Many people who discuss music online don’t seem to really know what they’re talking about, at least not from a technical perspective. This can make for a fuzzy discourse, based on feelings and memories with little objective foundation. Granted, “objectivity” is a dicey concept, especially as it applies to the perception of art, but an absence of rubric can make for some arbitrary arguments that the other side wouldn’t even begin to know how to entertain. If you’ve ever eavesdropped on (or taken part in) online bickering between stans (that is, super fans of musicians, generally pop stars and often women), you may have noticed that it tends to get and stay emotional, yielding little to no resolution. People have their stories about who’s the best, and they stick to them.
Georgina Hill-Brown, who is known on various social media platforms (but especially YouTube) as Honest Vocal Coach, is a rare voice of authority in these conversations, though that’s mostly implied. The U.K.-based vocal coach and singer is too polite and unassuming to present herself as anything other than someone who loves pop music and just happens to have a good vocabulary for describing the ways people sing.
“My name’s Georgina, I’m the Honest Vocal Coach, I teach vocals all day everyday when I’m not making videos like this one,” is how she introduces herself at the start of her videos. She speaks with the benevolence and ease of a family friend. Though her work is ostensibly criticism, nothing about her screams fussy. She presents herself as a fan of music in general and the artists she regularly covers, and discusses vocal performances with civility that is uncommon in online pop-music discourse. Honest Vocal Coach is a sort of one-woman utopia. I find her mesmerizing.
Many of her videos are presented as watch-alongs, with her regularly stopping the action to comment. These include performances from recent awards shows.
She also comments on fan-made clip compilations that her viewers (or, as she calls her audience, “my honest children”) send to her, which often pit two artists against each other, sometimes without any discernible rhyme or reason. Still, these comparisons can be extremely instructive, like this video that plays vintage clips of Mariah Carey singing at age 25 against more recent ones of Ariana Grande, also singing at age 25:
As someone who is absolutely here for Ariana Grande but cannot fathom how people can compare her voice to Mariah Carey’s at her peak, I really liked how this video confirms what I already believed. “In that clip of Mariah, her tone was lighter but definitely more consistent and more controlled,” Georgina says. “Not quite as pushy as Ariana.”
Because Georgina is so gentle in affect, you have to wonder just how honest she’s being. For one thing, taking a hard stance against a singer will alienate their fans and could cost views—making money in a click-per-pay world requires appealing to a broad audience, thus incentivizing the toning down of one’s opinion. You can kind of see that in this video that pits Mariah Carey versus her pop nemesis Jennifer Lopez, in which Honest Vocal Coach begrudgingly gives Lopez several points for trying (Carey, regardless, comes out on top).
Regardless of the hedging, Honest Vocal Coach told Vice in a recent profile that she received harassing messages as a result of this video:
“It gets really extreme,” Hill-Brown says. “I’ve had inbox messages of people self harming, some of dead bodies being cut up… It is mortifying.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint when exactly the tide turned so viciously on The Honest Vocal Coach, but she tells me “it all got a little bit strange” after she released “a light-hearted vocal battle video of Mariah and J Lo”.
“I didn’t make fun of either singers,” Hill-Brown says – it’s not her style – “but oh god, the J Lo stans were so unhappy, they were like ‘how dare you compare her to Mariah’ and that’s when I started getting all sorts of inbox messages of rude pictures.”
(Imagine, if you will, what else would entail in a life so devoted to defending Lopez’s vocal honor so rigorously.)
That said, Honest Vocal Coach’s sunniness does at times cast shade. “She’s hitting the notes. I’ll give her that. She’s good at that,” she’s said about Katy Perry. “She must have been so much out of tune that her Autotune couldn’t correct it,” she said of Madonna’s disastrous 2019 Eurovision performance of “Like a Prayer.” “I’m so jealous of those gorgeous lips she has. I don’t know if they’re real. I think they are to be fair,” she said of Lana del Rey in a review that is mostly positive. (I don’t think HVC was even trying to be shady there, it just sort of came out that way by discussing appearance in a video that was supposed to be about vocals.)
She is, at times, utterly meme-able.
Honest Vocal Coach uses words like “resonation” and “vocal folds.” She is soothing and seems genuinely concerned when a star turns in a subpar performance. As it should be with someone who prides herself on honesty, there is much to be read from her body language—the way she flings her head when a particularly impressive note is hit or run trills out, the furrowed-brow befuddlement when something fails to land. Evaluating singing isn’t an exact science—whatever it makes people feel is valid, and enough people having the same sort of feelings about a singer/performance is enough to bestow it with quality/importance. But watching someone with more expertise than most comb through these performances to deliver her evaluation yields the same kind of satisfaction that you get from listening to a psychologist diagnose a toxic public figure. But for Honest Vocal Coach, this doesn’t require the breaching of ethics.