It’s been proven by many people: Auto-tune means literally anyone can be made to sound like they have a decent singing voice. Still, we’d all like to think that those rich, spoiled pop stars actually have the talent to justify the money and the fame. But, it’s a fond delusion that we’re all telling ourselves to make us feel better. Or rather, they may have talent; it’s just not always in actual singing.
Over the centuries, there have been many awful singers who’ve gained prominence. Remember William Hung of American Idol fame? He was so bad he became famous for it and actually managed to parlay his awfulness into an album and a few paid gigs. Some artists turn their terrible singing into a style. Think Bob Dylan, Neil Young, or Leonard Cohen.
With great songwriting chops and a unique sense of musical style that caught the public’s attention, artists like those three illustrate what it takes to get by as a singer without a voice. Or at least that’s the way it used to be. Nowadays, with heavy production manipulation going on in the studio, it’s hard to know exactly what you’re listening to.
Thanks to YouTube, though, and all those people leaking vocal tracks, we can get a look behind the curtain to see who’s actually there and who’s totally faking it. Here’s our list of singing scammers.
15. Chad Kroeger (Nickelback)
No bad music list — really, of any kind — could truly be considered complete without some reference to Nickelback, and/or Chad Kroeger, the band’s singer and front man. We know we don’t really have to make our case here, but in the interests of thoroughness, we will. We think Chad must have listened to a lot of Pearl Jam back in the day, because he seems to be trying to go for that gravely rock-singer sound that Eddie Vedder perfected. It’s just that something got lost in the translation, like expression, tone, flexibility, pitch, and range. For starters. And while this list isn’t supposed to be about the lyrics or the band itself, listening to that terrible voice singing terrible lyrics like I like your pants around your feet is just too much.
14. Jennifer Lopez
Jennifer Lopez seemed to hit everyone’s radar back in 1997 when she played the late Mexican singer Selena in the movie of the same name. The musical tracks for the movie were, of course, performed by the original Selena, but somehow, JLo got stuck in the public’s perception as a singer in her own right. We’re not sure why. She certainly looks great on stage, and she’s released some decent songs. But actual singing? She seems to do okay in the lower part of her range, but her voice gets raspy and flattens out in the higher notes. In other words, there are karaoke stars in every neighborhood bar who can essentially do better than her when it comes to vocals. Wisely, she lip syncs most of her performances, and in most others, she may sing the low notes and let the playback track handle the high notes, which are her definite weakness. We’ll note, however, that a lack of stellar singing talent didn’t get in the way of her becoming a judge on American Idol. No, there is no justice in this world.
13. Britney Spears
You’d think that after selling more than 100 million albums, and after all those years in the Mousketeers even before her solo career, that Britney Spears would be able to sing. But, as we found out when a raw studio track — with no Autotune, no reverb, nada — was leaked online a couple of years ago, that’s not the case. The track was Alien, from her 2013 album Britney Jean. The difference between the raw track and the fully produced version is striking. The magic of production keeps her voice in tune and adds vibrato and tone. Producer William Orbit took to social media in her defense after the leak, insisting that singers all make strange noises when they first get to the mic. We’ll just note that most singers do their warm-ups before they get to the mic. Luckily for Spears, she doesn’t have to worry about what happens live because she lip syncs for most of her performances.
12. Selena Gomez
She’s undeniably gorgeous, and she sure hit the headlines a lot with her partying ways and roller coaster relationship with the Biebs, but when it comes to Selena Gomez, was it all hype and not so much talent? There are a fair number of examples of Ms. Gomez singing without electronic help out there to peruse. Let’s just say that she has a small, whispery voice that doesn’t have a lot of power or range. Without Auto-tune, she sounds just fine in something slow, sweet, and sexy, but if you want power… let’s fire up that reverb. So if, for some reason, Auto-tune was eliminated tomorrow, we’d still love to hear her in a small club somewhere, in one of those scanty outfits she loves to wear, but she’d probably have to stay away from Broadway and any big halls she’d have to fill with sound.
