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The memeification of “she doesn’t have the range,” explained

2016 Billboard Music Awards - Show
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Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Your least-cool aunt is about two months away from posting “she doesn’t have the range” all over Facebook.

On Monday night, a Twitter user with the handle @KingBeyonceStan launched a long and detailed tweetstorm explaining exactly who does or does not have “the range.”

Amy Lee has “a hauntingly beautiful voice,” but she doesn’t have the range. Neither does Justin Bieber or Sia, despite the fact that the latter is “a god send to the pop girls.” Madonna definitely doesn’t have it. As for Adele, “everyone thinks she has the range,” but “she doesn’t have the range.”

Unsurprisingly, @KingBeyonceStan concludes that Beyoncé, “Queen of Beys,” has the range. So do Mariah Carey and Tori Kelly, and Ariana Grande (even though she can’t enunciate). And obviously, so does Whitney Houston, “the Voice,” who is saved for last.

The tweetstorm immediately started to go viral, with many declarations that it was the best music writing on the internet and @KingBeyonceStan our greatest living music critic.

Within 24 hours, New York magazine’s Select All blog had aggregated the entire thing.

What the hell is “the range”?

“The range” is, at its most basic and obvious meaning, vocal range: the number of octaves a performer can sing.

And “she doesn’t have the range” is a meme that originally emerged from a sketch on the early-2000s UK comedy Little Britain.

The sketch imagines a TV interview with legendary Welsh musicians Dame Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones; “she doesn’t have the range” is Bassey’s condescendingly brutal dismissal of every singer who’s mentioned during the conversation.

“I love Tina,” she says at 4:40, referring to Tina Turner, “but she doesn’t have the range. I’m sorry, Tina, I love you, I adore you, you know I love you, but you don’t have the range.”

Also lacking the range, according to “Shirley”: Shirley Manson, Sheryl Crow, Gladys Knight, Sheena Easton, Paul McCartney, and even Shirley Bassey herself.

“But that’s you,” protests the interviewer.

“I don’t care,” says Shirley. “I don’t have the range.”

What makes “she doesn’t have the range” such a great insult is that it presents itself as the strict, objective truth. “Look,” you can say, “Adele’s voice has a beautiful tone, but she just doesn’t have the range, so what can you do?” Or, “Sia is a great songwriter, but she doesn’t have the range.”

You’re not discussing anything subjective or arguable, like performance style or vocal timbre. You can count how many octaves there are in a singer’s range, so when you say, “She doesn’t have the range,” it sounds like you’ve done math. The statement has the attractive sheen of inarguability.

Fans of pop music love to argue that their favorite singer is, objectively speaking, the best

Inarguable, objective proof is something pop music fandom has been very into lately. Take, for instance, a recent pair of fiercely controversial (and popular!) posts on the website Oh No They Didn’t, “Five Vocalists Who aren't as Great as People Say They are (original caps) and Vocalists who are better than you think they are.”

“Whether or not a singer has a grasp on proper vocal technique,” writes ONTD poster revertigo in the former, “is objective and therefore measurable with science-based parameters. Consequently, mastering technique makes one indisputably amazing at singing. (Likewise, the reverse is true.)”

So when revertigo concludes that Adele is overrated because she “damaged her instrument” — her vocal cords — with her “dangerous technique,” she’s framing her conclusion as objective fact. Same thing when she concludes, contra @KingBeyonceStan, that Ariana Grande is overrated despite her five-octave range due to her lack of breath support and poor diction: Again, revertigo says, she’s just being objective. (Ariana Grande: when having the range is not enough.)

“idk what criteria you're using,” revertigo says to a commenter who disagrees with her. “i'm using vocal pedagogy.”

Likewise, ONTD poster ILLYRIAS_PET also uses vocal pedagogy in her rundown of underrated vocalists. Beyoncé, she writes, is sometimes criticized for her lack of emotion. But “emoting is irrelevant to vocal pedagogy,” so on purely objective standards — control, support, resonance — “Beyoncé is one of the best vocalists mainstream music has seen.”

