My sister and I grew up during the peak years of the iPod. During long car rides, we’d have Nelly Furtado or Natasha Bedingfield blasting through our earbuds. Sometimes, though, our batteries would die and we’d inevitably be subjected to our parents’ music taste. Most of the time, we didn’t mind listening to “Sunshine of Your Love” through the car’s speakers. But when Leonard Cohen came on, we voiced our protests loudly.
Best known for writing “Hallelujah” (that sad song from Shrek), Cohen was, no doubt, a brilliant lyricist who had a massive impact on the culture of the ’60s and ’70s. And yet he couldn’t carry a tune. More than that, his singing voice was grating and dull. It sounded like he wasn’t even trying. None of that seemed to matter to critics, or my parents, though.
For male musicians, a lack of technique, far from being a barrier to success, is almost a badge of authenticity. It’s the equivalent of Silicon Valley tech bros emulating Steve Job’s robotic approach to dressing. If you don’t care about shallow things like clothes (or singing well), you’re free to focus on more intellectual pursuits. A male musician who doesn’t bother with vocal technique must be a lyrical genius. He’s cerebral and inward-looking, not performative. If you don’t like it, you clearly just don’t understand it. A female musician with a bad voice, on the other hand, is branded talentless. Period.
As the backlash against the usage of the filler word “like,” and, more recently, the obsession with vocal fry show, people are especially quick to judge the speaking voices of women. This obsession bleeds into the music world. The standards for female performers are miles beyond those for men.
Even female singer-songwriters à la Cohen are expected to have impeccable voices. Taylor Swift, for example, has the gloss and sheer celebrity power of a pop star, but she’s a songwriter at heart. After all, she’s been writing her own songs since she was 12 years old. But with the pop star persona comes the expectation that Swift be both “authentic,” which means continuing to write her own material, and also palatable to mainstream audiences, meaning hitting every note at every stadium concert.
Rather than embrace female singers’ natural voices, the music industry’s solution beginning in the late ’90s was a now-ubiquitous software: Auto-Tune. Pop stars like Britney Spears and Ke$ha were criticized for using the technology so blatantly, but the truth was that Auto-Tune dominated the entire musical landscape of the 2000s. Yet it was only until Kanye West’s fourth album, 808s & Heartbreak, was released that listeners could appreciate Auto-Tune as a deliberate stylistic choice rather than a cheap replacement for talent. In other words, it took a man using Auto-Tune to elevate its status.
While female singers who hope to break into the mainstream are expected to sound technically flawless, the range of emotion they can express is restricted. Men can stretch the limits of their voices. They can dip into gravelly lows and airy falsetto. They can wail and scream. They can sound truly ugly in ways that women can’t. Because just as female singers are pressured to be physically attractive, their very voices have to be alluring.
It’s difficult to convey real emotion when you have to simultaneously sound sexy. As a result, female pop artists can come across as somewhat two-dimensional. Lana Del Rey’s distinctive voice, for example, has set her apart from her cohorts at the expense of emotional depth. Even when her lyrics are weighed down with sadness and pain, which is most of the time, her film star warble can prevent listeners from really feeling what she’s singing.
There are indications that times are changing, though. A new crop of young voices has emerged in recent years that has challenged traditional assumptions about how female performers should sound, as well as look.
Teen powerhouse Lorde made a name for herself with “Royals,” a cutting critique of consumerism. She spends most of the song singing in the husky, lower register of her voice, only rising up to a more typical range for the chorus, a rare occurrence in pop music. She turned her back on love entirely until her second album, Melodrama, and even there she sings about love with a cold, appraising eye. There are no fawning love songs, only slyly knowing references to the impermanence of emotion. Billie Eilish, with her baggy, androgynous outfits and quietly menacing songs, refuses to be objectified. And singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett channels male bravado in her music with a cool snarl.
These young women are symbols of a cultural shift that, hopefully, will continue to allow more experimental female voices to enter the music world.
Featured Image by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor