When you sing, you have a choice. The choice to bury a consonant and the choice to bring it out into the light when it suits you.
If you know the song, you know the answer. If English is your native language, you’ve guessed the answer. So ask yourself a different question: when does Diana choose to sing the word clearly, right through to the last consonant? Why then and nowhere else?
If you listen closely, you’ll notice that Diana sings the final b of Babe clearly once only. You actually hear Bay or Bey for most of the song. If you’re a native English speaker, you don’t need to hear the whole word. You’ll choose Babe as the most likely word, from the store of words in your head. You’ll slot it into place without waiting for the last consonant. Hearing the Bay at the beginning is enough. Your brain has done the rest.
If English isn’t your first language, you might not know the word Babe. It’s not a word they teach in most English classes. Your brain won’t have been given enough information to slot Babe into place, so you’ll be stuck with the sound you hear – Bay or Bey. You’ll still enjoy the song, but if you want to sing it in public you’ll do so much better if you have the choice to mute or emphasise the final b of Babe. It’s one more emotional weapon for your arsenal.
Watch the video and you’ll see Diana’s mouth clearly forming the final b of Babe every time she sings the word. She mutes the consonant, but she forms the word. That’s important. She’s sure to establish Babe‘s clear presence in her audience’s mind. She’s going to call on the whole word later.
Diana waits until 2.04 to pronounce Babe clearly, from beginning to end. The structure of the line changes to allow it. Up until that point she’s kept the complete word, Babe, in reserve. Suggested but shadowy. She gives the word maximum power when she chooses to sing it clearly. Diana Ross has always been praised for her phrasing.
Why doesn’t Diana pronounce the whole word each time? She doesn’t need to. She knows her audience will guess it and complete it in their own minds, so she puts her breath and energy into the word you. You is the important word. It’s the word that Diana builds up to in the line. You is the person that Diana’s singing to.
Babe exists as a rhythmic filler sound. It’s like the ‘uh’ that Pharrell Williams uses to finish lines in Happy. Or the ‘now’ in Aretha Franklin’s I Say a Little Prayer for You. Once you start noticing rhythmic fillers, you’ll notice them everywhere.
To be fair, in My World is Empty Without You Diana could sing to a Turkish Bey or an ex-lover called Bay without destroying the sound or meaning of the song.
But Babe is the better word. Why? Because it’s not just any old rhythmic filler. It has added value:
- Babe‘s a term of endearment. Using it intensifies the emotional energy of the song. A name like Bay, or a sound like ‘uh‘ alone would tell us nothing about Diana’s feelings for her man. The word Babe contains their whole love affair.
- Babe is both specific and general – each member of the audience can sing along and think of their own personal, beloved Babe. Human or not.
- The audience can substitute a new Babe each time their own love life turns a new page. So the song becomes timeless for them.
Come to think of it, most love songs use darling, my love or sweetheart rather than a specific name. More intimate but more universal. Clever.
If English isn’t your first language, make sure that you don’t get left short of an emotional weapon, in this, or any other song. Babe‘s the kind of word you need a good set of lyrics to find and to get right. You need to know that you’re singing to your Babe not to Bay or a Bey. You need that final b to play with. Then you have a choice. If you don’t know the b‘s there, you have no choice.
Careful: once you’ve found the whole word Babe, don’t get over excited about its final b. Choose, as Diana does, when to deploy your emotional weapon. Do you agree with Diana’s phrasing? Think how you’d change the song if you pronounce the b clearly every time it appears. Have you got your own clear artistic reasons for doing so?
Watch Diamanda Galás’ cover of My World is Empty Without You. How does she manage the final b of Babe?:
How about the Afghan Whigs cover? Listen to Greg Dulli here. He adds the final b of Babe in a different part of the song – at about 1.15 in? What do you think of his version? Or Jose Feliciano’s cover here.
Remember: if there’s a sound that’s hard to hear in the original of any song, especially a consonant on the end of a word, it’s worth thinking why the singer has chosen to hide it. It’s worth listening closely to hear when the singer chooses to pronounce it more clearly, if ever. Think:
- Is ghosting part of the singer’s personal style?
- Is there a good, musical reason why the singer has chosen to mute a sound? Are they hiding it so that they can bring it out of the shadows later? What effect are they trying to achieve?
- Or have you just misheard the lyrics? Native speakers of English do that too. A lot. There’s even a word for it: mondegreen. You can see some famous ones here.
We’ve talked a lot about hunting for ghost consonants in English songs. Once you’ve found a ghost, don’t go mad with it.
Decide whether you want to sing consonants that are ghosted in the original every time they appear – as Cécile McLorin Salvant might. Or whether you want to keep them in reserve so that you can use them to emphasise a word, when you choose. Listening to the original, and a few covers will help you to decide.
Some treasure should be left buried, until it’s needed. With the lyrics as your treasure map, you’ll always have a choice.
© Sing Better English, 2014