It spent a decade surprising “American Idol” judge Randy Jackson. It continues to stun “The Voice” coaches Adam Levine and Blake Shelton.
For most people, however, the notion that teenagers can sing is an obvious, irrefutable one.
Today’s music fans expect young acts to deliver vocals with immense technical proficiency. They expect young acts to reach a wide range of notes without sacrificing power.
With competence a given, a young musician generally cannot rely on vocals alone to establish her greatness. Not a feather in one’s cap, impressive technical talent is merely a prerequisite for competing in today’s world of mainstream music.
True greatness, instead, stems from the voice behind the vocals. While they might be lacking in real world experience, elite young performers are not lacking in emotion and identity, and they combine the two to give meaning to their vocals.
Those who can convey that meaning – that unique sense of whom they are and what they want to say – are the ones that deserve admiration. They are the one who deserve to be called wise beyond their years. They are the ones who deserve to be labeled artists.
Sabrina Carpenter’s endearing, memorable debut album “Eyes Wide Open” proves she is deserving of those labels.
Decidedly loose in construct but rich in personality, “Eyes Wide Open” provides Carpenter with an opportunity to establish her own identity and leave her own mark. Not content to simply showcase her ability (of which there is a great deal), the album’s fixation is communicating Carpenter’s unique musical persona.
The 15-year-old singer-actress absolutely seizes the opportunity. With a refreshing sense of honesty, tremendous musical instincts and an alluring vocal tone that simultaneously demonstrates youthful innocence and palpable emotion, Carpenter shifts attention to the question of why she’s singing rather than on how she sings.
When that sort of shift occurs, an artist becomes capable of truly connecting with her audience.
Indeed, those who listen to “Eyes Wide Open” are not simply admiring Carpenter’s talent from afar. They are getting to know her and meaningfully engaging with her art.
A Genuine Form of Mastery
Emphasis on the feeling behind Sabrina Carpenter’s “Eyes Wide Open” performance is by no means a strike against her ability. She is neither a vocal powerhouse nor immune from an occasionally nasally delivery, but Carpenter is absolutely an adept singer with an absolutely gorgeous voice.
Feeling matters, however, in the sense that it defines the way she draws upon her skills. While she is blessed with impressive dynamics and a tremendous instinct for navigating a melody, Carpenter rarely gives the impression she is chasing an achievement rather than telling a story. Cognizant instead of calculated, she lets her diversely textured voice function as a means of capturing and communicating the various intensities of emotion.
Carpenter, unsurprisingly, fares best on tracks with the simplest, most relaxed composition. It is on such songs that Carpenter answers to her genuine, youthful spirit rather than to the constraints of an elaborate production.
It is not that Carpenter is a relaxed “beach” singer. Even at her quietest and most reserved, the “Girl Meets World” star possesses a commanding presence. Embracing loudness and intensity would by no means be departing from her true self.
But overproduced, heavily structured pop songs ask artists to align with a particular mold. For an artist whose raw vulnerability and emotion collectively represent the best qualities of her voice, they result in a villainous sense of constraint.
When unencumbered by a pressure to fit, Carpenter is able to let her honest identity represent the driving force. Songs like “Seamless,” “Two Young Hearts” and “Best Thing I Got” are certainly not without structure, but they exist to amplify Carpenter’s message rather than to define it. They arm the artist with infectious rhythms and melodies, but they still provide her with ample breathing room. They still allow her to be herself and let feeling and instinct guide the final product.
Songs like “The Middle of Starting Over” and “Your Love’s Like” feature punchier grooves, but they too function most prominently as platforms for Carpenter’s unique artistry. They help to create variance in the sound without fostering a sense of dishonesty. They aid but do not define.
Valuable from a marketing standpoint, the inclusion of two Meghan Trainor co-writes is even more valuable from a musical standpoint. “Can’t Blame a Girl for Trying” and “Darling I’m a Mess,” those songs, possess the same self-awareness and same intimate, conversational approach that fuels Trainor’s own hits.
