| Arts & Culture
Music What Vin Diesel Taught Me About Singing and Sincerity
Vin closes his eyes and bares his soul, meaning each word of the song, and isn’t that the point? Vin never claimed to be a good singer.
A man, in silhouette against a projector screen on which Rihanna emerges from a pool, raises a microphone. He takes a breath as the piano riff starts the track. Accompanied by Rihanna’s recorded voice, the man sings in a low, garbled voice, “All along there was a fever . . . ” The camera focuses on actor Vin Diesel crooning along with the music video for “Stay.” As Vin sings the line, “I want you to stay,” the sentiment in the lyrics become greater than Vin’s ability to articulate them. It becomes evident that the action star means these words, more than anything.
This is usually the point where my friends ask, “So, we’re really watching this?” and I shush them and fixate on the video .
Vin is wearing a suit jacket, jeans, and a pained expression of wavering devotion. His eyebrows furrow and raise with each of Rihanna’s notes he fails to match. The crux of this bizarre performance hits me at the one minute, twenty-five second mark when, in an attempt to harmonize with featured artist Mikky Ekko, Vin unveils his falsetto for the second verse.
Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I play this video in living rooms with YouTube accessible TVs. My closest friends groan with embarrassment, but I stand firm in my decision. I usually lose YouTube privileges shortly thereafter.
Recorded in 2013 as a Valentine to Vin’s long-time partner , Pamala Jiménez, the video is objectively funny—the brute actor showing his intimate side in an awkward setting is strange to watch. At first, I thought that’s why this video was my go-to, but upon further reflection, I realized I’m attracted to Vin’s sincerity.
As a teenager, I spent nearly every night in my bedroom, writing songs about unrequited love, friends lost to suicide, and the guilt of Catholicism. I would record them into a nearly defunct iMac, then edit out audible breaths or major missteps. I recorded quietly and quickly so as to not wake up my family and expose myself as a vulnerable artist. I lived in a rural area and was unable to get internet faster than dial-up, so I found that the fewer tracks on the recording, the better to upload.
My focus was on capturing the song, not the quality of the recording. I started posting my music and the occasional cover to MySpace and Purevolume, and then came the critiques:
im sorry but i dont like your voice at allllllllll srry
I have an idea for your next cover . . . that guitar in flames and your mouth in tape.
music is good though just vocals are kinda killin me
I hadn’t considered my music to be unlistenable because of my voice, which, aside from cracking frequently, I assumed was unremarkable. I was just proud to have created something.
I sang in the choir in junior high. I competed in solos and my mom still remarks about the time a judge wrote “beautiful voice” on her comment sheet. When my voice changed the summer after freshman year of high school, I never figured out how to manage the shift from countertenor to baritone.
Puberty also brought along an abundance of feelings, leaving me compelled to write song after song with no way to effectively sing them. In my bedroom, I would struggle to match the notes of my guitar, but I lacked the confidence to keep trying, so I settled into a deadpan voice closer to Leonard Cohen than Jeff Buckley.
With each crack in my voice, I focused on the message of my song. I started listening to Bob Dylan and Daniel Johnston and The Moldy Peaches, and thought maybe I could sing in my own way, too. I changed my music profile to say “I can’t sing. I know. I’m in it for the lyrics.”
In a 2018 interview, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes recounts a visit to Berkeley , where his hosting professor requested he perform a song for his students. After Oberst played his existential crisis song, “Lenders in the Temple,” a student asked, “So you don’t care if you sing on pitch at all?”
“So you don’t care if you sing on pitch at all?”
At the time, Oberst explained how he thought expressing the song in a way that felt right was the point, but reflecting in the interview, he jokes, “I care a lot, dammit. I just can’t do it.” I felt that down to my soul.
In my senior year of college, I met Abby. In the beginning of our relationship, she asked me to show her something on my guitar and I stumbled through an Elliott Smith song, butchering Smith’s heartfelt whispers with my own flat over-articulations. I stopped halfway through and tried again with one of my own songs. I played her a poppy breakup song about moving away, and felt more confident than I did in my rendition of “The Biggest Lie.”
