Vo­cal Re­ac­tion

For per­form­ers whose voices don’t con­form to dig­i­tally en­hanced con­ven­tion, sing­ing isn’t just a form of en­ter­tain­ment; it’s a fem­i­nist act—one that re­con­nects us with real­ity.

Fashion (Canada) - - Culture Feature - By Sarah Liss

It’s no se­cret that aes­thetic beauty is a job re­quire­ment for most fe­male per­form­ers: Im­mac­u­late skin, ex­quis­ite bone struc­ture, hair that cas­cades in ef­fort­less waves, curves pre­cisely cal­i­brated to re­flect an im­pos­si­ble ideal. Even for stars who don’t wake up like this, it’s easy enough to feign flaw­less­ness through a care­ful reg­i­men of air­brush­ing and con­tour­ing, waist trainers and stylists, Snapchat fil­ters and Pho­to­shop. In an era of #no­makeup self­ies and un­flat­ter­ing tabloid shots of A-lis­ters mak­ing Whole Foods runs in sweats and flip-flops, most of us are con­scious enough of the real work that goes into giv­ing good face that we can ap­proach outer glam­our with a healthy dose of skep­ti­cism. But we’re less at­tuned to the fact that if you’re a wo­man in the pub­lic eye, you’re put through a gaunt­let of ide­al­ized beauty stan­dards that go be­yond skin-deep, ex­tend­ing to the very na­ture of how you sound. Take, for in­stance, Hil­lary Clin­ton, who spent the bulk of her time on the cam­paign trail be­set by crit­ics who took is­sue not with what she said but how she said it. Clin­ton sounded “an­gry” and “un­re­laxed,” griped pun­dits; she was “shrill” and “loud” and made peo­ple feel like they were be­ing “lec­tured.” Michael Sav­age, a right-wing talk-show host, de­scribed her “grat­ing voice” as “very of­fen­sive,” adding “I don’t like women who are not fem­i­nine.” That dis­ap­proval wasn’t strictly gen­dered, ei­ther: Writ­ing in The Wall Street Jour­nal, re­porter Peggy Noo­nan said Clin­ton re­minded her “of the land­lady yelling.” For all her ef­forts to be more lik­able and re­lat­able, the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date was sunk, in part, be­cause she couldn’t muster the dul­cet, breathy tones as­so­ci­ated with be­ing “a ‘nice’ wo­man,” as Stan­ford lin­guist Penelope Eck­ert ex­plained in an interview with New Repub­lic.

Of course, Clin­ton’s per­ceived vo­cal fail­ings are hardly the only ex­am­ple of fe­male voices be­ing put through the wringer. In King Lear, Shake­speare’s epony­mous monarch sings the praises of his favourite daugh­ter, Cordelia, mus­ing, “Her voice was ever low, gen­tle, and soft—an ex­cel­lent thing in wo­man.” More re­cently, vo­cal fry— that creaky, glot­tal, drawn-out tic per­fected by var­i­ous Kar­dashi­ans—was a lightning rod; be­fore that, crit­ics ranted about the con­tro­ver­sial prac­tice of uptalk. And in the ’80s, co­quet­tishly daffy Val­ley Girl-speak was the tar­get of sex­ist ire.

This gen­dered scru­tiny may ex­tend across all facets of culture, but it’s es­pe­cially preva­lent in pop mu­sic, a dis­ci­pline that’s de­fined in many ways by its abil­ity to project the il­lu­sion of per­fec­tion in var­i­ous dimensions, in­clud­ing, ob­vi­ously and un­der­stand­ably, voice. Sing­ing, in pop, in­volves an as­pi­ra­tional pol­ish that has every­thing

to do with con­form­ity—es­pe­cially since the ad­vent of that great ro­bot-cal­i­brat­ing equal­izer, Auto-Tune. The lines be­tween hit sin­gles blur, voices melt­ing into a sleek, sil­very, melis­matic soup. Where we were once awed by the seem­ingly su­per­hu­man vo­cal tal­ent demon­strated by artists in real life, we’re now trans­fixed by the stun­ning achieve­ments of stu­dio pro­duc­tion wizardry—per­fec­tion achieved in a vir­tual space, which ren­ders ir­rel­e­vant the no­tion of ac­tual skill.

Be­cause of this ten­dency to­ward com­puter-gen­er­ated con­sis­tency, the artists who do go against the grain stand out, of­ten to their detri­ment. While male vo­cal­ists can get away with blem­ishes—Bob Dy­lan is the most fre­quently cited ex­am­ple here, but the tepid war­ble of Twenty One Pilots’s Tyler Joseph comes to mind, as does the froggy croak of July Talk’s Peter Dreima­nis— women are ex­pected to sound, well, a par­tic­u­lar kind of pretty. And when they don’t, it can be an act of de­fi­ance. Think of Ja­nis Jo­plin, whose ragged, fer­vent cat­er­waul be­came short­hand for her many un­quench­able ap­petites, or Kate Bush, whose oth­er­worldly trills turned her into a reclu­sive cult icon (in the ’80s, a time when the in­nate weird­ness of new wave al­lowed the main­stream to be much more for­giv­ing of mis­fits). More re­cently, Sia’s blood-cur­dling hollers—evok­ing both an­guish and ec­stasy—have done at least as much to shore up her odd­ball rep as has her pen­chant for per­form­ing with her back to the au­di­ence and her face ob­scured by an over­sized wig. If her vo­cal de­liv­ery hews closer than the av­er­age pop star’s to heart­break­ing re­al­ness, it has made her that much more pro­tec­tive of her pub­lic per­sona.