She’s been called the Queen of Pop and has had an undeniable influence on people like Lady Gaga and Britney Spears, but can Madonna Louise Ciccone actually sing? Not really. For some of her recordings, such as Like A Virgin early in her career, and more recently, on MDNA, her voice was actually pitch-shifted to a higher range than her natural singing voice. That’s what gives her that baby-ish, very young sound, and that’s why her producers did it — to make her sound younger. So if you listen only to her recordings, you’re not really hearing her voice at all. There are videos that capture her live with a direct mic feed, and let’s just say that the results, while not completely embarrassing, are unimpressive. With all the help that modern technology can buy, though, she made it to the top of the heap.
10. Axl Rose
Guns N’ Roses was a great band, musically speaking, and hugely influential in their day. They seemed to usher in a new era of heavy rock back when they hit the scene in the mid-1980s. But that probably had more to do with the talents of Slash and the boys than Axl Rose’s singing voice. He’s a rock screamer, ya, ya — we’ve heard all the excuses and explanations. It still doesn’t turn that awful whiny shrieking into music. It’s not that he’s off-pitch; it’s that grating sound. We’ll concede one point — listening to some drunk dude trying to cover Axl Rose on karaoke is worse than Rose himself. The Guns N’ Roses “Not In This Lifetime” reunion tour of 2016 grossed more than $188 million in ticket sales, proving, if we needed proof, that metalheads really don’t care about the vocals. All that shrieking does carry a cost, however, and fans who are hoping to catch the reunion tour as it heads into 2017 shouldn’t expect those high notes to be quite so high.
9. 50 Cent
We know that rappers don’t really have to sing — not the same way that pop singers do, at any rate — but still… When it’s obvious that even your rapping voice is being Auto-tuned and reverbed to the point where it’s unrecognizable from your actual speaking voice, then maybe it’s time to admit you’re all hype and that wherever your natural talents may lie, it’s not in the field of vocals. Curtis James Jackson III, aka 50 Cent, has a voice that’s so unremarkable it’s downright annoying. He’s a mediocre songwriter, a negligible actor, and yet, there he is on screen and on the radio, or at least he used to be. These days, he usually makes the news when he’s punched somebody out. It’s been a long while since he’s had any hits or, let’s face it, relevance on the hip-hop scene, so maybe there really is a god out there somewhere.
8. Brendon Urie (Panic! at the Disco)
They headline arenas, and Forbes Magazine even called them “one of rock’s biggest success stories,” but we’d have to say that Panic! at the Disco’s success has not come about because of Brendon Urie’s fantastic voice. Look, we get it. He’s a great guy; he’s charming. He’s sold a lot of albums. But that nasal, annoying voice? It doesn’t help that he seems to be trying so very hard to be clever and relevant in a post-post-modern sort of way. Urie is the only original member of the band left, and critics panned their last releases, but it doesn’t seem to have made any difference to the fans who sent it all the way to number 1 and who love the man who seems to see himself as a latter-day Frank Sinatra — just without the voice.
7. Julian Casablancas (the Strokes)
Back in 2001, they were cool and edgy — the band from NYC who was going to save rock music. The Strokes were rich kids, and they could barely play their instruments when their Is This It release hit the airwaves. But it was a post-punk rock revival, so it all didn’t matter. In the years since, the band split up and Julian Casablancas tried a solo career that didn’t pan out; these days they’re back to playing Lollapalooza as The Strokes. If you check out Julian’s raw vocals on the song Reptilia, which we can all do now thanks to YouTube, you’ll see how clever engineers and producers took a crappy vocal track and turned it into rock ‘n roll gold. His voice sounds like an old school crooner one minute and a drunken frat boy on a rant the next. With effects, they actually made it all sound pretty raw and edgy — perfect for the post-punk rock revival he was supposed to be leading.
