Voicing Womanhood: Performing Gender Through Vocal Techniques
Content warning: this paper contains mentions of abuse and sexual violence
Modernity has presented women as passive consumers of mass culture, incapable of critical thought and lacking the potential to be artists, leading to their marginalisation in the music industry. They are given lower-paid positions, denied access to technical roles, and sexualised as performers. Women have been expected to be devoted fans as opposed to musicians. Whilst it is not unusual for women to be singers, their music is often treated with contempt, viewed to be unlistenable, and of lower cultural value.
Bayton (1998, p. 13) states that “women’s singing is seen in contrast with the learnt skills of playing an instrument”; referring to this voice as “unreplicable”, they suggest that women’s singing is unique to their gender. Yet Bayton continues by describing how women vocalists may uphold gender norms, enhancing the masculinity of musicians who are men. With support from Green (1997), Bayton argues that this encourages the view that women are unsuitable to work with technology (instruments) and reaffirms the association of women with the body and nature. Revisiting this discussion now, I believe these perceptions to be somewhat outdated.
The voice offers agency. Many women use their bodies to create less conventional sonic expressions and vocalise rebellion against the patriarchy, often through confrontational lyrics, but also through acts that are typically seen as ‘aggressive’ and masculine — screams and shouts. Such sounds become purposeful jeoprodizations of their own perceived ‘femininity’. Furthermore, whilst young women may be viewed to reinforce stereotypes through techniques of strains and breaks, this also highlights their state of transition into adults. Proudly reclaiming the grey area of puberty, they reject the shame that is forced upon teenage girls, declaring the existence of the in-between.
Celebrating the creativity and genius of women in music, I approach this research with the mindset of an intersectional feminist. My work explores how women write and/or perform music to depict experiences of girlhood and womanhood. Influenced by Judith Butler’s concept of ‘gender as performance’, I intend to contribute to the discourse on the relationship between voice and gender. Schlichter (2011) argues that although Butler has discussed song in their work, they have predominantly focused on lyrical analysis, disregarding sonoric aspects. Through musical analysis of a variety of songs performed by women, I aim to decode the ‘voice’. In this context, I consider the term to predominantly refer to the sonic vocalisation of words and expressions, but also the narrative voice (communicated through lyrics) and the act of giving voice (publicly sharing one’s experiences). Recognising numerous subjects in relation to the musical case studies — songwriter, vocalist, character(s) of the song, listener — I assess how each may play a role in the portrayal and interpretation of women and their gendered experiences.
An understanding of intersectional identity is necessary when discussing music and womanhood. I acknowledge the fact that I am a vocalist and my identity as a mixed-race, middle-class, queer person; therefore, my interpretations of the songs will likely reflect my identity and experiences.
This research essay explores sensitive topics. I have been conscious to recognise the use of music as a healing process following sexual, physical and emotional abuse. I approach these with caution and respect and thank the songwriters for their bravery in articulating such experiences.
All songs discussed can be found here
Gender, Performance and Voice
Judith Butler views gender to be a phenomenon based on social norms and cultural ideas, arguing that gender does not exist prior to its performance. Their books ‘Gender Trouble’ (2006) and ‘Undoing Gender’ (2004) outline their thoughts. Both titles immediately invite critical thought to ‘gender’; ‘trouble’ implies a problem with ‘gender’ — suggesting trouble with the concept itself or referring to those who threaten the stability of this concept — and ‘undoing’ suggests that gender is fluid, as opposed to binary. Butler rejects any view that gender differences have an origin in biology (Alsop et al. , 2002). The social construction of gender is based around iterations — the repetition of acts, cultural behaviours, and visible characteristics. The theorist believes that these ideas are then reinforced through institutional powers and informal practices, arguing that all constraints of sex, sexuality and gender are illusory.
