery, musicianship, and musical and vocal creativity.

I think I’m starting to notice a pattern forming. There seems to be no debate whatsoever on the differences between vocalists and singers, the idea being that a singer is just “someone who sings” but a vocalist has “complete control”, like someone more worthy to be judged on the technical aspect. Sure, obviously all three definitions were written by the same person, but the fact that three different sites all seem to have no problem with using the same definition tells us a lot — it tells us that this is NOT a controversial topic for them, that there is a common consensus on this issue. Since they’re all in complete 100% agreement about this, we definitely don’t need to worry about any possible inaccuracies of intent, or any messy arguments about who is “more correct” here as they are all equally correct … or not.

Okay, so what is the difference really?

While there seems be a 100% consensus on the idea of vocalists being more technically adept and “in control” than singers, other sources seem to see the same issue somewhat differently.

Google seems to think that a singer and a vocalist are in fact the same thing:

Gosh, that’s odd. How could it be so?

Wikipedia also seems to think that singers and vocalists are the same, to the point where you’re not even allowed to search for “vocalist” as a separate entity, and it just redirects you back to “singing” like a lost little lamb:

What about those designations of “lead vocalist” and “backing vocalist”? Are they any differences between these and “lead singer” or “backing singer”?

Hmmm, okay. Well, what about backing vocalists?

Well, that couldn’t be more clear. As far as Wikipedia is concerned, singers are vocalists and vocalists are singers and that’s all there is to it.

Surely, someone out there must agree with the vocal analysts?

I continued my search and tried Dictionary.com:

Okay, so singers are vocalists according to them. But, are vocalists singers?

Yep. But that’s just one dictionary, what about the others?

You get the picture.

But Kpopalypse! These are just general dictionaries! Music dictionaries will surely recognise the special status that vocalists have above singers!

Well we can go check that as well.

Nope, OnMusic Dictionary doesn’t even give enough of a fuck about the term “vocalist” to even list it as a real thing.

Naxos also couldn’t be fucked listing “vocalist”, so it’s simply not a significant enough musical term to be considered notable for inclusion.

Surely you get the picture.

—–

At this point, I realised that maybe I was barking up the wrong tree completely. What I really should’ve been looking at was not the definition of “singer” and “vocalist”, but the definition of “singing” and “vocalising”. Surely, just as a singer is someone who sings, a vocalist is someone who vocalises — that’s just common sense, right? Right. But what’s vocalisation?

So vocalizing is singing, but vocalization is also speech, or just the ability to use the voice at all. That definition doesn’t seem to agree with the vocal analysts, and worse yet for them, all the other previously mentioned dictionary sources say similar.

But could what the dictionary said really be trusted? Could it be that any vocals at all really qualify someone to be a “vocalist”? Well I decided to find out and went searching through the liner notes to my favourite albums for clues. Not K-pop albums, I hasten to add, but albums of music as far removed from the singing style of K-pop as I could possibly think of. And what was the result?

That’s Slayer, GG Allin & The Murder Junkies, and Celtic Frost all listing “vocals”. In fact, almost every album out of the hundreds that I own stipulates that the responsibility of one or more people is “vocals”, regardless of singing ability, and many of those groups outside of the realm of K-pop objectively can’t sing much whatsoever. If that sounds like it runs completely counter to the definitions that vocal analysts use, it’s because it does.

Conclusions

  • Singers sing.
  • Vocalists vocalise.
  • All singing is vocals, but not all vocals is singing. Vocals can be growling, screaming, rapping, or any number of other vocal sounds.
  • The K-pop vocal analyst idea that “vocals” are technically above “singing” is the exact reverse of reality. Anyone who is not mute can vocalise, however not everyone can sing (without training).
  • As usual, K-pop vocal analysts are making up definitions of words to suit their own agenda, and are judging vocalists/singers using these definitions as criteria as if they are the objective truth.

That’s all for this post! I hope you enjoyed this post, and ‘The V Files’ will return with more paranormal mysteries soon!

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