In Spring 2017, I brought Houston-based playwright/performer Josh Inocéncio to my campus—the University of Houston—to perform his solo show Purple Eyes (for more on the event, see “Campus Organizing, or How I Use Theatre to Resist”). Purple Eyes is what Inocéncio calls an “ancestral auto/biographical” performance piece which explores his upbringing as a closeted gay Chicano living in the midst of the cultural heritage of machismo. Following a legacy of solo performance storytelling aesthetics seen in John Leguizamo’s Freak and Luis Alfaro’s Downtown, Inocéncio plays with memory to understand how the United States and Mexico have influenced his family and his own identity formation. Moreover, Purple Eyes explores the intersections of queerness and Chican@ identity alongside the legacy of machismo in his family (For more on the play, see “Queering Machismo from Michoacán to Montrose”).
During my Intro to LGBT Studies course following the performance, students discussed issues of representation and how many of them had never seen a queer Latin@/x play or performance, with some of them having never seen a live play. Many students picked up on how Purple Eyes foregrounds the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. While these discussions were indeed fruitful, what struck me most was how both classes harped on Inocéncio’s use of different linguistic registers. Put simply, what stayed with them was how the performance sounded. My students obsessed over the Spanish in the play, leading me to question why this group of students at a Hispanic-Serving Institution in a city that is over 40% Latin@ had so much trouble whenever Inocéncio spoke Spanish, or the sounds of Latinidad.
In what follows, I discuss how my students heard Purple Eyes. While the play is predominately in English, Inocéncio often code-switches into Spanish and German to more accurately embody particular family members. This blog adds to previous research by Dolores Inés Casillas, Sara V. Hinojos, Marci R. McMahon, Liana Silva, and Jennifer Stoever on the relationship between the Spanish language and non-Spanish speaking Americans. Indeed, my students racialized the Spanish in Purple Eyes while completely disregarding the German in the play. Why?
Drawing from sociology, racialization is the process of imposing racial identities to a social practice or group that might not have identified in such a way. Typically, the dominant group racializes the marginalized group; i.e. Latin@s in the U.S. become racialized by the mainstream. Even so, Latin@s are not a race, but are an ethnic group. Yet, I argue that non-Latin@ Americans view Latin@s through a lens of race which often becomes a sonic one, in which language becomes one of the most overt identity markers. In terms of Spanish, while many races and ethnicities speak the language, in the United States it is often viewed as a way to mark Spanish-speaking Latin@s as Other. In this way, language plays a fundamental role in shaping mainstream ideas about race. According to Dolores Inés Casillas, “For unfamiliar ears, the sounds of Spanish, the mariachi ensemble, and/or accented karaoke all work together to signal brownness, working-class,” and as Jennifer Stoever argues, the sounds of Latinidad indicate “illegality” in the U.S.
Drawing from the intersections of race, language, and racism, the relatively new academic field Raciolinguistics has emerged as a means to explain how people use language to shape their identity (For more, see Raciolinguistics: How Language Shapes Our Ideas About Race). Branching off from Raciolinguistics, I am most interested in exploring how the mainstream hears languages and racializes what they are hearing. The result is that Spanish is seen as Other, meaning that monolingual U.S. listeners hear Spanish-speakers as inherently different and a threat to a mainstream United States cultural and, more importantly, national identity.
Reflecting Inocéncio’s cultural multiplicity, Purple Eyes features English, Spanish, and German strategically used at different moments in the play to reflect the temporality, positionality, and relationship to language of each character that Inocéncio inhabits. While the chapter on his father is entirely in English, the final chapter focusing on Josh himself opens with a monologue in Spanish in which the performer narrates the events of the FIFA World Cup before finally announcing to the crowd that the epilogue is Inocéncio’s journey of young love and heartbreak on his journey of queer discovery. This moment features the longest extended use of Spanish in the play. The remaining Spanish is sprinkled in as Josh code-switches between the two languages for added cultural specificity.
While some of my Spanish-speaking students appreciated hearing a play that reflected their linguistic identities, monolingual English speakers in my class claimed that the Spanish confused them and made it difficult for them to follow certain parts of the play. After several students echoed these thoughts, a student from Mexico without full fluency in English comprehension told others about how her experiences were the exact opposite. She had trouble following some of the parts in English since she is still learning the language. I then pivoted the conversation to discuss how my English-dominant students approached the play with the assumption that English is the norm and a performance on a university campus should reflect this. Case in point: several told me that the show should have been subtitled.
But what was most telling was the following exchange. After several expressed confusion over the Spanish, one particularly woke student from Nigeria raised her hand and said: “I haven’t heard anyone say anything about the German in the play and not being able to follow the play during the German part.” She then noted how, in the United States, Spanish is racialized whereas German is not. In fact, most of the students did not even recall German in the play. Admittedly, the play features far more Spanish than German, but the scene in which Inocéncio speaks German occurs while dramatizing his Austrian grandmother’s abortion. As Inocéncio (as Oma) frantically repeated “Ich kann nicht” (I can’t), my students had no trouble; to use some Millennial vernacular, it was with Spanish that they “couldn’t even.” Arguably, this is the most intense scene in the performance and one that my students wanted to discuss. That the majority of them understood this scene without fully registering the German, coupled with their confusion over lines spoken in Spanish, speaks to not only how race and ethnicity impact how languages are heard in the United States. German is viewed as familiar and accessible whereas Spanish is immediately heard as foreign, i.e. undesirable, not welcome here.