Research explains how voice may influence perceived gender identity. Weninger et al. (2011) showed that there is a relationship between speech/singing and gender/identity/emotional state. Valentova et al. (2019) highlights the relationship between the pitch of women’s voices and inferred attractiveness; the higher the voice, the more attractive a woman is perceived to be. Women with lower-pitched voices are deemed to be more dominant and hold leadership qualities (Borkowska & Pawlowski, 2011; Klofstad et al., 2012).
Depicting Girlhood: Strains, Breaks and Vocal Pushing
The concept of girlhood is subjective. It is a process that is neverending for some, whilst others restrict it to certain ages, basing it on socio-cultural markers. Instead of viewing it to be a specific time period in one’s life, what may be recognised instead is a culture of girlhood. Brown & Gilligan (1993) viewed ‘girlhood’ as a stage of authentic expression, wherein the girl and their voice recognised the individual self and its relation to others. Although other arguments suggest that this is suppressed with age, I would argue that a personal desire to be ‘authentic’ and use an independent voice constitutes a never-ending sense of girlhood (Gilligan,1982; Adrian & Warwick, 2016).
Predominantly heard in the music of younger women, voice breaks and strains are often used to depict this period. Perceived to be sounds of ‘failure’ and imperfection, the noises of puberty highlight the physical transformation of girl to woman (Adrian & Warwick, 2016; Weber, 2010). Resulting in insecure pitch and register breaks, the voices of young women have often been viewed as problems to fix, however, some artists have used these sounds to depict the ‘authentic’ experiences of girlhood.
These vocal techniques are heard in the music of The Ronettes. In ‘Be My Baby’ (1963), Ronnie Bennett (later Ronnie Spector) stretches her raspy voice. The verse melody rises up and down flirtatiously and her voice tightens at the highest point, implying feelings of desire [00:08–00:22]. The shape mimics imagery of a girl rocking back and forth playfully. Slurs, tied notes and appoggiaturas are also heard, emphasising the coquettish nature of the song’s character. Such sounds reinforce gender stereotypes, implying young women to be alluring and perky.
Whilst some of these interpretations may be deemed typical of all young women, Bennett’s race must also be acknowledged here. Young white women are unlikely to be considered sexual or seductive based on vocalisations alone. Often, as a result of white supremacy and traditional western gender socialisations, they are viewed to be the opposite. Black women, however, are often sexualised, perceived promiscuous due to the stereotypes associated with their racial identity (Rose, 1994).
As the song continues, we hear the increasing desperation in the singer’s voice; the vocals become more strained and Bennett sings with more vibrato, growling seductively. The passivity of lyrics — “The night we met I knew I needed you so”, “I’ll make you happy, baby, just wait and see / For every kiss you give me I’ll give you three” [00:08–00:15; 00:52–01:06] — and repetition of the chorus emphasises this. The absence of a middle-eight is also used to convey the agony felt by the singer; “the song is single-minded in its intent to persuade the listener to give in and love the singer” (Warwick, 2007, p. 127). The musical articulation of these intense feelings highlights Bennett’s transition from girl to woman, depicting emotional and sexual cravings. The use of strains and near-voice-breaks highlight the vocalist’s youth and gender, with this also being emphasised through the high pitch of her singing.
The sexualisation of Bennett in her ‘Be My Baby’ performance was largely due to the directions of songwriter and producer Phil Spector. Whilst use of strains are somewhat natural for young women singers, Bennett was forced to push her voice to its extremes by the producer. It has been suggested that Spector’s choice was to work with inexperienced artists, likely so that he could take advantage of the power imbalance and artist’s naivety, with Bennett chosen for having the “often flawed, but always impassioned…[voice] vacillating between childhood and womanhood” (Warwick, 2007, p. 132). The song was manipulated and became a way for Spector to get the singer to plead for his affection. This insinuates that Spector was encouraging Bennett to perform her gender as he desired her to, reaffirming his patriarchal and racial power as an older white man over a young Black girl.
