Music

The Untold Stories of Backup Singers

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Backup singers bring harmony, balance and texture to songs that heighten emotional intensity. They understand when tension must be built before being released through powerful crescendos.

Morgan Neville wanted to highlight these unsung heroes through his 2013 documentary film 20 Feet from Stardom.

1. Carrie Underwood

Carrie Underwood has become one of the most prolific country artists ever since her win on American Idol in 2005. Since then, she has released numerous albums and chart-topping singles, collecting awards along the way and amassing an immense fan base.

Her music often incorporates rich layers of vocal harmonies to increase emotional intensity during her performances and contribute to shaping many of her chart-topping hits.

As well as her incredible voice, the “Jesus Take the Wheel” singer also boasts an uncommon method of breathing when singing. Instead of inhaling large breaths at once through her nose, she takes small sips through her mouth, helping maintain her vocal integrity while creating a distinct sound among other country artists.

2. Christina Aguilera

At age 9, Christina Aguilera stunned audiences and judges at local talent shows with her beautiful, angelic voice, earning her an invitation to Star Search; where she ultimately placed second.

Her beautiful voice paved the way for an impressive career in music, singing backup behind artists like Claudia Lennear (of Ike Turner’s Ikettes), Merry Clayton, and Judith Hill before releasing her first solo album in 1998.

Aguilera’s vocal techniques include harmonies and belting. She has gained prominence for incorporating controversial themes of feminism and sexuality into her work, using whistle notes in a bright falsetto voice range that spans four octaves.

3. Patti LaBelle

After wowing audiences at Sundance with its enthusiastic audience reactions, Morgan Neville’s Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom put rock and R&B legends’ backing singers front and centre in this Oscar-winning documentary. It highlights their essential vocal techniques that give songs their distinctive textures and characters while drawing attention to harmonies often missed by listeners.

Patti LaBelle has become one of the most acclaimed voices in music with her signature gospel ballads, classic rhythm and blues arrangements and timeless pop hits such as Lady Marmalade and On My Own. Her impressive vocal range, charismatic stage presence and undeniable talent have mesmerized audiences worldwide.

LaBelle has made her mark both as an actress and an entrepreneur, having launched her own line of cooking products and being an active charity worker. Her career has made an immeasurable mark on music and popular culture alike.

4. Mariah Carey

Morgan Neville’s documentary 20 Feet From Stardom opens with Lou Reed’s classic song “Walk on the Wild Side,” with lyrics such as, “And the colored girls sing.” This jarring choice encapsulates the core problem: Many white pop stars hire African American backup singers as backup singers.

Mariah Carey reigns as queen of vocal techniques, effortlessly switching between head voice and whistle register within one syllable and her ability to pitch any note exactly without using runs or slides [Bliss].

With unparalleled harmonies, she creates music like ‘Without You.’ Her partnership with Jermaine Dupri yielded hits like ‘Always Be My Baby’ and ‘One Sweet Day.’

5. Madonna

Madonna has long been one of the most inventive pop stars ever. Since her first LP to her most recent, she has experimented with everything from techno and house music, disco and dance-pop as well as outfits ranging from skimpy to gothic styles.

Madonna has always been at the forefront of gender politics, sparking conversations around female sexuality and empowerment through songs like “Jimmy Jimmy” and “Papa Don’t Preach”. Madonna remains mysterious; 20 Feet From Stardom shows she can put her backup singers as much in the spotlight as herself.

Musically, she’s a master at using harmony to craft her own unique sound, and this film’s selection of performance footage and studio sessions demonstrate this ability.