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.
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.