In awe of awful singing

Gloriously bad musicians who have thousands of fans are a reminder that craft isn't everything

I found out about Wing a few years ago. She's a singer. She is also transcendentally, awe-inspiringly awful.

Her voice, which sounds trained in Lord Voldemort's own music conservatory, is somehow fruity and piercing at the same time. Listening to it is like being boxed in the ears by ferrets.

I'm not the only Wing fan. On YouTube, she has thousands of views, and she releases albums. Her versions of Abba's hits are particularly delightful.

Wing Han Tsang is her real name, but people know her as Wing, the singer who emigrated from China to New Zealand and started singing in hospitals and nursing homes to cheer people up.

So cheered up they were that she was booked on local talk shows, which led to her releasing CDs. On YouTube, her majestic tone reached every part of the globe.

But if I fancy something classical, I might turn to the Portsmouth Sinfonia. Like Wing, they are unironically terrible, which is the best kind of terrible.


Their versions of popular classics, such as the Blue Danube and the William Tell Overture, sound as if a James Bond villain had kidnapped random persons off the street, told them to grab an instrument they had never seen in their lives, and forced them to play it at gunpoint.

Unencumbered by musical training, natural ability, a sense of pitch or rhythm, the Sinfonia's players parp, wheeze, whine, rasp and scrape away with reckless abandon. They make your average void deck funeral band sound like the Berlin Philharmonic.

But the story of how they really formed as an orchestra is, sadly, less dramatic.

Some time in the 1970s, a group of non-musician players was recorded as an avant-garde art experiment.

Word of their horribleness spread and they were booked to play so many shows that through sheer repetition, the players picked up the rudiments of music. The gigs dried up when they stopped sounding like organised flatulence.

No matter how terrible my day has been, one chorus of her doing "yooooo can daaaance, yoooo can jiiiive" lifts my mood.

Marie Kondo can talk all she wants about the life-changing magic of tidying up but, for me, life-changing magic happens when Wing does her thing.

I'll laugh at her version of Dancing Queen till I'm choking, but underneath, I'm in awe. No matter how terrible my day has been, one chorus of her doing "yooooo can daaaance, yoooo can jiiiive" lifts my mood.

No one told her that you cannot bring the Cantonese opera style to Western pop. But that is what she did and the result is glorious. It's not quite music as we know it, but it touches the soul and she has a career. That counts for something. Granted, her trajectory is not on the same level as Lady Gaga's, but I think Gaga would appreciate Wing's unique, uh, spirit.

I worship at the altar of craft. I admire highly skilled people in the arts - the musicians, painters and writers. I'm not sporty, but I think it's the same with fans of golf, tennis or F1 racing.

Skill is fetishised. The worship of craft is such that people who can fake having it are now celebrated almost as much as those who actually do.

Take the artisanal movement in food, clothes and music, for example. There's so much theatre involved - the complicated equipment, the aura of vintage - all that to say that one is about to enter that lair of the master of an arcane art.

Yes, I will allow that it takes some craft to, say, search out, maintain and play vinyl records, or to cut hair with old-fashioned scissors and razor, or to infuse lavender and butter into a cocktail, or make beer that tastes like patchouli and kayaking in British Columbia.

So why is it necessary to dress it up with old-timey wood, leather and pewter and words like "hand-caught"? What other body part could the fish - any fish, anywhere - have been caught with?

It's not that Wing has zero skills. It's just that her skills run opposite to what we think of as excellence. And she is no amateur. It takes practice to make the sound that comes from her throat, so she is no example of "naive" or "primitive" art.

She is anti-art, anti-skill. She's a reminder that excellence isn't everything. And don't quote that tired old Frank Sinatra song My Way. Wing is better than that.

Listen to the lyrics carefully - it's the creed of a petty, over-dramatic chauvinist who these days human resources would label "unable to work in a team" and "warned for posting inflammatory material on his Facebook page".

Excuse the pun, but I am just going to wing it. Gloriously bad musicians remind me that craft isn't everything. Enthusiasm - and a love for Abba - can be sufficient.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 12, 2017, with the headline 'In awe of awful singing'. Subscribe