When I finished, Abby said, “Those were nice lyrics, even if your voice is a little flat,” though nothing was ‘nice’ about the song, which opens with the melodramatic line, “If I gave you the chance, you’d probably leave me for dead.” So I took her compliment with the same hesitation as I did with the MySpace comments I received years before.
I soon found out Abby was a singer, and a talented one at that. She was bored of playing Adele covers and wanted to play something that made her stand out. I was excited by the idea that she could be the one to give a voice to my songs, and people would listen to her.
Feeling we could each add what the other lacked, I showed her my notebooks full of folk songs and said, “We can do this. We can make these into real songs together.”
“Perfect,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to be a pop star.”
We started working on some cover songs, including Rhianna’s “Stay.” While arranging the song, I asked which verses she wanted me to sing, but she convinced me to just harmonize on the second and third choruses and leave it that, taking Mikky Ekko’s part as well as Rhianna’s. Since our relationship was still young, I tried not to take the affront personally, but we began to argue frequently. I’d use the drawl imitation I learned growing up, while she’d hit each note with ethereal tonality.
She’d stop me and say, “I hear what you’re trying to do, but you can’t do it.” Or, “Are you putting on a voice? I hate when people put on a voice. It’s like, just do it right.”
But what was “right” for me was conveying the lyrics of my songs in whatever way I could. If I suggested we arrange a song to fit my voice, she’d say I didn’t respect her as an artist.
We moved in together and managed to make a set list, half comprised of covers and half of my songs. I booked us a few shows, most of them paying gigs, and we’d rehearse up until it was time to leave the apartment. Before one show, Abby said, “I don’t feel like it right now.” I convinced her we had to perform, as an obligation, as a way to pay rent, as a way to move onto something bigger. On the walk to the venue, I couldn’t help but feel as though she were embarrassed by me.
When I urged her to start recording an album with me, Abby didn’t want to do any of my old songs. In her eyes, they were for my past lovers, not her, so why would she want to sing them? I thought some of them were good, and I didn’t want to write love songs, and if I did write a love song, I’d want it to be honest, and she didn’t want an honest love song because that would include the bad times, and why couldn’t she just work with me?
After a series of nights spent arguing with Abby, I woke up to the blessing that is “Vin Diesel— Stay (Originally performed by Rihanna)” and promptly shared it with her. When Vin hit the falsetto “ooo”s, we laughed, and it felt like a truce.
I said, “At least my voice isn’t that bad,” and she just gave me a side-eyed look.
The last time I remember playing guitar in front of Abby before our band and relationship dissipated, I dropped my tuning down to D# and picked a medley of songs that worked for me in that key. When she heard me from the kitchen, she sat down, and sang along. When she told me to move my capo up to III so it fit her range, I lost my momentum.
Eventually, we broke up. She viewed me as a failure, and it made her feel better to blame her lack of fame on me. By that point, I was comfortable with how I performed, and I couldn’t find the point if the person I was closest to didn’t respect what I was doing. Fame was never my goal when writing music.
Fame was never my goal when writing music.
The first time I played a song alone in my new apartment without Abby, I wondered why I was still trying. But I kept playing, and with each controlled, quiet chord I got closer to the reason why I started making music. It feels good to make art. There’s beauty in creation where self-expression lends itself to self-worth.
I’ve played a few gigs the past few years in living rooms of DIY houses and the basements of dive bars. I get anxious when I play, but the audiences are polite and my friends tell me they’re impressed. I think my voice has improved, or maybe I’m just more comfortable. Sometimes I think about taking voice lessons. When I get the money or the time, maybe I will. Right now though, I’m content playing my old songs, letting the lyrics come out the best way my mouth will let them. I let the song be, and nobody can tell me otherwise.
I avoid playing most of the cover songs Abby and I performed together. They remind me of my inadequacy. I’ll occasionally play “Stay,” but I’ll play it how I want, wavering and true. I’ll think of Vin Diesel in front of a projection screen showing someone how much he loves her. Vin closes his eyes and bares his soul, meaning each word of the song, and isn’t that the point? Vin never claimed to be a good singer.