As the Latin@ population continues to grow and the Spanish language becomes an increasingly present reality in U.S. everyday life, audiences must consider possibilities not grounded in an English-only narrative. My experiences with Purple Eyes are not unique. I have witnessed and heard many stories about audiences at mainstream theatre companies who have struggled whenever a play included Spanish. While I don’t claim to have the answers to address this across the nation, as an educator, I question what tools I can give my students to help prepare them for sonic experiences outside of their comfort zone and, specifically, how they become aware of subconscious racialization practices. What will they hear? And, more importantly, how will they react?
Featured Image: Still from Purple Eyes (Ojos Violetas), with permission from Josh Inocencio who retains copyright.
Trevor Boffone is a Houston-based scholar, educator, writer, dramaturg, producer, and the founder of the 50 Playwrights Project. He is a member of the National Steering Committee for the Latinx Theatre Commons and the Café Onda Editorial Board. Trevor has a Ph.D. in Latin@ Theatre and Literature from the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston where he holds a Graduate Certificate in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. He holds an MA in Hispanic Studies from Villanova University and a BA in Spanish from Loyola University New Orleans. Trevor researches the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and community in Chican@ and Latin@ theater and performance. His first book project, Eastside Latinidad: Josefina López, Community, and Social Change in Los Angeles, examines the textual and performative strategies of contemporary Latin@ theatermakers based in Boyle Heights that use performance as a tool to expand notions of Latinidad and (re)build a community that reflects this diverse and fluid identity. He is co-editing (with Teresa Marrero and Chantal Rodriguez) an anthology of Latinx plays from the Los Angeles Theatre Center’s Encuentro 2014 (under contract with Northwestern University Press).
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“Don’t Be Self-Conchas”: Listening to Mexican Styled Phonetics in Popular Culture*–Sara V. Hinojos and Dolores Inés Casillas
Deaf Latin@ Performance: Listening with the Third Ear–Trevor Boffone
If La Llorona Was a Punk Rocker: Detonguing The Off-Key Caos and Screams of Alice Bag–Marlen Rios-Hernández
For the full intro to the series by Michelle Habell-Pallan, click here.
The forum’s inspiring research by scholars/practioners Wanda Alarcón, Yessica Garcia Hernandez, Marlen Rios-Hernandez, Susana Sepulveda, and Iris C. Viveros Avendaño, understands music in its local, translocal and transnational context, and insists upon open new scholarly imaginaries. . .
Current times require us to bridge intersectional, decolonial, and gender analysis. Music, and our relationship to it, has much to reveal about how power operates within a context of inequality. And it will teach us how to get through this moment. –MHP
I am a self-identified Paisa, a Paisa Girl from Playa Larga – my home – in the Eastside of Long Beach, California. The term paisa/s is slang for paisanos (homies) and it references someone who takes pride in listening, dancing, and attending nightclubs where Banda music, corridos, and norteños are performed. I am part of a generation that has been referenced as the Chalinillos; youth with an urban gangsta aesthetic that was influenced by Chalino Sanchez, The Riveras, Saul Viera, Adan Sanchez, Los Dos Grandes, Tigrillo Palma, Los Amos; later came the Alterado, Progressivo (DEL) and now people like El Fantasma, Lenin Ramirez, Alta Consigna, Grupo Codiciado, Jesus Mendoza, and Los Perdidos de Sinaloa.
As they say, “Fierro Parriente!” “Andamos al Millon,” “Pa que vayan y digan” and “Puro Pa Delante!”
In the mid 2000s, besides partying hard in the paisa nightclub music scene, I also partied with several paisa party crews in Long Beach. The songs, “Las Malandrinas,” “Parrandera,” “Rebelde, y Atrevida,” and “Mi Vida Loca” by Jenni Rivera were my anthems. These songs described the music scene we were a part of, and how we situated ourselves within a male-dominated subculture. “La Malandrinas” for instance says that we make a lot of noise, we drink, ask for corridos at clubs (a masculine tradition) and do not care about what people say about us.
Thus, Jenni’s participation in this music genre was important because she created paisa sonic identities for the women in this subculture. “Sonic identities”, is a term that I use to describe the process fans engage in when they use a song to create a nickname and identity for themselves. This is a common practice among party crews and fan clubs. For instance, the nickname that I gave myself was “La Yaquesita” which is a title of a song. My participation in this nightlife shapes my analysis of this subculture. The gender dynamics and negotiations I had to engage with in this space made me an unapologetic feminist (although I did not call myself that at the time) who was fierce and defended herself but who—despite the slut shaming—approached this nightlife through a sex-positive attitude. Our attitude was “Fuck Haters!” and having this mentality was liberating. So, it makes sense that now I write about haters –or what Jonathan Gray calls anti-fans. I am interested in analyzing sonic haterism and how it tries to police Latina women-centered and sex-positive spaces like fan clubs and paisa party crews.