Use of vocal strains and voice breaks transcends limitations of genre and can also be heard in indie-rock, specifically the music of women of what O’Brien (in Warwick & Adrian, 2016) refers to as the ‘Post-Pussy Riot Generation’. Contrasting to ‘Be My Baby’ these women use music to share their feminist beliefs, explore modern girlhood and enunciate what it means to come-of-age in the current landscape of social media. Emulated through the music of DIY, indie-rock bands and artists, the majority of these musicians are “feminist-raised feminists” (Warwick & Adrian, 2016, p. 17).
Sidney Gish’s 2017 album, No Dogs Allowed (Gish, 2017) features ‘Impostor Syndrome’ in which the singer-songwriter pushes her voice to a near-breaking point as she dives down to hit the lowest notes in her range at 01:47, questioning “what’s a human being gotta be like?”. Building on studies of voice and gender, it may be inferred that Gish has little concern with performing femininity and appearing attractive due to vocalising such a low sound. The audible difficulty the vocalist has with reaching the note implies weaknesses and vulnerability, contrasting to the dominance naturally low-voiced women are perceived to have (Borkowska and Pawlowski, 2011; Klofstad et al., 2012). In this song, the singer feels dejected and as though she is a “grossly underqualified” human [01:20]; focused on learning how to be a person, her concern with fulfilling gender stereotypes is likely minimal. This despair at the thought of being human resonates with the coming-of-age feel of Gish’s album. ‘Sin Triangle’ also hears the artist’s voice break throughout as she sings about “two-faced bitches”, and the cool kids in school [00:55–00:56]. Her album stresses how musicians use these vocal techniques to depict the complexities of girlhood and transition into adulthood.
Greta Kline (stage-name Frankie Cosmos) uses similar vocalisations in her music. The song ‘Is It Possible / Sleep Song’ (from Next Thing, 2016) contains constant leaps between Kline’s lower and higher register to portray the conflict between the couple in the song, with the voice breaks emphasising the immaturity of the relationship. Ending the song with the line “Goodbye forever, what the fuck” Kline returns to her higher-pitched, dreamy head voice showing that she has moved on; the higher notes suggesting that the singer is free from the weight of the unhealthy relationship [02:14–02:26].
This use of strains and vocal pushing is also heard in ‘Party Police’ (Alvvays, 2014) by the woman-fronted Alvvays; begging the partner in the song to stay, the lyrics suggest that the vocalist treasures them so much that she is willing to reduce their relationship to one based on sex and lust — disobeying all the advice they have been given:
“You don’t have to leave
You could just stay here with me
Forget all the party police
We can find comfort in debauchery”
The final chorus hears lead singer Molly Rankin strain and plead throughout until her voice is pushed to the edge of its range at 03:22. The note can be inferred to suggest that the character of the song is making their final, desperate round of begging as if they are on the verge of breaking; this mimics the use of the technique in the aforementioned Ronettes song.
Pecknold (in Adrian & Warwick, 2016, p.92) heralds the teen girl voice as “powerfully disruptive”, stating that the “girl…holds a position of ontological importance that is clearly at odds with her otherwise abject position in the social hierarchy”. The sound is uncomfortable for many to listen to and commands attention, proclaiming the truth of girlhood to all.
It must be noted that the three more recent, indie-rock case studies included as examples of voice breaks were all vocalised by white women, contrasting to Ronnie Bennett. Whilst they may have been inspired by this technique from older music, the indie-rock songs were also performed by the songwriters (or co-songwriters) — implying a strong sense of ownership and personal narrative — unlike ‘Be My Baby’ which was written by Spector and his team. This highlights the power imbalance between women of colour and white women, showing the greater limitations women of colour face when working in the music industry. It is not uncommon for women of colour in the arts to be denied opportunity to express their own experiences through their art (Wreyford, 2016; Steadman, 1999).
On the other hand, increased accessibility to instruments and recording equipment in the past decade also allow women to self-produce their music — as Gish and Kline have done. This style of singing was also popularised through social media and promotion of DIY artists through websites Tumblr and Bandcamp, fashioning an ‘angsty indie girl’ aesthetic. Despite this, I would also argue that it is much more difficult for women of colour to be able to embody this same aesthetic and recognise the difficulty that Black women, in particular, have breaking into the indie scene.
