It is always difficult for any serious music fan to watch their favourite artists age and experience a natural decline in their ability. Yet, it is even more disturbing when those changes seemingly result from factors other than time and damage or prematurely end great careers. As we address this issue, let’s discuss 7 singers whose voices prematurely changed.
Drug abuse, smoking, drinking, weight gain, medical conditions and plain bad singing were among the leading causes of the vocal declines of some of the greatest vocalists of our time. Although each those factors entail different implications every individual, it is rare that a person emerges unscathed from such problems.
Obviously, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey made our list but who else has suffered from major vocal issues before the age of 50 years? Check out the lineup, entailing footage of singer’s prime and a noticeable decline, below to find out:
7. Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin is probably the greatest singer of our time – she certainly has my vote – but even she was unable to avoid vocal decline. At the top of the 1980s, the Queen of Soul’s voice was noticeably different from the bright, clear instrument of her younger years. Franklin was suddenly more nasal than ever before and she struggled to belt those ringing high notes that made her a living legend before her 40th birthday.
Still, Franklin’s skill as vocalist and her indescribable ability to interpret any piece of music in unique ways made the shift in her tone a minor issue. Dramatic changes in her weight and smoking were the main causes her Franklin’s problems but she could still easily out-sing anybody in her age group or younger, especially in her increasingly powerful and gritty lower register.
6. Alicia Keys
All was well in the life of the industry’s golden child, Alicia Keys, until the launch of her Girl on Fire album campaign in 2012. Her rich tone and powerful belting were replaced by thinner, raspier yells that cracked as she tried
and failed on many occasions to tackle the “high” key of her new album’s title track. Yet, what caused such a sudden decline in the songstress’ performances?
Many speculated that Keys experienced a vocal injury during her Freedom Tour in 2010 or that her pregnancy of that year had lasting effects on her voice but she has yet to discuss the issue with her fans. Either way, Keys has shown signs of improvement during her current Set the World on Fire Tour, thus proving that there is still hope for a full recovery.
5. Christina Aguilera
She is known to many as the Queen of Screams and if you watch her at least 5 minutes of live shows, you will understand how she earned that title. Christina Aguilera is probably the most naturally gifted singer to hit the music scene since Mariah Carey but she has abused her instrument to the extreme.
From the start of her career, Aguilera has screeched from her throat, forced her voice to go far beyond its comfortable limits and shamelessly grunted for no reason. Now, at the age of 32 years, she has already lost significant chunks of her range and can’t match the high notes she magically produces in the studio.
On the bright side, Aguilera is still very young and she has more than enough time to seek the help she needs to improve her voice. However, that will only happen when Aguilera tames her ego, hires a vocal coach and accepts the fact that is not as good of a singer as her few remaining fans claim.
4. Mariah Carey
If Aretha Franklin was the greatest singer of her generation then Mariah Carey is certainly the best of hers. With an unmistakable tone, incredible ear and a seemingly limitless vocal range, this songbird has experimented with her voice in ways that no other Pop artist of the last 30 years has dreamed. Unfortunately, everything comes with a price.
Carey has been afflicted by nodules on her vocal cords since her youth and although she credits the pesky growths for her signature sound, they have made her voice increasingly unreliable. Add that to her apparent laziness regarding adequately rehearsing for her concerts and the changes in her voice that have occurred with age, and Carey’s performances have become hit or miss at best. Indeed, when Carey is in good form, she is leagues better than her competition but catch her at the wrong time and she sounds like a bad American Idol contestant who didn’t quite make the final cut.
It’s time for Carey to get as serious about her performances as she was in the past and retire some of the songs that put strain on her voice. She should at least rearrange the music to compensate for the changes in her voice and write new material that suits her current sound. You know, like that Jazz album that she’s obviously destined to make.
3. Mary J. Blige
Being pitch perfect was never high on Mary J. Blige’s agenda but she was much closer to it during the 1990s than she is today. Her voice was smooth yet marked by relatable passion that made every song an instant classic. Now, on the other hand, she has become a bit too passionate.
Blige yells and barks her lyrics at her fans as she breaks into a testimony during her shows, leaving everything she learned about singing in her dressing room. As such, she has paid the price by developing a very nasal voice that is so rough that is almost unpleasant both live and on record.
I’m no Luciano Pavarotti but I know a sore throat when I hear it. Blige needs to dial back on the testifying and invest in some honey because she’s clearly off-balance. We will always love her regardless of how she sounds – this is the woman who gave us My Life, after all – but it would be nice to enjoy the singing as well as the message in the music.
2. Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday ranked alongside Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and Sarah Vaughan the most influential Jazz singer ever, whether Ms. Vaughan appreciated being classed as such or not. Still, Lady Day was probably more famous for her struggles with drugs and alcohol than she was for her music.
Similar to her Amy Winehouse, who many considered as her second coming, Lady Day died young (at the age of 44 years) after a battle with both liver and heart disease. Her voice was ravaged by her vices and she sounded quite frail in her final recordings, despite earning some of the best reviews of her career for her emotional connection to the music. Regardless, Lady Day’s impact was so enormous that she will always be remembered as a true icon.
1. Whitney Houston
Whitney Houston had a magnificent voice with which few could compete but she threw it all away. What started as a fun experiment with drugs in the 1980s quickly developed into full-scale addiction and by the late 1990s, the diva could barely sing the songs that made her famous.
A powerful, clear and absolutely breathtaking instrument withered and crumbled to become a rusty shell of its former glory as Houston smoked and snorted herself into a stupor. In fact, she was booed during several shows of her last tour and suffered severe backlash from the media. Yet, was there any hope for Houston to recover before her death in 2012?
Chaka Khan, who also battled drug addiction for many years, believed that with the right therapy, Houston could have repaired her voice. Personally, I doubt that Houston had the potential to return to the greatness of The Bodyguard era but if she would have at least quit smoking and worked with a vocal coach, she could have regained enough stamina to finish a song without coughing or running out of breath.
Before we go, watch Cissy Houston, Whitney Houston, Natalie Cole, Gladys Knight and others perform Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” in 1994 but get outdone by the Queen of Soul, who was almost 52 years of age and long pass her prime, below:
Which of these singers had the biggest vocal decline? Who else should have been added to this list? Who should have been omitted? Vote in our poll and share your opinion!