In my dissertation entitled, “Boobs and Booze: Jenni Rivera, the Erotics of Transnational Fandom and Sonic Pedagogies,” the intertwined themes of sound and home emerges via a loud shout-out of my hometown that sounds like “Playa Larga, Baby” or a louder shout out that says “Son Ovarios de Playa Larga, Chaooowww, Baby.” Similar to “Fuck Haters!,” the latter shout-out implies a particular attitude and feminisms rooted in unapologetic paisa chingona-ness. Paisa Chingona-ness is the sonic condition, the rebellious and intoxicating state of being a chingona “rancherota.” Chicana feminists such as Sandra Cisneros and Josefina Lopez have defined and theorized being a chingona in multiple ways. In her poem titled “Chingona,” Lopez for instance defines a chingona as a sex-positive Chicana who refuses to be slut-shamed for owning her fat body, sexuality (literally she loves to be on top), and agency. There are overlaps with how Lopez, Jenni and her fans practice being chingonas; however, the added layer with Paisa Chingona-ness is that Jenni’s music and fandom shapes the way they embody it.
Activist and Writer, Raul Alcaraz Ochoa, has written a piece titled “Jenni Rivera y los 9 Puntos del Feminismo Chingona” here he acknowledges that Chingona Feminism is rooted in the barrio, the hood and is born from within and in response to a machista context, where the priority is always given to men. According to Ochoa, Chingona Feminism is also born from race oppression and class-struggle. Ochoa states that Jenni “dice lo que piensa sin pelos en la lengua, te agrede si eres injusto porque su lengua es una bala que te deja con los huevos estrellados.” My work shows how chingona feminism is also practiced and embraced among fans. I expand on Ochoa’s analysis to think through Paisa Chingona-ness which asks us to listen to the “details” that Chingonas make when they are surrounded by each other.
Heard through my experiences, identifications, and stance toward the world, it makes sense why home manifests itself in the approach that I use to study popular music: that of fandom, that prioritizes fans and their approach to what I call sonic pedagogies. Which is a concept that was inspired by scholars such as Deborah Vargas, Alicia Schmidt Camacho, Jillian Hernandez, Anya Wallace, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Martha Gonzalez. These scholars write about the power of music as “sung theory,” the power of music to create “sonic imaginaries,” or inspire teachings between the artists and the listener, that oftentimes creates “an erotic of feminist solidarity.”
For me, sonic pedagogies is a concept that centers the fan and what John Fiske has called their “textual, enunciative, and semiotic productivity.” Sonic pedagogies allows me to think about the affective and corporeal fan-to-fan teachings that are inspired even when the artist is dead and yet their legacy and conocimientos are being used to teach fans to understand each other. Sonic Pedagogies centers the practice that Lawrence Grossberg explains when he states, that fans give “authority to that which he or she invests in, letting the object of such investments speak for and as him or herself” (59).
Listening to sonic pedagogies asks us to write about music from a different perspective, from the perspective of its fans. Oftentimes we listen and write about music from the perspective, the voice, the body, and lyrics of the artist. But what if we start from their re-interpretation of a song in a YouTube video for instance? What if we start from a fan shout-out during a concert? What if we start from the conversations that emerge when fans talk about their favorite songs to non-fans? What if we make anti-fans our starting point to understand an artist or a music genre? Analyzing music in this way allows us to hear the multiple sonic layers that a song and music in general inspires.
I am also a filmmaker, so the way I understand sound and the reception of music is inspired by how I edit sound for a film. When we edit film, we layer the sound, we usually have at least three layers of sound: the interview (main story and Track 1), music (Track 2), and background noise (Track 3). However, sometimes you can have up to 20 sonic tracks layered at once and, actually, is how I have experienced fandom. There’s a song that we usually are listening to because we identify with it (Track 2), then we add our own conocimiento to the song (Track 1), that conocimiento or what many times turns into “archisme” provokes background noise of solidarity (Track 3), either to show the other fan that you understand, acknowledge, and relate to what they are sharing. Fans ask us to listen to the study of music from a perspective of “love” (Duffet), “magic” (Guy) and “erotics.”
Scholars in the field of fan studies such as Daniel Cavicchi have defined fandom as “not some particular thing one has or does. Fandom is a process of being; it is the way one is” (59 ). Alexandra Vasquez, in particular, reminds us of the importance of “listening to details” when thinking about fandom, music and performance. Sonic Pedagogies requires that I listen to the “details” of audience members, fans, and anti-fans that tell me about how Chicana/ Mexicana/Latina women resist structures of governmentality by questioning gender norms, and traditional ideas about sexuality. In Listening on Detail, Vasquez explains that details are “interruptions that catch your ear, musical tic that stubbornly refuse to go away. They are things you might first dismiss as idiosyncrasies. They are…saludos, refusals, lyrics, arrangements, sounds, grants, gestures, bends in voice” (19). In my work, Jenni chants, removal of clothing, mobile recordings, posters, fliers, fan shirts, and sing alongs, are the details that allows me to examine Jenni Rivera.
For instance, I analyze the deschichadera “removal of bra” ritual that both Jenni and her fans engaged in during concerts. I am fascinated by the deschichadera ritual and Jenni’s concerts in general because these fans are constantly redefining home, embodying Cherrie Moraga’s feminist praxis of “making familia from scratch” (58).
Thus for fans, home is found in the affective, erotic, collective, and intimate aspects of music reception and its sociality. Home is found in fan clubs, fan gatherings, tribute events, living room, and the travels of bumping music in the car. Listening to the details of fans allows me to view audience responses to Jenni’s performance part of Jenni’s own presentation and music, not separate from them. Engaging music through fans allows me to see that songs, concerts, and albums do not end when the music stops.