Toronto’s Aus­tra has re­ceived accolades from crit­ics around the world, in­clud­ing pos­i­tive words from re­view­ers at the BBC. But con­cep­tual, in­tel­lec­tual praise and con­crete sup­port—the kind that pays roy­al­ties, con­nects with new fans and sells al­bums—are two dif­fer­ent things. And Katie Stel­ma­nis, the singer, song­writer and key­boardist in the dark synth-pop band, says her songs have re­ceived lit­tle of the lat­ter from the Bri­tish pub­lic broad­caster. “Their of­fi­cial state­ment was that they thought my voice was too ‘di­vi­sive’ for ra­dio, but I au­to­mat­i­cally trans­lated that to mean my voice was too wom­anly for ra­dio. Peo­ple only want to hear 21-year-old pop stars. And when I was 21, I sounded like I was a 42-year-old wo­man. It didn’t re­ally fly.”

What’s flum­mox­ing is that Aus­tra’s ap­proach is far from abra­sive. A clas­si­cally trained vo­cal­ist who spent her youth ab­sorb­ing arias in the Cana­dian Chil­dren’s Opera Cho­rus, Stel­ma­nis pos­sesses ex­tra­or­di­nary range, power, depth and tim­bre, qual­i­ties she’s honed over time—some­times through un­learn­ing things she’d al­ready learned. “In choir,” she re­calls, “they’d al­ways en­cour­age us to smile while we sang, which ac­cesses a dif­fer­ent part of your gut.” Later on, Stel­ma­nis be­gan to find her own method, en­cour­aged by a teacher who es­chewed North Amer­i­can tech­niques for Euro­pean ones. “This wo­man used a word… I for­get what it is in Ital­ian, but it lit­er­ally trans­lates to ‘vom­it­ing,’” she says. “You’d vomit out the sound. There was this big con­trast be­tween that and the light style of sing­ing I as­so­ci­ated with Canada.”

In “Fu­ture Pol­i­tics,” the ti­tle track from Aus­tra’s lat­est al­bum, which came out in Jan­uary, she draws her voice into a barely con­tained qua­ver, wield­ing it per­cus­sively through the verses and build­ing to a hes­i­tant ral­ly­ing cry in the cho­ruses. It’s rich and in­tox­i­cat­ing. And though Stel­ma­nis rev­els in ex­per­i­ment­ing with pro­duc­tion and dig­i­tal ma­nip­u­la­tion, the nat­u­ral tex­ture of her vo­cals is far closer to the vari­ance of what women sound like in real life than the smoothed-out gloss we hear in most chart-top­ping pop songs. “When I’ve reached into the main­stream, peo­ple think [my sing­ing] is just way too in­tense,” she says. “I do strongly be­lieve it’s con­nected to gender. There are lots of male voices with in­tense vi­bratos, and no­body has any prob­lem with them.”

That re­sis­tance to “over­bear­ing” fe­male voices is noth­ing new. To­day, com­poser and conductor Joan La Bar­bara is viewed as a vi­sion­ary of mod­ern clas­si­cal mu­sic. But when she be­gan per­form­ing ex­per­i­men­tal works that in­volved im­i­tat­ing string and wood­wind per­form­ers and try­ing to make in­stru­ment-like sounds with her voice, au­di­ences were ut­terly baf­fled. “If we go back 40 years to when I started do­ing it, it was very con­fus­ing and star­tling. Some­times I’d get peo­ple gig­gling in the au­di­ence,” she re­calls. La Bar­bara’s flut­ter­ing, gut­tural ul­u­la­tions— “Twelve-song,” her first so-called “sound paint­ing,” cre­ated in the ’70s, can leave you feel­ing as though you’ve passed through a rain­for­est, sur­rounded by beasts’ pri­mal screeches, twit­ters and drones—es­chew crowd-pleas­ing aes­thet­ics in ser­vice of evok­ing a mood, con­jur­ing an »

They thought my voice was too ‘di­vi­sive’ for ra­dio, but I au­to­mat­i­cally trans­lated that to mean my voice was too wom­anly for ra­dio.

en­vi­ron­ment and con­vey­ing a mes­sage. La Bar­bara’s male con­tem­po­raries and col­lab­o­ra­tors, like John Cage and Philip Glass, were lauded for their work in sim­i­larly un­con­ven­tional forms at the time, but it was novel to hear a wo­man so de­lib­er­ately em­brace weird­ness.

