Il Divo: A Boy Band's Cheese, Aged

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 21, 2005

When they give a final requiem for traditional masculinity, they could do worse than to hire Il Divo. The toothsome singers of the "popera" quartet, whose eponymous album debuted at No. 4 on the U.S. Billboard album chart(and is No. 8 this week), specialize in music that is earnest but unthreatening. The cover of their hit album shows them with roses in the lapels of their dark Italian suits, and inside, their photographs have an androgynous purity, with bright eyes wide open, pools to swim but not drown in. And when they sing, it is gooey and teary and sentimental, the way a good-looking singing waiter sounds after about three carafes of the house red.

Il Divo is a Simon Cowell project. The brutal judge from "American Idol" is, we've been assured, a music producer and record executive. So now, at the high-water mark of his "Idol" fame, Cowell has offered the world a recording that is, presumably, representative of his idea of good singing. As a judge on "Idol," he's obviously obsessed with image, with body types, hair and dress. Il Divo is the triumph of this obsession, the perfect boy band grown up for the delectation of older ladies and gay guys, a monument to empty style and overproduced cheese.

Why is it called Il Divo? Before "diva" became a catchall for "rhymes with rich," it meant simply a goddess and, in opera circles, a great female singer. A divo, though the term is hardly ever used in the opera world, is the singular, male version of diva. Given that there are four men in this group, one might expect them to be called I Divi, the plural. But no, it's Il Divo, perhaps because it contains a loose anagram of Idol, and perhaps to hammer home the preposterous idea that this has something to do with opera.

It doesn't. "Popera" is a clever term, but it suggests at least some connection to opera. There isn't any here. The music is pure pop, mixed and mastered and produced, without any relation even to light opera, or the "Neapolitan" song style one hears on the zippier tracks of some crossover opera discs. This isn't even Broadway. It's a weird non-style, distinguished by way too much electronic processing and consistently urgent vocal lines, hopped up to sound bigger than pop but far short of opera. Though they're being sold as "classically trained" singers, the men of Il Divo never really register as distinctive vocalists, perhaps because the end product is, electronically, so many generations removed from the simple, unadorned human voice.

Consider the credits listed for an excruciatingly soupy song, "Mama." Under "written by," three names are listed. For "recorded at," there's a studio in Stockholm, with additional recording in London, with the strings recorded at yet another studio back in Stockholm. Then there's engineering, arranging, backing vocals and mastering. To ears trained in pop, this is no doubt par for the course. But opera tends to sound better when it's all recorded with everyone in the same room, performing music written by an actual composer, not a troika.

And now consider the lyrics to "Mama":

Mama, thank you for who I am

Thank you for all the things I'm not

Forgive me for the words unsaid

For the times I forgot.

It doesn't really parse very well grammatically, and it sure seems a tad narcissistic for an ode to one's mother. But that's not the big problem. The big problem is this isn't even good poetry for Hallmark.

If you like to look at pretty men while listening to cliche vocal music, it probably makes more sense to buy some porn and put on a Barry Manilow album.

But all trash deserves to be given at least a little consideration as social pathology. What is the higher meaning of Il Divo? Perhaps after agonizing months of listening to bubblegum singers belting the same handful of pop standards on "Idol," Cowell has left us an immortality project, his legacy, in the form of an album with some pretensions to seriousness. Its popularity is no doubt symptomatic of a larger impatience, among some part of the listening public, with the entirely untrained and inadequate voice.

Or maybe there's no higher meaning at all. Yes, that's probably it.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company