This is part of a long discussion starting at Ornamentation. The previous entry is Ornamentation Research.
My friend Bruce Colman sends this:
Subject: Ancestrally it stems from gospel and skat singing. How did it get so prevalent?
[M] brought my attention to your interest in Mariah Carey and latterly in the "diva" style of pop singing--I think that's what passes for the term for that, as you put it, densely ornamented style. (Doubt any of the people who sing that way have ever heard of Couperin, but I sure enjoyed you making that comparison.)
I took the subject line for this e-mail from one of your blogs, and thought I'd speculate on an answer.
Yes, that heavily melismatic style comes from gospel singing. I THINK it came into pop via the singular person of Aretha Franklin. Can't prove it, but that's my guess--Aretha and her generation of R&B singers (other names escape me in the moment).
Their roots are all in church singing--in gospel (I believe that Aretha's father was a huge gospel star). If you look at the biographies of Black woman singer after Black woman singer, from Aretha through the Pointer Sisters to, oh, I don't know, Brandy and further on, a constant is that they sang in church.
So Aretha broke through to the White audiences in the late 1960s, I believe, as the most virtuosic voice, and that set a style people aspired to. Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight and others in the Motown/soul/R&B world had similar chops; later you have Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston, whom I wouldn't recognize if she bit me, but I think followed that style; and in the mid-90s, you had a whole generation of Mariah Careys and so on, using way more ornamentation than Aretha ever did, to less effect, but being considered huge, huge heroines.
BTW, you mention "skat" in this same blog I referenced, at least in the jazz world the word is spelled with a "c" and it means something considerably different from that Mariah does, though again of course I wouldn't know an MC recording to hear it.
In jazz, "scat" refers to a singer essentially pretending to be a horn--singing an improvised melody, usually with nonsense syllables, over chord changes. Ella Fitzgerald was the great popularizer of scat singing (if Billy Holiday scatted, she certainly wasn't known for it). Carmen McRae was a great scat singer, though she didn't do a whole lot of it. Betty Carter was a great scat singer, and did quite a bit of it. On the male side, Mel Torme is the recognized alpha scatter; but actually Louis Armstrong did a good bit of that (on the Armstrong-Ellington CD, Louis sings a tremendous scat solo on "Cottontail")--in fact, is recognized as the inventor. A number of "younger" male singers also base their art on scatting: Mark Murphy, Kurt Elling; and especially Al Jareau and most especially Bobby McFerrin.
Scat, by the way, if different from vocalese--what, say, Manhattan Transfer did--which is taking someone's recorded improvisation based on a melody, and applying lyrics--usually not nonsense syllables--to it. Jon Hendricks is the big exponent of this. There are excellent examples on "Carmen Sings Monk" and Madeline Eastman's album "Mad About Madeline," where she sings Hendrick's lyrics to Miles Davis's solo on the Miles Davis tune, "Four" (terrific lyrics). And then you have an older example, which is someone having written lyrics to James Moody's tenor-sax solo on "I'm In the Mood for Love," creating "Moody's Mood for Love"--which James Moody then made part of his musical repetoire, singing it, kind of a moibius strip of musical logic.
And one more comment from Bruce:
"That style really came forward with Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey in the 1980's" -- thus from Wayne Wallace, trombonist, composer, arranger, producer, elder on the Bay Area jazz/Latin/funk/pop/studio-recording scene, educator, historian, nice person....