article

02.27.11

Gwyneth Paltrow Won't Stop Singing

The actress picked up the microphone for her role in Country Strong and hasn't put it down since—even though some listeners would like her to. Ramin Setoodeh asks voice and music experts what they think.

Who has sung at the most awards shows this season? If you answered Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, or the Black Eyed Peas, you’re wrong. It’s Gwyneth Paltrow. Crooning the Oscar-nominated song “Coming Home” at last night’s Academy Awards, Paltrow capped off a string of appearances that included shimmying on top of a piano at the Grammys while belting out a duet of “Forget You” with Cee Lo, and proudly performing the title song from her film Country Strong in front of real country singers at the Country Music Awards. Next week on Glee, she returns in her guest role as the bubbly substitute teacher who hijacks all the good musical numbers from the show’s stars.

Gwyneth’s impromptu warbling tour was inspired by her turn as the alcoholic, pill-popping singer in Country Strong, which was marketed as this year’s Crazy Heart but mustered only $20 million at the box office. Critics hated the film, and they mostly blamed the casting—Paltrow wasn’t a convincing country star and came across as a pale imitation of Faith Hill, they said.

But that hasn’t stopped the actress from pursuing her newfound passion. “I know that I won’t stop singing and playing guitar,” Paltrow said in an interview this year. “I may make a record. I may do a musical. I’m not sure, but I’m just very grateful I’m at a place right now where I’ve been given an opportunity to discover this whole new side to myself.” Asked on the red carpet last night by Project Runway’s Tim Gunn who she’d most like to sing a duet with, Paltrow blurted out, “Jay Z.” “I think we’d be a good combination,” she said.

There’s just one problem. Paltrow may want to sing, but a lot of audiences think she… well, let’s just say they think she should stick to acting. So we decided to ask voice and music experts for their professional opinion. They weren’t much kinder. They told us her voice is too small to perform big ballads. Her upper range is limited. Her posture is bad. She doesn’t connect with her lyrics. She sometimes drops key words too quickly in the chorus. “There’s nothing about her singing that made me think this is a talent,” says Michael Scott Cuthbert, a professor of music at MIT who specializes in 15th-century chants and uses computers to analyze pop music. At the Grammys, “the way she milked the entrance seemed a little forced,” he adds. “It was like in a bad sitcom, where the minor character appears and there’s applause. Her entrance seemed timed to her celebrity, not her voice, and not what she was about to contribute to the song.”

“There’s nothing about her singing that makes me think this is a talent.”

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Neither has Paltrow made much of an impression in Nashville, the place where country singers live or die. One vocal coach we reached there hadn’t heard any of her songs, and asked us to play them over the phone. (The final verdict: “She needs lessons.”) “I really don’t think she can sing that well,” says Michael Schaefer, an employee of the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, which specializes in country and bluegrass. “She’s kind of like Jessica Simpson, trying to make it in our industry. The people I hang out with don’t care for her as a singer.” In New York, public opinion is only slightly more sympathetic. “She’s not Ella Fitzgerald or Barbra Streisand, but she has a voice,” says Rob Fardellone, the manager of the sheet-music department at Colony Music in Times Square. “Would I buy her CD? Probably not.”

There was a time when Hollywood encouraged actors to sing, and singers to act. But now our entertainers are so typecast, we force them to specialize. Madonna and Britney’s acting careers are considered a joke, although they both can carry the screen if given the right roles. A decade after Glitter, Mariah Carey had to claw like a diva to land a part in Precious; even then, she was ignored by the Academy Awards. So was Justin Timberlake for his dazzling turn as Sean Parker in The Social Network. To illustrate that he was serious about acting, he had to quit his singing career.

For most audiences, it’s hard to separate the singing Gwyneth from the actress with the elite upbringing who publishes the luxury online newsletter Goop. Since winning the Best Actress Oscar for Shakespeare in Love a dozen years ago, Paltrow has retreated from the spotlight, and her career has been marked by oddball and dark roles like the ones she played in Sylvia, Proof and Running With Scissors. She married rock star Chris Martin of Coldplay and named her daughter Apple. In January, Time magazine ran a story called: “ Why Gwyneth Paltrow Isn’t America’s Sweetheart.” In short, audiences just don’t think she seems very relatable.

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But even if her singing polarizes audiences, it actually seems to be helping the Gwyneth brand. It has introduced her to a new generation of Glee viewers. It’s brought her out of her shell and made her vulnerable. And there’s something brave about the way Paltrow keeps throwing herself into these live performances. Some people have even started to defend her. Kelly Clarkson tweeted that Paltrow should record her own album.

Not all the vocal experts we talked with thought Paltrow should turn off her microphone. They say all she really needs is more experience singing, to get more comfortable on stage. “If anyone has doubts about her credibility, I think that’s erroneous,” says Richard Drews, a professor of voice at Northwestern University, who has performed at more than 300 opera houses around the world. “I’m very impressed. She has a beautiful voice and her pitch is impeccable.” Justin Stoney, a vocal coach to Broadway actors, also judges her favorably. “To be totally honest, I think it’s legit,” he says. “If people can get it out of their heads that it’s Gwyneth Paltrow, her vocal technique is quite good.” Paltrow's Coming Home didn't win the Oscar last night, but her performance was more than respectable. Maybe the singing actress is country strong, after all.

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Ramin Setoodeh is a senior writer at Newsweek. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times and U.S. News & World Report, among other publications.