Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Female Voice

 Flavia Dzodan at TigerBeatDown posted an essay about Lana Del Ray and how she embodies the phase in most girls' lives when they yearn to be that pretty cool girl. Dzodan argues that despite criticism Del Ray has garnered from male music writers about her gender performance, there is nothing anti-feminist about expressing those feelings. I enjoyed the post as I always enjoy Dzodan's writing but I'm not wild about the trend of young feminist bloggers who go pour over pop music videos to extract potentially feminist "messages" for analysis. I'm all for analyzing pop culture but bloggers seem afraid to admit that when big producers pluck a youth from obscurity and spend thousands on a video of her writhing angrily in a couture onesie mouthing sexy lyrics to a song produced by men, there is no feminist message. "But her onesie has punk spikes on it! Her hair is in a faux-hawk! But now it's pin-up retro! She was just writhing around on a cross! What does it mean?" Nothing. It means some rich guy said to some other rich guy, "this will make us money." The feminist analysis could be better spent on how the public receives the video, on changing trends, industry shakeups, who gets ignored and why, that sort of thing.

But I digress.

What Flavia's post made me think is that people all have the same complaint about new pop singers on the scene: "She can't even sing." I seem to be squarely in the minority (as always) in enjoying unusual or raw female voices like Bjork, Missy Eliot, and Kim Deal while unable to appreciate Celine Dion, whose voice is like nails on a chalkboard. I don't usually hear this complaint about male singers, particularly with rock and hip-hop (Kanye West? can't sing. Jack White? can't sing. Not like American Idols, anyway. But I've never heard any complaints.). By the time the full weight of The Industry instructs the public to like a certain singer, they will like her. But the public isn't comfortable with that awkward in-between time when the rookie singer herself is saying, "like me." But that's not my main point either:

A male singer's voice symbolizes his expression, his intentions, his words. A woman's voice symbolizes her appearance. That's why a woman's voice must fit in the narrow box of pretty-sounding performance. She must be "a natural." She must preserve The Voice as she ages and not sound gravelly. The Voice must have a showy feminine range and look good naked sound perfect in a live acoustic performance. If she can't belt it out with the voluptuous strength of Christina Aguilera she may opt to emulate a pre-adolescent voice like Britney Spears (kinky!) or a lithe slender whisper like... well, Brandy is the most recent one to come to mind.

Don't believe me? Let's consider how the female voice is used in music. Here's Rihanna, who collaborated with Eminem (why??) in 2010's Love the Way You Lie. In case you somehow forgot, Rihanna was the victim domestic violence from Chris Brown a year or so before this video. So what does she have to say about the issue? One sentence apparently, repeated in a pretty lyrical croon, sprinkled intermittently to decorate Eminem's rap. Yet Eminem says lots of stuff. (That's Megan Fox, by the way, in the video playing a hot domestic violence victim when she was still popular, before the public became exasperated when she objected to abuse in real life [sexual harassment from Transformers director Michael Bay]. Rihanna's career was also nearly destroyed prior to this because of public anger with her that Chris Brown had assaulted her. She sings with Eminem, who made a career of bragging about his abuse and stalking of his ex [Eminem's fictional fantasy? probably not?]. Fun facts.)

Here's Ray Charles with his decorative female backup singers. These ladies are exceptionally cool backups but let's face it: they are interchangeable, Ray is not. They're also fairly verbose for typical backup singers but I love this song so I'm posting it as an example. I cannot think of any female singer, past or present, who has a group of male backup singers (but I'll bet my dad could pull a name out of the aether if he really thought about it.) Pay attention to the male/female contrast in the last 40 seconds:

Here's what pop metal has to offer in the male variety (and please, oh please, enjoy the straight-up funniest depiction of a painter EVER. But I reluctantly give them credit for using a female lead to act out the male singer's feelings.):

...And in the female variety of pop metal. No yelling, no grunting. You could mix her traditionally feminine voice into any genre:

A major exception might be "teen queens" of the Hanna Montana / Hillary Duff variety, but really the studio invested in them when they were what, eleven? There's no way to know how they'll turn out. That's probably why the ex-Disney girls tend to look and sound like normal (pretty) people instead of models. If there were an accurate way of predicting before puberty, you know Disney would select the future models who have Aguilera voices. Similar to adult hair and makeup on a thirteen-year-old star, the Disney juggernaut produces pop music that sounds 'adult:' the voice obscured by heavy production, sometimes childlike but never playful. And compared with boy teen idols, who sound like sentimental women, the girls emit a highly controlled shriek that is at once angry, bored and glamorous. I'm not saying they can't sing, but this is how their voices are groomed and produced at that age.

So back to the bloggers who ask about Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Beyonce, "What do they want to tell us?" They're asking the wrong question. Pop female voices don't want, they are wanted. The Voice only desires in order to be desired.

All of the singers I've mentioned so far have been conventionally attractive. But the public will accept, somewhat, a female pop singer who is not conventionally attractive so long as she's got an attractive voice, which rarely happens in other pop art forms. And while I'd hardly put The Supremes in the category of "unattractive," the American public accepted beautiful black female voices decades before mainstream America accepted black female physical beauty as such.

Which brings me to the Portrait of the Day. I wanted to draw Etta James but in her most famous At Last 1960s photos she looked uncomfortable.

Finally I came across this video where she seems more at ease and in her element, and coincidentally when she isn't performing a "pretty" voice, which is where I took the image from.

I [was] serious about turning little churchgoing Jamesetta into a tough bitch called Etta James…. I wanted to look like a great big high-yellow ho’. I wanted to be nasty.
-Etta James, quoted on Colorlines. "She got frustrated by the fact that people constructed a blues identity for her work and deeply resented the “Earth Mama” trap she felt that put her in," writes Keynon Farrow in Colorlines' obituary. "[...] James’s powerhouse vocals and phrasing actively work against the sentimentality of [At Last]’s arrangement, as it does in most of her work covering jazz standards during that period."

Etta James. [Image: black & white charcoal realistic drawing of the singer's head and shoulders, leaning into the frame with her right shoulder and holding the microphone in her right hand. She is in mid-song with her eyebrows scrunched and her mouth open and tense.]
ETA: I put this drawing of Etta up for sale on my Etsy site. Hint hint, nudge nudge... buy it.

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