Defiance and Healing: Screams and Shouts
Although often deemed to be noises of a woman’s hysterics, pain or intense pleasure, screams and shouts have often been used in metal, rock and punk, to assert authority through expressions of anger and sexuality. Thompson & Biddle (2013) recognises screams to be inhuman, but also as “affectively contagious” capable of transferring moods and feelings; they “appear at the point at which (linguistic) communication breaks down” and this ambiguity gives the sound power (p. 155). When women use screams in their music, these vocalisations are intentional, becoming sounds of rebellion against the patriarchy and acts of defiance. It serves as a rejection of the way things are (Thompson & Biddle, 2013).
ESG (Emerald Sapphire & Gold) utilised shouts and “yips’’ in their album Come Away With ESG (1983), depicting their youth and the sound of the South Bronx. The band of Scroggins sisters formed when their mother gifted them instruments as an attempt to keep the girls out of trouble (Tangari, 2011). The band’s sound differs from that of Gish, Kline and Alvvays. ESG’s music captures the Blackness of their girlhood and landscape of 70s/80s New York. Furthermore, where women artists have typically studied music or received lessons, ESG learnt to create music in a less-traditional way, with this also reflected in their sound. This highlights points raised in Warwick (2007) which acknowledged how Black women learn by ear and cultural practices or hobbies as opposed to learning through formal musical education.
Whilst the band may be referred to as dance-punk, vocalist Renee Scroggins recognises the struggle of genre assignment to ESG’s music; “we’re right here, in between, we’ve got something for everybody” (Scroggins in Collusion, February-April 1983, cited in Reynolds, 2019). The inability to categorise ESG is what makes their sound so unique and therefore so defiant. To be indefinable, especially as Black women, is to be a threat to the patriarchal, majority-white industry of music.
Incorporating a series of shouts (“yoos”, “hoos”, “woos”) in their 1983 song ‘Dance’ portrays the band as carefree. Each time the word “dance” is heard, it is vocalised with a sing-shout, as if demanding movement from listeners. These yips are noises of pleasure and confidence as opposed to anger or upset. Matched with a punchy bassline, the vocal technique gives voice to the unrestrained energy of girls who make music for play; whilst ‘play’ is reduced to being viewed as a simple act of leisure, Gaunt’s chapter in Adjaye & Andrews (1997) recognises it as a form of cultural expression for Black girls, appreciating the musicality of games.
This sense of amusement is also emulated through the call and response chants and vocal glissandos Scroggins uses in ‘My Love for You’ (ESG, 1983); rising on the word “up” and sliding down as she sings “down”. The playful vocal movement is sung like speech and reinforces the ring-game sound of the song — its structure revolving around a repeated chorus. Moreover, the imagery depicted by the lyrics emphasises this youthfulness also. The final chorus lines are:
“My love for you, baby
Is like a roller coaster
It’s like a Merry Go Round
It goes up down
Anyway you want it baby
Phrases associated with carnivals evoke nostalgia and showcase how music can be an art of play for girls of colour rather than a form of educational regimen. As Rose (1994) recognises, Black women have been continuously relegated to the margins of popular culture and public discourse. Whilst this has made adequate creative opportunity almost non-existent for Black women, this also grants Black women artists a sense of freedom; without any musical expectations placed on them, I believe that ESG were able to create their sound.
It may be argued that women of colour in general use shouts in their music as a way of owning their ‘counter-cultural’ identities; Japanese rock band CHAI’s songs usually take a comparable form with repeated phrases and chants, as opposed to traditional verse/chorus/middle eight structures of rock music. ‘THIS IS CHAI’ (CHAI, 2019) consists of three phrases repeated throughout, similar to the simple lyrics of ESG’s songs. Whilst the song is more heavily produced, the vocal techniques are similar.