In “Boobs & Booze,” home also appears in murals, particularly their visual representations of Mexican music. In the vein of Deborah Paredes’s study of Selenidad, I write about the visual politics of Jenni’s remembering, particularly Jenni Rivera Memorial Park, dedicated by the city of Long Beach in 2015. Home appears in the fashion that we decide to dress our bodies in, especially the femme challinillo aesthetic, and homegirl/Pachuca/partygirl look that Jenni performed on stage. We also find home in the memories we make when we listen to a particular song. So for me, listening to” Mi Vida Loca” for instance always bring me back to Long Beach, the barrio that has shaped me as a chingona feminist, scholar, and artivist.
Home is the music that we take with us, the music and sounds that we carry in our backs when we enter white or middle-class dominated spaces where our paisa music is not acknowledged or it is even looked down upon and critiqued for being “too Mexican,” “too chunti,” “too low.” Home and sound makes me think of how people of color co-exist with each other sonically. In the EastSide of Long Beach, for instance, home and sound is black and brown relations, tensions, and solidarity. Home and sound is acknowledging that both corridos, hip-hop, and G-Funk relationally, has formed paisas. I mean, I also get an adrenaline rush when I hear Snoop Dog, Warren G, Nate Dogg, O.T Genasis, and Ladies of Beach City referencing their roots to Long Beach, as Snoop says, “it’s an Eastside thang.”
The recent example of Playa Larga’s black and brown sonic solidarity is Snoop Dog’s recent Instagram video listening to Jenni’s music. Watching two Playa Larga finest artists being fans of each other, despite the differences in music genre, language, and spatial politics (East vs. West) is powerful, it tells us that we listen to each other even when they try to put us against each other. In this video, Snoop Dogg embodies the “We have each other” solidarity with which Gaye Theresa Johnson ends Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity: Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles (189).
Rip jenni rivera- sweet lady n a beautiful voice she will b missed we were supposed to do a song together Im so sad!
— Snoop Dogg (@SnoopDogg) December 10, 2012
Listening to Chingona-ness pushes me to theorize a new framework for anti-fandom, one that centers race, class, sexuality, and is not only about an artist’s music– or what Gray calls the “text” – but also about their bodies and the bodies of the fans, their ontologies, and existence. Focusing particularly on Jenni and her fans allows me to think about gender, sexuality, class, pleasure, music reception in relation to anti-immigrant sentiments, war on drugs, war on poverty, and the war on Latina reproduction and fatness. Jenni as a case study allows me to explore how unapologetic paisa chingona-ness triggers anti-fans, exposes what I am calling agitations and their “agitated responses.” Agitated responses refers to the hater comments that anti-fans (or non-fans) make towards Jenni, (and there are many), while agitation is the carnal disgust that anti-fans display when they police the behavior of Jenni and her fans. In this anti-fandom framework, agitation is the disaffection – the visceral aggression or enmity – that people who hate Jenni and her fans express when they write, say, or gesture agitated responses towards them, a form of sonic haterism.
I entered academia to theorize my home and write the paisa girl epistemology since there is little literature written on our sonic identities, and to show how sonic haterism, in conversation with fandom, allows me to understand the historical, social, and cultural realities working-class Latinas face. Here is how Jenni Rivera once expressed this same intersection in the song “Mi Vida Loca,” which asks listeners to hear what Paisa Chingona-ness sounds like in Playa Larga, her sonic home, and mine too.
Featured Image: Paisa Party Crews in Long Beach, The Myspace Days , courtesy of author
Yessica Garcia Hernandez is a doctoral candidate and filmmaker in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California San Diego. Her scholarship bridges fan studies, sound studies, women of color feminisms, fat studies, girl studies, and sexuality/porn studies to think about intergenerational fans of Mexican regional music. Yessica earned her B.A. in Chicanx Studies from University of California, Riverside and an M.A. in Chicanx and Latinx Studies at California State University Los Angeles. She has published in the Journal of Popular Music, New American Notes Online, Imagining America, Journal of Ethnomusicology, and the Chicana/Latina Studies Journal. Her dissertation entitled, “Boobs and Booze: Jenni Rivera, the Erotics of Transnational Fandom, and Sonic Pedagogies” examines the ways in which Jenni Rivera fans reimagine age, gender, sexuality, motherhood, and class by listening to her music, engaging in fandom, and participating in web communities. She explores the social element of their gatherings, both inside and outside the concert space, and probe how these moments foreground transmissions of Latina power. Yessica’s broader research interests includes paisa party crews, Banda Sinaloense, Contestaciones, and Gordibuena/BBW erotics. She is a co-founder and member of the Rebel Quinceañera Collective, a project that utilizes art, music, photography, creative writing, filmmaking, and charlas to activate spaces for self-expression and radical education by and for youth of color in San Diego.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Listening (Loudly) to Spanish-language Radio—Dolores Inés Casillas
New Wave Saved My Life—Wanda Alarcón
Here at Sounding Out! we like to celebrate World Listening Day (July 18) with a blog series. This year, we bring your attention to the role of listening when it comes to the sounds of the K-12 classroom, and by extension, the school.
Any day in a K-12 school involves movement and sounds day in and day out: the shuffling of desks, the conversations among classmates, the fire drill alarm, the pencils on paper, the picking up of trays of food. However, in many conversations about schools, teaching, and learning, sound is absent.
This month’s series will have readers thinking about the sounds in classrooms in different ways. They will consider race, class, and gender, and how those aspects intersect how we listen to the classrooms of our past and our present. More importantly, the posts will all include assignments that educators at all stages can use in their classrooms.
Time’s up, pencils down, and let’s listen to Shakira Holt‘s playlists, compiled by three of her high school graduates. –Liana Silva, Managing Editor
This past school year, in my roles as a high school teacher who likes what music can do for the classroom environment and as a Link Crew Coordinator who oversees student leaders as they host a mixture of freshman-only and schoolwide events, I frequently found myself sternly censoring black female student contributions to musical playlists. Although I emphasized the criterion of “clean” with increasing exasperation, my students just did not seem to get it. Strangely overlooking “ni**a,” “f***,” and “s**t,” they brought me songs, which, if played, would have gotten me called into the principal’s office, literally. When they triumphantly approached me with “clean” versions, they typically cast not a moment’s thought towards the lyrical content of drugging, drinking, fighting, and sexing, topics no less hazardous for campus play. Clearly, my students and I were working from battling notions of “clean.”For them, “clean” was a concept fully bound up in and therefore fully resolved by language alone; in their view of things, to excise the problematic language was to expel the problem. For me, however, “clean” also included ideas such as “not sipping, smoking, popping, or shooting anything,” “not beating, kicking, hitting, shooting, or stabbing anyone,” as well as “not offering a play-by-play of actual or desired intimate activity.” Then there were some of the songs’ seemingly innocuous but just as troubling projections of sad, turbulent, co-dependent visions of love which often turn on the most toxic, tired iterations of normative gender expectations and almost always wound me up to deliver long, moralistic speeches on relationships.
Feeling every bit the forty-year old school marm that I am, I remain abundantly clear on my objections to these songs for general classroom and campus use. However, I confess that my effectual silencing of these young women never sat quite right with me. It nagged me with worries over what I was really refusing to hear, to make space for by shutting off the voices of these young black women in this way.
However outré, daring, or trouble-making I may fancy myself as a scholar and thinker, when placed within the K-12 context, I am, it turns out, your average, workaday campus censor. I hypocritically feign alarm at cussing. I fake-clear my throat with loud ahems whenever that blue talk ventures into the X-rated. While I fully respect the creativity and naughtiness of student-to-student speech and spend a good bit of time pretending not to hear what is meant to be conversation among peers, there is a limit I feel compelled to enforce. Whenever the volume grows too loud for me to pretend not to have heard or when the word choice becomes spectacularly adventurous, the expectations of the classroom/campus setting demand my intervention. Dutifully, I step in as judge and censor.
Nor is this a singular feature of schools. Places and spaces of all kinds depend heavily upon the extent to which both occupants and itinerants adhere to place-based expected modes of behavior and speech. It is important to note that even when enforced and observed by people of color, these behavior and speech norms remain overwhelmingly middle-class and white in origin and character, which can lead to interesting, sometimes alarming, and even deadly implications for people of color who enter “allegedly public” spaces without observing these norms, as Jennifer Lynn Stoever points out. In the Introduction to The Sonic Color Line: Race & the Cultural Politics of Listening, Stoever argues that in failing to act or speak in ways that reflect the place-based expected modes of behavior and speech governing such spaces, people of color frequently run the risk of falling prey to what she calls “white Americans’…implicit, sometimes violent, control over…an ostensibly ‘free,’ ‘open,’ and ‘public’ space” (2). This risk, as Stoever illustrates, often exposes non-compliant people of color to condemnation, confrontation, and even bodily harm.
The collision of place/space, race, and gender is a natural element of life in the U.S. and has become a regular and needful facet of contemporary national discourse. In a brilliant analysis of this collision as it took place in the 2013 George Zimmerman trial, Regina Bradley explores how the presence of Rachel Jeantel laid bare the way in which enforcement of place-based norms is often racialized and gendered. Rachel Jeantel is the young black woman whose body, comportment, and speech set off waves of derision and controversy as she testified in court regarding the last living moments of her close friend, Trayvon Martin. Bradley recalls how critics ignored Jeantel’s anguish, her grief, and her trauma in order to train excessive focus on her “refusal and inability to conform to expected cultural and aural scripts of black womanhood within the confines of the courtroom.” The courtroom’s “cultural and aural scripts of black womanhood” demand overt demonstrations of respect, if not outright intimidation, passivity, and general humility in tone and demeanor which would typically compensate for any deviations from Standard American English speech norms. Jeantel’s speech played only by the rules of what Brittney Cooper has called “her own particular, idiosyncratic black girl idiom” as created by her “Haitian and Dominican working-class background, her U.S. Southern upbringing, and the three languages—Haitian Kreyol…Spanish, and English—that she speaks,” and not by the rules of SAE. Thus lacking both the gentle mien expected of black women in court and an acceptable mainstream speech pattern, Jeantel suffered a broad range of brutal racist, classist, and sizeist critiques centering not only on her attitude and her speech, but also on her weight, her skin tone, her hair, and her general unfitness for public consumption.
