[tl;dr intro]It is a truth universally acknowledge that Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey are premier vocalists of their time and the goalllsssss of every singer. And their reputations are well-earned.
Contrary to popular belief, being a good singer isn't a "raw talent" one was either born with or without. Becoming a good vocalist requires vigorous training and time -- just like any other profession. Born to gospel and opera singers, though music was in Whitney's and Maria's blood, their performances showcased consistent application of great vocal technique that can only be attributed to studying under their musical mothers and honing their skills for years to come. Possessing "raw talent" and performing with "raw emotion" are thrown around a lot to champion a trending act, but every artist has the potential to emote, move people and appeal in one way or another; it's entirely subjective from person-to-person. Whether or not a singer has a grasp on proper vocal technique, on the other hand, is objective and therefore measurable with science-based parameters. Consequently, mastering technique makes one indisputably amazing at singing. (Likewise, the reverse is true.)
Let's look at five artists whom the music industry, critics and music fans alike have anointed to be the next Whitney or Mariah/a diva/one of the greats, etc in regards to vocal talent and why they currently don't have what it takes. (FYI, because I'm have no real credibility and possess plebeian ears, I asked the enormously generous admins at KPop Vocal Analysis to help me.)
In no particular order:
Let's just get right to it with our woman-of-the-hour, Adele. In late October 2011, Adele was forced to cancel her 10-city U.S. tour due to vocal cord hemorrhage. The official word from her was that she overworked herself. While that's true, vocal cord damage is also a serious consequence of bad technique. Adele damaged her instrument at 23 -- to put this in perspective, think about the vocal performances Whitney and Mariah were putting on at 23. When Adele hinted she was heading back to the studio after vocal rehabilitation, vocal trainer Ken Querns Langley advised against the decision in an article aptly titled "Adele Should Take a Hiatus. So She Can Learn to Sing." Langley offered constructive criticism of Adele's "dangerous" technique, pointing out that her belts are more like her "basically screaming and yelling all the time," how she didn't modify her chest voice to hit high notes, and that she does "notoriously bad" high-larynx singing.
Fast forward four years to now. Adele is simply slaying the music charts. But, alas, she's yet to adopt a healthy singing technique. KPopVocals reaffirmed she's still "using a lot of chest" and "pushing" the Bb4's in Hello's chorus. Furthermore, in an interview with NME, Adele claimed she prefers to keep her live performances close to the studio version of her songs so the audience can sing along. However, it could be argued that she might be aware she lacks the skills to perform runs and execute other ornamentations in an improvisational setting--another quality of being a good vocalist.
Adele's voice isn't without its positives because it has such a pleasant tone and is well-placed. While there's still plenty of room for improvement, that won't stop people from singing her praises and the Whitney Houston comparisons are becoming ubiquitous. I'll let this video speak for itself:
...but you should listen for the ringing, bell-like quality--or resonance--in Whitney's and Beyonce's belts vs. Adele's...
Sam Smith and Florence Welch
In 2012, Florence Welch experienced a "vocal snap or pop" and had to cancel a few shows. Earlier this year, Sam Smith had to postpone his Australian tour due to bleeding vocal cords (he is the male Adele!). As mentioned before, these aren't coincidences. Pop stars are overexerting themselves by performing music way above their current vocal skill level(s).
Although claims about Florence Welch's vocal abilities aren't as exuberant as they are with Adele, Florence is well-regarded in professional music circles for her "powerful" voice. She's consistently ranked high on well-known fan blogs dedicated to reviewing and evaluating vocalists (sorta). Trained ears like KPopVocals' find Florence's vibrato concerning. Everyone with ears, however, might find everything after her A4 (3:29) shrill and awkward, and understand why her vocals snapped.
Sam Smith also had a big 2015. He won every accolade that would establish him to be a top-tier vocalist before undergoing vocal cord surgery due to "vocal exhaustion." Music critic Nick Messitte questioned the PR and concluded it's due to Sam's tendency to strain. Messitte pointed out Sam's "unsafe" technique highlighted at the 1:17 mark. To achieve the breathy notes, Sam uses a "chest voice without a vibrato," an approach frowned upon in vocal artistry. He added that Sam will have to "make fundamental changes" to sustain his voice over time.