Earning a perfect-10 from Pitchfork (Pelly, 2020), Fiona Apple’s 2020 album Fetch the Bolt Cutters (FTBC) uses shouts and screams to embody a different kind of defiance. Using an experimental approach to rock music, Apple’s album rebels against the violence and manipulation of the patriarchy. Detailing stories of relationship conflict, abuse and rape, Apple’s music gives voice to the experiences of women who are often silenced. She narrates scenarios that those involved are usually pressured to keep private. Not only is this pain and anguish given voice through lyrics, the album’s distribution and popularity, but also through the sonic articulation of these feelings. Throughout her career, Apple has always used her music to comment on her pain and gendered experiences. In FTBC, the artist makes even more of a point to reject the behaviours expected of women. Once again, she reclaims her space and her voice.
‘Under the Table’ (Apple, 2020) opens with a chant mimicking that of a girlish hand-clap game; the rhythm and melody are simple as Apple’s voice falls and rises, but the lyrics are anything but playful. The contrast between the lyricised narrative and her voice characterises her as confrontational. The subversion transgresses what is typically expected of women. Using her hoarse voice, the singer repeatedly exclaims:
“Kick me under the table all you want
I won’t shut up,
I won’t shut up”
[First heard at 00:32–00:39]
She dares her partner to try to silence her, using her lower register to assert dominance. At 01:51 the song changes key with the vocalist becoming even more hostile, nearing a shout. All so-called feminine politeness disappears as she raises her voice with anger. At 02:24 the chant returns, only this time more assertive. No longer using her head-voice, Apple yells over heavy chords and the building percussion before multitracking herself singing in rounds, creating a turbulent ensemble of disobedience.
‘For Her’ (Apple, 2020) is almost entirely a cappella and features multitracking of Apple’s voice. The vocals are only ever accompanied by percussive elements such as claps, rimshots, and snares. Although every voice on the song is her own, much of it sounds like a choir of angry, aggrieved women and may illustrate the number of whom have had these experiences. In an interview with Vulture, the artist herself explained how the song “contains so many stories that are not even mine” (Handler, 2020); even though Apple was initially inspired by her trauma and that of a close friend, the vague title suggests that this is a song dedicated to anyone who has been a victim of abuse. The most striking vocals come at the climax of the song; infuriated, Apple breaks through stretching her voice as she shouts:
“You arrive and drive by like a sauced up bat
Like you know you should know,
but you don’t know where it’s at”
Her voice roars on “arrive”, emphasising her resentment for the character and their audacity to be ignorant. Ending with dissonant, haunting harmonies, Apple’s voice swirls until the song’s completion [01:55–02:44]. The listener is overwhelmed by these high-pitched vocals as the singer surrounds us, reminding abusers that their actions will not be forgotten. This presents songwriting and singing as healing processes, for victims, offering a chance for silenced victims to reclaim their voices.
Phoebe Bridgers has also been known to use songwriting as a way of reclaiming her trauma and pain. The artist, who dated Ryan Adams, described him as emotionally abusive and it was reported that the producer would seek out aspiring young women — as Spector did. Bridgers’ song ‘Motion Sickness’ reflects on her relationship with Adams and the abuse she faced. Although screams are not heard in the 2017 single, she does use the vocal technique in her most recent album, Punisher (2020).
The release earnt much critical acclaim, with the final track ‘I Know the End’ gaining attention for Bridgers’ terrorising screams. The closer ties up the loose ends of the earlier tracks, revisiting lyrics and depicts ‘The End’ through apocalyptic imagery. Opening with subdued instrumentation, the first verse hears the vocalist reference ‘The Wizard of Oz’ — “three clicks and I’m home” [00:23–00:26] — singing of a “romanticised…quiet life”, and the comfort of her bedroom [00:34–00:40]. Much of Punisher’s narrative focuses on themes of miscommunication, complicated relationships and feelings of hopelessness. With its folky beginning, listeners are initially fooled into thinking ‘I Know the End’ will be the same; but what begins soft and dreamy with breathy vocals to match, soon becomes something much darker as the song develops.