Like the courtroom, the K-12 classroom and campus are place-based contexts that possess their own “expected cultural and aural scripts.” These scripts prescribe and police such speech elements as volume, tone, syntax, diction, and content. Like courtrooms and other spaces, the K-12 classroom and campus can easily become oppositional, and sometimes downright antagonistic, towards the young black female people who occupy these spaces while speaking their “own particular, idiosyncratic black girl idiom[s].” The idiosyncrasies of their idioms can so completely transgress the K-12 cultural and aural script that these young black female people often lose the right of being heard altogether, of achieving any attention at all beyond opprobrium for their transgressiveness. Bradley writes pointedly of Jeantel, “Her emotionally charged question ‘are you listening?’ jolted not only [George Zimmerman’s attorney, Don] West but those watching the trial. Were we listening? What were we listening for?” I find overwhelming resonance here because when I reframe my students’ playlists and song choices as alternative types of “idiosyncratic black girl idiom,” I must also reframe myself as an agent of what Bradley calls “hyper-respectability,” a source of censure and scorn. I must then answer Jeantel and Bradley’s questions honestly: For most of the year, I was not listening to my black female students. Too preoccupied with listening for speech that matched the cultural and aural scripts of the K-12 classroom and campus, I repeatedly silenced idiosyncratic black girl idiom, enacting an all too-frequent response to black female voices.
This sin against my students becomes even clearer when I consider it in the context of terms set forth by Robin James in “How not to listen to Lemonade: music criticism and epistemic violence.” James discusses at length how music criticism can inflict great violence upon “black women’s cultural and creative work” by “recentering [white] men as authorities and experts.” When white men are recentered as omniscient, innately generic, and consummately universal arbiters of culture and artistry, cultural and creative work emerging from outside of their personal and cultural frames of reference become subjected to filters, demands, and expectations often inapplicable or inappropriate to the work but especially to the black female experiences and vantage points from which that work arises. Hence the “epistemic violence” of which James’ title speaks. Without difficulty, I can replace James’ “black women’s cultural and creative work” with Cooper’s “idiosyncratic black girl idiom,” or even have my own go at it with “black female vision and voice.” I can then also substitute James’ “recenter[ed white] men with “recentered elder/teacher/agent of hyper-respectability.” Having done so, I arrive once again at the epistemic and ontological violence I enacted upon my students—for good reason, of course, but to the same unfortunate end.
My intention is not to intimate that I should have green lighted their every choice and let their music go blaring from the loud speaker at lunch while high school kids enjoyed our classic recess days, during which big kids actually had fun at lunch, dancing and tossing the football (girls, too!) and jumping double-dutch. In retrospect, I see now that there was a way to keep that aural space PG-13 AND to listen deeply to the songs that mattered most to these young women, to hear not only what the songs were saying to them but more importantly to hear what they were saying through the songs. I am saddened that I could have been generating ways throughout the year to center and amplify the very black female student voices I stifled and silenced far too often, for far too long.
This post is an attempt at redemption for all my huffy exasperation and my quickness to relieve them of the aux cord this school year. Enlisting the help of the three seniors (now graduates) who bore the brunt of all my aux cord snatching, I have set about putting things right. I asked them to compile playlists of their top five songs, along with the lyrics. I then asked these young women either to come in and speak with me about their songs or to submit written commentary about the music they chose. I took off all restrictions and encouraged them to select whatever songs their hearts desired.
When I first imagined the critical value of engaging in this project, I figured that I might be able to mine their playlists and commentaries for some Patricia Hill Collins-esque crystallization of black female thought as it exists at this moment, late in the second decade of the new millennium, among high school seniors on the cusp of black womanhood in a country which remains steadfastly anti-woman, anti-black, and anti-black woman. That is indeed a worthy project and one which deserves completion. For this post, however, I simply want to listen to my students at long last. I want to listen closely, and I want to listen deeply. I want others to listen to them, too.
Attending fully to the thoughts and words and feelings of black female people, is but one means of expressing a form of love I call philogynoir. Clearly, this term plays with and off of Moya Bailey’s misogynoir, which she defined upon its 2010 inception as a “the particular brand of hatred directed at black women in American visual & popular culture.” Philogynoir is my attempt to rise to the challenge of naming, which Bailey identified as essential to addressing social ills. She told Mic.com last year, “I think we have to refine language in a lot of different ways so we can actually come up with solutions that help the communities we want to address,” she said. “When you use language that’s generic or unspecific you can get at some of the problem, but not all of it.”
If misogynoir calls out racist-sexist hatred aimed squarely at black women so that that hatred can be challenged and ultimately eliminated, then the concept of philogynoir provides a name for conscious gestures of love towards those same people—words, acts, and artifacts of acknowledgement, admiration, and adoration which have the potential to neutralize and ultimately undo the effects of the hatred. Deep listening, as I imagine it, in its potential to affirm, to humanize, to dignify, and to amplify, can be activated as a powerful form of philogynoir.
Other than the chance to redress my teacherly wrongs, the greatest honor I experienced in this philogynoir project was the opportunity to attend to the hurts of my students by listening to their distress, their agony. To be sure, their playlists and commentaries demonstrate that the idiosyncratic black girl idiom is highly equipped to express a full range of feelings, thoughts, experiences, and yearnings, so I hesitate to make any move which might define and confine the black female experience or its idiosyncratic idiom only in terms of pain and trauma, especially when there is such little space for black girl pain beyond its most fetishized pop culture iterations. The pain and the trauma are there, however, and deserve witness and respect.
