Since finding out that Emma Watson had been cast I knew I was unlikely to get an interpretation as lovely as the Broadway or London Casts’ stage productions (the original London cast is the best version of the Disney musical out there IMO). Which was unfortunate, since this ↓ is truly lovely. Sadly, "Home" didn’t make it into the movie other than as part of the background music. ☹
And that makes me frustrated for so many reasons. I’m frustrated that Disney won’t stand behind their choice of Watson and let her voice be her voice. It makes me mad, because it’s teaching young girls that their voices have to sound processed to be beautiful (read more on my opinion about that here). And I’m annoyed that Disney thinks they have to cast someone who is guaranteed to send those money-spending millennials to the movie theater rather than having the confidence to hire someone with less name recognition but more singing experience and stand behind their quality of work. It’s like an artist who screws up a drawing or painting but says “Oh well, I’ll just scan it and fix it in Photoshop.” But the Photoshopped version is no longer a painting. Duh. Over-processing a sound is just as glaring as an over-processed image if you know what to listen for. And after reading this, you’ll know what to listen for.
First let’s begin by listening to the opening song from the other two Disney versions. The first is the animated movie. The singer is Paige O'Hara, a Broadway actress. Try listening for slight pitch variations. Nothing truly out of tune, but little dips and shimmers. If you can’t hear that yet, no worries. Slight differences in pitch can be hard to pick out if you’re not used to it. Listen to the longer notes especially. If you know what vibrato is, that’s an example of very slight pitch changes. Scooping or swooping sounds are hitting a pitch slightly flat and then raising the pitch to be in tune.
Now ask yourself where it sounds like she’s singing (she’s obviously in some sort of recording studio situation, but what might the shape of the room look like? Can you visualize it from the sound? I’m asking you to use your "bat sense"). Outside? Inside? In a long hallway? In a small room? Large room? Room with a high ceiling? In her car? In the shower?
The second recording is Susan Eagan from the original Broadway cast. You hear the difference right? You may not be able to quite put your finger on it, but it’s there, right? Ask yourself the same questions—do you hear pitch variations? Where is she singing? If you’ve got time, switch back and forth between the two and try to really identify the differences between them. You might mostly notice how long they hold out the notes or the way the pronounce the words. However, try to really use your "bat sense" again and hear the difference in the sound quality.
Right, so where does it sound like these singers are singing to you? If I were to describe it, I’d say that O’Hara’s version sounds like she’s in a small carpeted room, more or less. She’s got kind of a light, “thin” sound, like there are no hard walls or anything for the sound to bounce off of. She even sounds a little like she may be outside, where again there would be no walls for the sound to bounce around on. Eagan’s recording sounds like she’s in a bigger room; it’s a little more reverberant like maybe there’s a tall ceiling where she is, or a long empty hallway (not literally, but do you get the idea of describing the sound?).
All right, now let’s move on to Emma Watson’s version. Again, listen to pitch, especially on the long notes (though there aren’t many of them in Watson’s version). Ask yourself where it sounds like she’s singing.
Okay, okay, doesn’t it sound like she singing in the bathroom? I mean, seriously? Do you hear that? That’s called reverb, short for “reverberate” and it’s extremely common to add it to modern popular music. So maybe it’s a quality that just jumped out to you as “modern.” But the thing is, it’s not real. No human voice actually sounds like that. It’s possible for the human voice to generate its own quality of depth—that’s what singers study for years to learn how to do well without damaging their voices. It’s the mature sound quality in the first two examples. But if you want to make a thin voice sound more “mature” and resonant, you can artificially add reverb. And there’s a lot of reverb when Emma Watson sings in Beauty and the Beast. I especially notice the difference as the rest of the cast enters in singing “Bonjour! Bonjour!” Their sound is dramatically less touched-up.
And what about pitch? Doesn’t Emma Watson have the most wonderful accurate pitch EVER? She’s so good, her pitch is purer and more flawless than either of those previous examples we listened to. And that’s once glaring indicator that Auto-Tune has been used. Do you hear how Watson almost never actually holds a note out? Maybe that’s a stylistic choice. More likely though, I think she is unable to sustain the note for very long with clarity of sound. Her breathing seems shallow which may be one reason why. She also may tend to go flat on sustained notes as I hear very minor blips toward the end of these longer notes where I think the sound producer has messed with the pitch a bit (listen to the sustained notes on "before," "people" and "say." And there's a very definite blip on "sell"). They don’t sound like the natural vocal blips of placement changes or passagi (read about that here). So can Emma Watson sing in tune? Or I guess the real question is, how far out of tune does she sing? I don’t know, because they put a band-aid on it. I can hear where there used to be a "problem" because I can hear where there is now a "fix." Is it covering a paper cut or a gaping hole? I have no idea. But shame on Disney if they’re covering up paper cuts and making young girls listen to an artificial sound that they can never hope to achieve. Because the vast majority of those girls have no idea that what they’re hearing is fake. Shame on Disney for adding artificial maturity to a voice and teaching young girls in yet another aspect of their lives they need to try and grow up sooner. Pile on the makeup, stuff your bra, and sing with a deeper voice. Because young and innocent isn’t beautiful enough. That’s what girls need to hear, right?
So do I know that Emma Watson can’t sing now? Actually, as a voice teacher, I’m guessing that underneath all of that processing her voice is just fine. But that’s not the message Disney is sending. Her voice was so bad that they thought they had to rework and patch up her voice until it’s not even a truly human sound. They didn’t do that to Gaston’s voice (but then, they actually cast someone who had singing experience for his role). And in 20 years when sound processing technology has changed the difference between the two voices is going to be even weirder and more noticeable than it is today. So, thanks Disney, for sending a subliminal message of hastening maturity and setting an unattainable standard of vocal “perfection.” I’m sure girls everywhere will thank you someday.
Elise is a voice teacher in Fort Collins, Colorado.