She who possesses a four-octave vocal range, can hit the whistle tone, and declared by credible vocalist Katy Perry as "the best female vocal in pop music today," -- is Ariana Grande really the next Mariah Carey?
A common critique of Ariana's singing is her often unintelligible diction, which is a result of her bad technique. KPopVocals observed that she displays "issues with tongue tension and nasality." Her issues don't end there though: placement is inconsistent and she does the previously established notoriously bad high larynx singing above D5/Eb5. Regardless of Ariana's range, "support is only present up to B4 and down to F#3." As for her whistle register? "Her head voice is inconsistent and she mostly uses a falsetto, which often travels into the sixth octave instead of her whistle register, causing a lot of vocal strain."
Check out some good vocalists in Ailee and Hyorin covering Bang Bang. At 2:02, notice how a light, girly tone like Hyorin's can be so clear and bright as she reaches the high notes. (The kicker is Hyorin doesn't speak fluent English but you can understand her better)
Here's Ariana performing Bang Bang. Her voice comes off swallowed, kind of like she's chewing gum for most of the performance, but at 2:59 she sounds yelled and loses her tone. She went higher than Hyorin, but that doesn't necessarily mean she did better.
Let me provide some context: I've always been firmly Team Christina Aguilera. I had The Christina, an upgraded version of The Rachel IMO. I remember searching high and low, in every corner of every Wet Seal, Forever21 and Contempo Casuals to find fringey capri pants like the ones Legendtina wore in her Genie era. I call her Legendtina. I made sure to watch this more than I did this. Stripped was (is) everything. I went to see Burlesque on opening day. I kissed her poster every night--lol, okay, no I didn't. But I loved Bionic. And I still love Christina, which is why it physically pains me to have her on this list.
Before Adele and Ariana, Christina was the original "next Whitney Houston/Mariah Carey." (In a strange twist of fate, Adele and Ariana could be the next Christina.) 16 years later, it's safe to say, she isn't. The Mariah comparisons were the likeliest, but Christina in her prime was never able to do what Mariah in her prime did as a vocalist. Mariah had developed all three registers in addition to her whistle register and transitioned among them seemingly effortlessly. She was accurate, agile, pitch perfect and resonant every time she opened her mouth. Look at how at ease Mariah is with her instrument while Christina, at her best, is still demonstrating some struggle vocals.
If you ever found Christina's voice to be harsh, constricted and shriek-y, but was afraid to express a dissenting opinion, renowned opera singer Philippe Jaroussky is in your corner: "She has no breath support and often sing out of tune. People say she can cover four octave, but it's not true because below A3, the low notes are forced, unsupported, her belting voice is throaty and forced and for her highest notes she doesn't use head voice but falsetto or whistle register, they are disconnected registers. So, she can hit good notes only from A3 to B4. Her melismas are always show-off, they are almost never connected with the rhythm and the structure of the songs."
Fans have come to Christina's defense because she's shown instances of good vocal technique/awareness, saying she intentionally compromises technique for style. To that I ask, do they think Whitney and Mariah lacked style? Even so, fans underestimate the damage Christina has done to her voice... it's kind of a miracle the Voice of a Generation survived the last decade. She strains throughout this whole performance of At Last from 2012, but it's especially painful at 3:00.
Another justification people have used for her vocal decline is age. However, vocals can age gracefully with care. Compare Christina to her peers while they perform the U.S. national anthem.
At the time of these performances, Christina was 30, Beyonce was also 30/34 and Sohyang 36. The difference is stunning, no? Also, before age is used against someone in his/her 30s vocally, treat yourself to more Sohyang with her Lean On Me cover.
This post is not intended to dissuade anyone from buying 10 copies of their albums. Being overrated won't affect their success, don't shoot the messenger, etc., etc.!
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4
Videos: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12