I call attention to the pain and the trauma in my students’ idiosyncratic black girl idiom because it is precious. These are sacred hurts, holy injuries—not because they were inflicted by a deity, but because where they touched the lives of these young women, they became creative forces, shaping the signs and symbols by which these young women will know and be known, by which they will call and be called. There is tragedy here, yes, and terrible misery—but there is also mystery and great, thrilling, healing power, as well. My fervent wish for these young women is that with time, they will come to embrace the mystery and to know healing in every hurting place. My prayer is that they will each, in time, wield that creative force of their own accord to make something beautiful and lasting in the genius of their own idiosyncratic black girl idiom.
What follows are the playlists, with commentary, of these three young black women (whose names I have changed), both bespeaking and spoken in the “idiosyncratic black girl idiom” of each individual young woman, articulating each unique voice and vision and innately honoring the experiences that have shaped them. I have included no critiques of the songs or even of their commentaries. For the time being, these playlists represent a sacred line in the sand across which I will not venture with critique.
I am simply listening now. I’m listening to them, and I’m listening for them…in solidarity and in love.
- Long Song Away by Kevin Ross
This whole song is jazzy, especially the intro. It’s about a girl in the rush of it all. I connected to it because I had so many responsibilities at home. I never had time for fun. My life was joyless. I was like a robot. I finally had to have a conversation with my mom and let her know that she would have to let me live a little and be young. There had to be some kind of fun in my life. This song is about slowing down and just letting the record play.
- Confidently Lost by Sabrina Claudio
This song speaks to me. I’ve been lost before and I got to a place where I was comfortable with my lostness. I love the part about “I don’t need you to find me cuz I’m not hiding anything.” This is a good soul/R&B song about how hard it is to figure out what will bring you fulfillment but that’s not a bad place to be. Being lost is not necessarily anything negative. It means you’re going somewhere.
- Redbone by Childish Gambino
This song makes me want to put on some skates and roll-bounce to it. A lot of people like the groove on this song, but they miss the deeper meaning. It’s telling people to wake up and be known for who you are. It has a lot of references to the Black Lives Matter Movement and the dangers involved in being black. When he says “scandalous” and “creep up on you,” he’s talking about police brutality and racism, especially with the president we have now, and when he says “greenlight,” that’s a code for “wake up” as in “be woke.”
- Location by Khalid
This one is about early teenage love and it’s talking about how we are all too attached to our electronics, so when he says “send me your location,” he’s talking about using the electronics as a way to get to face-to-face communication.
- Put It On Me by Jah Rule feat. Lil Mo & Vita
I like this song maybe because I was born in them days. It’s about a thug and his ride-or-die chick. I like the part when he says, “Every thug needs a lady.” But this song actually means more to me than just the song. In my family, I have many family members who have ties to gangs. I’m looking out for my little brother and doing everything I can to keep him from that life. One of the things we do is perform in the house. We always do this song, like we act it out and everything. So I always think of my brother when I hear this song, especially the part where he says, “Where would I be without you?” I’m that person for my brother. If I wasn’t there for him, he’d be in a gang. I also have a close friend who used to be affiliated, but she’s not anymore. I think about her on the part where it says, “A tear for a tear,” because when she cries, I cry.
- Coming Out Strong by Future & The Weekend
I chose this song because it reminds me that no matter what, I can never give up on myself even if I’m in a bad position in life.
- Do For Love by TuPac
I like this song because it tells a story and the way TuPac loves the girl and never gave up on her….I wish someone could do the same for me.
I chose these two songs by this particular singer because she talks about love in a different aspect compared to everyone else these days. Her take on love is different, like it’s more thoughtful and more mature. It’s not just sex and drama.
- Candy by Cameo
I chose this song because I just have to have some funk in my life. LOL
- Ride of Your Life by Tinashe
I like the beat of this song and it’s kind of catchy in a way.
- Habits (Stay High) by Tove Lo
I chose this song because after my first love broke my heart, I developed bad habits because my heart was traumatized.
- Kiss It Better by Rihanna
I wish someone could kiss my heart better, but it seems like everyone is the same.
- Party Monster by The Weekend
After my bad habits formed like having sex with no love interest hoping it would make me feel better some type of way….This song talks about sex, drugs, and waking up next to someone and not really knowing them.
- The Letter by Kehlani
“‘The Letter’ by Kehlani is featured on her album You Should Be Here. It was released in April of 2015. The song speaks on a loved one who abandoned Kehlani at a young age. She references her mother, and it goes through the motions of abandonment and feeling unwanted. In the song, she says,
Why bring me into the light?
Must have done something
To make you want to run and hide
Why oh why didn’t you just live your life?
And every girl needs a mother, and dammit, I needed you.
I chose this song because it was the first time I felt like I could personally and truly relate to art. My mother left my life when I was 15. Similar to Kehlani in the song, I had so many things going on in my head for years. But then I heard the song…and it said everything I didn’t know how to say at the time. I blamed myself like she did for a while, and I questioned her motives every day. My mother left during a crucial stage of my childhood, and it’s something I still don’t know how to recover from. The experience in this song plays a role in my story because it showed me that I’m not the only one, and that I had a choice to let the loss make me or break me. I chose for it to make me stronger.”