And just like @KingBeyonceStan was being objective when declaring that Lady Gaga doesn’t have the range, ILLYRIAS_PET is being objective when she concludes that “Gaga is one of pop's best vocalists and definitely the best of her generation” because of her resonance and vibrato. Both statements are presented as nonnegotiable fact, even though they completely contradict each other.

“She doesn’t have the range” is the perfect meme for a fandom that loves to perform objectivity

As this kind of jargon-heavy critique becomes more popular and more powerful in pop music fandom, “she doesn’t have the range” becomes an increasingly valuable meme to use in response. It lets you mock technical critiques and their claims to objectivity while participating in them at the same time.

So when @KingBeyonceStan writes, “she doesn’t have the range” over a picture of Justin Bieber, it’s a joke that works on two levels. “She doesn’t have the range” is the punchline to a skit; it’s clearly nonsense, and it doesn’t have to be supported by any kind of evidence. It’s the same kind of “if you disagree, you don’t know what you’re talking about” pronouncement the ONTD writers made, and it doesn’t require you to provide receipts.

Of course, objectively speaking, it’s also completely accurate to say that Bieber really doesn’t have the range.

The result is a withering insult: This singer is so bad at what he does that you can write him off with a joke dismissal and still think, “lol, true.” It’s the who’s this clown of celebrity jokes.

That’s part of why “she doesn’t have the range” has been simmering under the radar for years as a kind of catchall dismissal for a celebrity you think isn’t very good at their job in a technical sense, or who is overrated. When Lady Gaga performed a tribute to David Bowie at the Oscars, if you didn’t like it, all you had to do was say, “She doesn’t have the range.”

Like many popular memes, “she doesn’t have the range” comes from Black Twitter

It’s worth noting that @KingBeyonceStan is part of Black Twitter, and there’s a long history of memes coming out of Black Twitter and being stripped of their context and whitewashed as they proliferate. As Hunter Harris writes for Refinery 29:

The fruits of Black Twitter's comedy labor are whitewashed and reappropriated by people with no idea what they mean or what online culture they're important to. … Atlanta rappers danced "The Dab" before Hillary Clinton brought the meme to daytime television on Ellen. #TrapCovers, which found Black twitter users adding raps and basslines to Michelle Branch ballads, came to fruition as a response to white musicians making emo covers of "Formation," Beyoncé's song celebrating her "negro nose" and nappy hair. But Black Twitter is never credited, even as the non-Black creators of other mainstream memes are known and praised. … Memes aren't exactly the most important fault lines for discussions about cultural appropriation, but instances like these are examples of inside jokes being mined for street cred as the cultures that created them are ignored.

Unlike some of the memes Harris cites, “she doesn’t have the range” doesn’t have a history of proliferating on Black Twitter before crossing into the mainstream: Within hours of @KingBeyonceStan’s tweetstorm, the whole thing was written up on USA Today. Meme culture is so sped up now that jokes that would have otherwise spent enormous amounts of time developing in specific subcultures get dragged into the national spotlight almost at once.

“She doesn’t have the range” is about to enter the last stage of memeification

In the wake of @KingBeyonceStan’s explosively popular Twitter thread, “she doesn’t have the range” is already, to the despair of many, being further memeified.

In other words, it’s losing what made it funny originally — the comedy that comes from its assumed authoritative objectivity — and gaining meme comedy. It’s now funny through repetition.

Sure, when you see “she doesn’t have the range” over a picture of Jeb Bush, if you squint really hard you can say it’s declaring that Bush is an overrated politician who lacks objectively elegant technique.

But you have to stretch to make it work. Really, it’s saying that Jeb Bush is a recognizable cultural figure understood to have failed at something, and “she doesn’t have the range” is now a recognizable cultural phrase understood to be an insult. This famous person has failed, and this famous string of words acknowledges his failure, and the combination of the two is funny. Meme humor!

And as the meme multiplies and grows, it will expand beyond the reach of people who watched the original Little Britain sketch in real time, beyond people who post obsessively about which pop stars are objectively good singers, beyond people who saw @KingBeyonceStan declare that Whitney Houston “has the range.” It won’t need any of that context to keep growing.

It will just continue on, as memes do, until at last it reaches your aunt’s Facebook page and settles into its natural niche right under dat boi. o shit waddup!

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Sheena Easton as Tina Easton.

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