Strings pierce through, the guitar picks up and the song relishes in a key change, inviting a new mood. Now depicting a drive, there is movement to the song. Bridgers sings of the things she passes, bringing the Dorothy-like narrator back down to earth [03:00–03:08]. The remaining members of her band ‘boygenius’ harmonise and horns rise, adding to the sense of impending doom that the song travels towards. A chorus of collaborators invades, tormenting listeners as they repeat “The end is here!” before exploding: “The end is NOW!” [03:57–04:40]. The instrumentation thickens with rage — guitars shred, drum rhythms are embellished, the horns improvise — and Bridgers tears across it all, screaming viciously [05:09–05:23]. When recording, the artist made use of her entire body to release the sound, her back arched and arms flailed (See video 08:38–08:52, Coscarelli et al., 2020). Whilst this may represent terror and the distress of the world ending, there is something pleasurable about Bridgers’ scream too. The music revisits the melody from the opening track ‘DVD Menu’ bringing the album full circle, and the destructive sound of her voice provides a cathartic end. Serving as a healing process, pent up feelings of loneliness, regret and despair are finally released through her outcries at this climax. The album ends with nothing other than Bridgers’ voice as she whisper-screams and laughs [05:32–05:45]. The world has ended. The artist is free.
Where women in rock have previously been pressured to become sex objects or ‘one of the boys’, contemporary rock offers more opportunity. It is essential to acknowledge the impacts of the bands of the riot grrrl movement for their subversive music and personae in paving the way. For the first time, all 2021 Grammy nominees for ‘Best Rock Performance’ are women. The list features both Bridgers and Apple, emphasising the progress made regarding women, voice and gender in the public and industrial worlds of music.
Through a discussion of women’s voices in music, this paper has explored the concept of gender performance in music. Often used to defy gender stereotypes, women artists use their voices to create what Butler terms ‘gender trouble’, revealing gender itself to simply be a socially constructed performance.
Voice breaks are used to reclaim puberty, communicating young women’s experiences as they transition between child and adult. Some convey this through songs of sexual and romantic desire as The Ronettes and Alvvays do, whilst others like Kline depict the conflicts of young love. Alternatively, young women also sing of their anxieties around being self-sufficient, independent people as Gish does. Owning their imperfections, concerns and newly-discovered feelings, women who use voice breaks claim the culture of girlhood as their own, performing their gender in a way that subverts expectations.
Screams and shouts are used to destabilise the concept of gender; ESG use them to challenge stereotypical depictions of women as reserved, bringing sounds of play into music. Where girls usually create music through education, the Scroggins sisters have shown the value of music for fun and expression — liberty that only men are usually granted. By enunciating screams intentionally — as opposed to them being forced out via fear, pain or pleasure involuntarily — women such as Fiona Apple defy gender norms through vocalising strength and defiance, particularly following incidents of abuse from men. Not only does a scream of anger show that women embody strength and power, but the literal expression of trauma reminds men of this also, her music shows support for victims who may be unable to share their stories. Artists like Bridgers use screams for catharsis and highlight how women are capable of pleasuring their own bodies, granting themselves freedom.
In addition to this conclusion, the case of Phil Spector and Ronnie Bennett/Spector reminds us to question whose voice is truly being heard in music and provides an example of how women’s voices have previously been instruments for men to play. This emphasises the fact that the agency one has depends on their social status. Ronnie Spector has since come forward to share her experiences of abuse with the producer, reclaiming her voice, and shares her support for the #MeToo Movement.
Music provides a platform for women to have their voices heard, sonically, lyrically and publicly; by vocalising sounds outside of typical gender iterations and by utilising stereotypical iterated sounds for new purposes, women can weaponise their voices, articulating rejection of gender norms and defiance towards the patriarchy.
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● Coscarelli, J. et al. (2020) ‘Video: How to Convince Phoebe Bridgers to Write a Rock Song’, The New York Times, 30 July. [Video]. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/video/arts/music/100000007258359/phoebe-bridgers-kyoto.html (Accessed: 9 January 2021).