The approach could not be more fitting for Carpenter, whose own skill set and personality lend themselves to those qualities.
What makes the fit even more compelling, however, is the contrast between how Trainor and Carpenter approach lyrics.
Whereas both possess vast awareness and immense youthful energy, Trainor tends to approach matters with a sense of snarky self-confidence. She presents supposed vulnerabilities and weaknesses as empowering senses of strength. Younger–both in age and in spirit–Carpenter derives empowerment by confessing her vulnerability.
She tackles topics with an endearing sense of youthful innocence. She is aware of her inexperience and naivete, and she is okay with both. She is not jaded enough to see either as a character flaw. The attitude puts a unique, appealing spin on the Trainor co-writes — and on the “Eyes Wide Open” album at large.
“Too Young” tackles that subject head-on. The stunning ballad, which finds Carpenter at both her most vocally skilled and most emotionally unguarded, stresses the importance of embracing the reality — and the pain — of young love and young emotions. Strength comes from accepting and overcoming vulnerability rather than from ignoring it.
Less Honesty, Less Success
Naturally, the songs that downplay her vulnerability — and emphasize production and composition over simplistic emotion — are the ones that stumble. Unfortunate given that they respectively represent the current single and the title track, “We’ll Be the Stars” and “Eyes Wide Open” are two of the album’s weaker moments.
The former is the bombastic, theatrical pop ballad one would expect of a Disney actress-singer. The latter is the generic pop fodder one would expect of a technically proficient but emotionally vacant artist. Neither label describes Carpenter. As a result, both songs serve to mute what actually makes her special.
She is talented and commanding enough to make the songs listenable — even good, at times — but getting there requires too much conformation to musical structure and too much departure from her organic identity. That is neither an admirable sacrifice nor an effective one.
While not as hollow and generic, “Right Now” and “White Flag” never quite stumble upon melodic or emotional sweet spots. They meander, constrain and ultimately represent two additional weak spots on the album.
The other eight tracks are stellar, vivid illustrations of Sabrina Carpenter’s immense talent, emotional honesty and authoritative presence, but they are not completely immune from criticism.
They, most notably, lack a palpable sense of commerciality. They are strong songs, but they are not necessarily hit songs.
“Eyes Wide Open” is not, therefore, a perfect album. It is not likely to be a smash hit album.
Introducing Sabrina Carpenter, teen ARTIST
What it is, however, is an introduction to one of the most promising and emotionally authentic young artists in mainstream pop. It is a reminder that the youth spirit, when channeled correctly, can produce a refreshing, inspiring sense of candor and vulnerability. It is a call to demand more than competency and formula from those in possession of the coveted ability to sing.
With every passing moment–even on her weaker tracks–Carpenter creates distance between the conception and reality of a teen artist.
Sabrina Carpenter is a teenager who sings really well, but the key to understanding her greatness is to recognize that the two facts are not contradictory. She might be astute, mature and in possession of immense talent, but her greatest asset is her refusal to run from her youthful self. She refuses to be anyone but a teenager with a pretty voice and real feelings.
Carpenter co-wrote four tracks (Your Love’s Like, Too Young, Seamless and Right Now), but this is by no means an especially intimately constructed album. What makes it feel so consistent, honest and effortless is Sabrina Carpenter’s execution.
She is not simply performing her songs but living them and feeling them. She is connecting with them. Illustrated by the steady stream of unique, honest and effortless decisions she makes on the album, that connection is an authentic one. And it is a real reason to view Sabrina Carpenter as a great artist in the making.
“Eyes Wide Open” arrives on April 14, 2015. The track listing follows:
1) Eyes Wide Open
2) Can’t Blame a Girl for Trying
3) The Middle of Starting Over
4) We’ll Be the Stars
5) Two Young Hearts
6) Your Love’s Like
7) Too Young
9) Right Now
10) Darling I’m a Mess
11) White Flag
12) Best Thing I Got