6. M. Shadows (Avenged Sevenfold)
It may seem unfair to talk about vocals when it comes to heavy metal bands. Or metalcore. Or punk. Or whatever you want to call them. M. Shadows, aka Mathew Charles Sanders, fronts Avenged Sevenfold with the kind of swagger a metal lead vocalist needs. In fact, in the world of metal, he’s somewhat revered as a vocalist, and has, in fact, won several Golden Gods awards (the metal equivalent of the Grammys). None of that changes the fact that he just can’t sing. Sure, you can call it screamo, but we’ll just mention that people like Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson actually had some range to their screaming. Hell, even the late, great Lemmy of Motorhead could growl it out at the right pitch. Others, like Papa Roach’s Jacoby Shaddix have the attitude and the power. M. Shadows is derivative at best, nasally craptastic at worst.
5. Ja Rule
Ja Rule is the genius — or one of them, at any rate– behind the spectacularly failed Fyre Island Festival. We might be tempted to call that hubris because he also can’t sing to save his life. Together with Jay Z and DMX, Ja Rule, or Jeffrey Atkins of Queens, New York, was part of the seminal Murder Inc. group. There have been many discussions and arguments in the online rap world about who the true “deep voice rapper” is, Ja Rule or DMX. We’ll settle this right now. DMX is a rapper with some chops to his deep voice. Ja Rule is a growler. He shouts at you angrily. Whatever you call it, he has garnered fans and accolades despite it all, scoring four Grammy nominations and six top-ten releases, but we’ll point out that most of them involved collaborations with artists like Ashanti who can sing. Although there was that one single with Jennifer Lopez…
4. Fergie (Black Eyed Peas)
Really, it was a toss-up as to whether to include Fergie or Will.i.am from Black Eyed Peas on this list because the popster group boasts not one but two equally bad singers. Naturally, that didn’t stop them from selling over 30 million albums. Fergie, or Stacey Ann Ferguson, as she was once known, isn’t much of a rapper either, but despite that fact, Black Eyed Peas often featured her rap/singing with the guys rap/talking along with her. But hey, the tunes were catchy and the production, fabulous. In 2011, she tried a live version of Sweet Child of Mine with Slash, former Guns N Roses ax-man during half-time at the Superbowl, and it was just… just awful. We hear she’s playing state fairs these days, and that’s probably where her career should end.
3. Scott Stapp (Creed, Art of Anarchy)
We know. You thought Creed and Scott Stapp were finally gone from the musical landscape forever. But here we are in 2017, and Stapp is planning what has been called a “resurrection tour.” Creed was one of the first openly Christian bands to hit the big time, and a few years after they did, they flamed down spectacularly, largely due to Scott’s prodigious consumption of intoxicating substances. In 2002, he showed up for a show with Creed so high he performed the whole thing lying on his back on the stage. At best, he was a poor man’s Christian version of Eddie Vedder without Eddie’s sensitivity or musicality. The word “overwrought” comes to mind, and it didn’t help that every song he sings and that Creed ever recorded sounds like the same song. We can’t help noticing that his resurrection project as front man for Art of Anarchy in 2017 sees him taking over the spot left by the late Scott Weiland, yet another Eddie Vedder clone.
2. Ted Nugent
It turns out the recent rumors of Ted Nugent‘s death were greatly exaggerated, but we’d have to say that Ted’s voice died an unnatural death many years ago. The self-styled Motor City Madman, a persona that somehow goes with a kitschy cowboy hat, fancies himself as a political activist these days, if you call ranting on a concert stage and threatening to shoot the president, (back in those golden Obama days, that is,) “activism.” One of his early hits was called Cat Scratch Fever, and that just about describes his voice. These days, in concert, he actually has another vocalist in his band that takes over singing duty, sparing his fans the horror.
1. P. Diddy
P. Diddy hasn’t had a hit for years, but he does still have a talent for making the headlines now and then. Sean John Combs has gotten coverage lately for red carpet antics and those rumors that keep cropping up about him, Tupac, and Notorious B.I.G.. These days, he’s a mogul, fashion designer, filmmaker — we get it. The man’s busy. We’re just glad he’s not singing, or trying to sing, or rap, or whatever sound he was aiming for when he was in active recording mode. We’re not arguing with his musical vision — just that sound that comes out when he opens up his mouth. Sure, his singles did well on the charts, but we’ll also note that most of them involved guest performers who could actually sing.