Nearly half a cen­tury later, fe­male artists still en­counter re­sis­tance when they use their own in­stru­ments, rather than com­put­ers, to tackle un­pretty, brawny sounds with gusto. At 20, Sparx (née Em­i­lie Car­rey) has built an in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion as a beat­boxer; in 2015, the Sud­bury, Ont., na­tive placed sec­ond in the World Beat­box Cham­pi­onships in Ger­many and was the first wo­man ever to com­pete in the Cana­dian Beat­box­ing Cham­pi­onships. Accolades aside, she’s quick to note that the “un­fem­i­nine” na­ture of her per­cus­sive tech­niques—grunt­ing, trilling, spit­ting and click­ing—can be cat­nip for haters. “In the time since I started beat­box­ing, I’ve been told ‘You shouldn’t be do­ing that. It’s not for girls.’ Or, ‘Ew, you’re a girl. That’s gross. You shouldn’t be spit­ting ev­ery­where.’” For Car­rey, the thrill of be­ing a pioneer in a tra­di­tion­ally male-dom­i­nated field usurps any neg­a­tive com­men­tary; she sees what she does as a form of fem­i­nist ac­tivism. “I mean, you are mak­ing weird noises with your mouth and spit­ting ev­ery­where,” she says. “When you’re danc­ing, you’re sweat­ing ev­ery­where. It’s not ‘la­dy­like,’ but who cares? It’s like see­ing a wo­man play­ing in the NHL. It gets peo­ple think­ing. So many women have told me how en­cour­ag­ing it is for them to see me on­stage, how much more com­fort­able they feel af­ter watch­ing me.”

Like Car­rey, Stel­ma­nis draws a great deal of se­cu­rity from her voice. “Of all the as­pects of mu­sic, it’s the one thing I’ve felt su­per-con­fi­dent with. I’ve al­ways known that I have this power in my voice. I’m not fazed if peo­ple like it or don’t like it. I feel very good about it.”

In­deed, for per­form­ers as well as au­di­ences, re­fus­ing to con­form can be an act of lib­er­a­tion. Flout­ing con­ven­tion has been one of the only con­stants in Björk’s 30-plus-year ca­reer, from her teenage stint in an all-girl punk band (called, de­light­fully, Spit and Snot) through her for­ays into elec­tronic and cham­ber mu­sic all the way to her more re­cent projects, which defy cat­e­go­riza­tion. Though Björk has al­ways taken a unique ap­proach to sing­ing—with gasps, hic­cups and yo­dels—it was on 2004’s Medúlla that she seized the ex­pres­sive po­ten­tial of the hu­man voice. As part of this en­deav­our, she tapped Tanya Ta­gaq, a then rel­a­tively un­known Cana­dian artist who was putting an in­no­va­tive spin on tra­di­tional throat-sing­ing tech­niques, to join her on the al­bum and on tour.

It was the first in­stance of Ta­gaq’s vis­ceral, po­tent per­for­mance on record but far from the last. Since then, the Nu­navut-born dy­namo has re­leased four stun­ning al­bums, in­clud­ing last year’s as­ton­ish­ing Ret­ri­bu­tion, which frames her purrs and groans, howls and moans, huffs and wails in per­cus­sive, at­mo­spheric ar­range­ments. To watch Ta­gaq on­stage is to be left breath­less—solo throat sing­ing, as she does it, is a stag­ger­ingly ath­letic feat. Some peo­ple don’t get it. Au­di­ence mem­bers have walked out of her shows; arm­chair crit­ics have re­coiled at the sheer mus­cu­lar­ity of her ap­proach. From Ta­gaq’s per­spec­tive, she’s not push­ing back against what it means to be a lady—just the op­po­site. “I think every culture has a dif­fer­ent idea of what fem­i­nin­ity is. Women have to be re­ally, re­ally strong up north to be re­spected,” she says. “My aunt can go out and kill a po­lar bear with a bow and ar­row by her­self with a dog team. That, to me, is very fem­i­nine; it’s a beau­ti­ful ex­am­ple of fem­i­nin­ity.”

Ta­gaq didn’t grow up sur­rounded by throat sing­ing, she ex­plains; she was drawn to the prac­tice af­ter her mom sent her a tape of tra­di­tional per­form­ers when she was feel­ing home­sick at univer­sity. To­day, she says, she’s en­chanted by the ex­pan­sive­ness of the sounds she makes. “I love the ec­static and ex­treme emo­tions I can con­vey while sing­ing. There’s sex and death—pro­cre­ation, fear, anger and laugh­ter. Some­times peo­ple leave the shows, and I’m thank­ful that they do. I wouldn’t want to share that in­ti­macy with some­one who doesn’t want to re­ceive it.”

“It’s so per­sonal,” echoes La Bar­bara. “We live in­side our in­stru­ments, so you’re get­ting a lot of emo­tional con­tent. Some of it may be in­ten­tional; some of it you may not even know is there. And peo­ple are deeply af­fected by vo­cal mu­sic—that’s some­thing each of us who deals with this in­stru­ment has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to com­pre­hend, to know you have this power to take lis­ten­ers to another place.”

And when that in­stru­ment bucks the pro­grammed, pol­ished and im­pos­si­bly per­fect norm, it may even of­fer a glimpse of a bet­ter, rev­o­lu­tion­ary real­ity.

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