- Keep Ya Head Up by Tupac
“Keep Ya Head Up” by Tupac was featured on his album Strictly for My N.I.G.G.A.Z. which debuted in February of 1993. This song talks about a lot of issues in today’s society but particularly women’s roles. He speaks on rape culture and women’s rights.
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women — do we hate our women?
I think it’s time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women
And since a man can’t make one
He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one
So will the real men get up?
I know you’re fed up, ladies, but keep ya head up
I chose this song because it relates to my womanhood. Tupac speaks on our lesser value in today’s society and our mistreatment. Women are allowed to be raped without any repercussions and we are constantly STILL fighting for our own rights, even today.
- 1st of Tha Month by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony
“1st of Tha Month” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony is featured on their 1999 Eternal album. The song centers around receiving welfare checks in lower income areas and how the community rejoices.
Wake up, wake up, wake up
It’s the 1st of the month
So get up, get up, get up
So cash your checks and come up
I chose this song because I know that feeling, of not having much to eat all month. Sometimes you could feel that emptiness and you resort to doing things you wouldn’t normally do if you weren’t put in that situation. Getting those checks brought solace to my household. That economic struggle made me who I am, and made me appreciate so much. But the 1st of the month… The whole hood would feel that deposit.
- Weary Blues by Louis Armstrong
“Weary Blues” by Louis Armstrong was released in the year of 1925 and is featured on his Jazz Collected album, collaborating with Hot Five and Hot Seven. The song feels like soul. With the rhythm, all the way to the emotion, you can feel celebration. I chose this song because it reminds me of Louisiana itself. It reminds me of Mardi Gras, the crawfish, the Southern lingo. It reminds me of my Southern culture which plays a huge role in my life.
- Wishing by Edo G feat. Masta Ace
“Wishing” by Edo G and Masta Ace is featured on Edo G’s album, My Own Worst Enemy, which released in 2004. The song speaks about problems reflected in the system, that need to be addressed. Being lied to by presidents, lack of healthcare, blacks being murdered, drugs, and many other issues. In the first verse Masta Ace says,
I wish the president would stop lying
Black babies would stop crying
And young brothers would stop dying
I wish the police would stop killing
Politicians stop stealing and acting like they not dealing
When they know they got bricks in the street
I’ve chosen this song, because it speaks about problems that often are ignored that go on within my community. It also speaks about political corruption, which is something I care about. These issues affect me as an American because they are American issues. Being black and low income, you are subjected to a lot of different deprivations. This song highlights them and throws up a red flag. For change.
Featured image: “Afro Punk Fest 2013” by Flickr user J-No, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Shakira Holt is a lifelong Los Angeles resident and teaches literature on the secondary level. She earned a doctorate degree in English from the University of Southern California and works primarily in the area of black women’s literature and culture. o
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
A Listening Mind: Sound Learning in a Literature Classroom–Nicole Furlonge
**This post was co-authored by Marit J. MacArthur and Lee M. Miller
Like it or not, we are now accustomed to contemporary pop vocalists manipulating their voices using Autotune and other tools or effects for pitch correction. We may exult in it, and congratulate ourselves on our sophisticated appreciation of the options available to the contemporary vocalist. In another mood, we may scream for low-fi and acoustic music, feel cynical about the possibility that we might ever hear an unmediated voice, live or recorded (if we ever did), and/or laugh off the notion of authenticity in performance entirely. Of course, rather than tricking the audience or trying to sound somehow “better” than they are, many performers manipulate their voices to pose questions about the nature of performance—Reggie Watts and Anna Deavere Smith come readily to mind—and to test essentialist assumptions about and perceptions of voice and sound.
Watts, in an exemplary 2012 TED Talk, plays with the different sorts of authority and affect conveyed by, among other voices: upper-class-British-absurd-explanatory, affectively-meaningful-nonsense-foreign-language, and caz-hip-hop-introducing-a-song-chat. Inhabiting and playing with different voices, he amuses listeners into recognizing how much intonation—the rise and fall of pitch—and other acoustic features affect our perception of a speaker’s voice, and how much we expect people to speak in ways that match our assumptions about their identities.
We cannot all be so talented at vocal imitation, however. And in sound, voice and performance studies concerned with speech, machine-assisted manipulation of vocal recordings—which we term “vocal deformance”—is much less common than in the creative industries. A playful approach to vocal deformance, as a critical and creative practice, has much to teach us about our perceptions of speech in general, and performative speech in particular. Too often, when we use archival poetry recordings in our teaching, they may reify an idea that students are often loathe to relinquish: a poem is a finished art object, weighted with authorial intention and biographical significance, with one possible interpretation (the instructor’s). When we play a single canonical recording of T.S. Eliot reading The Waste Land in 1946, for instance, his particular intonation, together with assumptions that he was a stuffy, overeducated, repressed snob, can foreclose the possibility of a fresh encounter with the many voices of the poem and a multitude of interpretations.
Using vocal deformance in the classroom and in our own research and scholarship, we can unsettle overdetermined readings of poems, essentialist assumptions about the poets who speak them and questions of poetic authority, and recover the crucial oral components of poetry. Below we offer some examples of vocal deformance of poetry readings, and consider the potential and limits of this technique for teaching and research with recordings of performative speech. As John Hyland wrote in Sounding Out! in 2014, “The act of listening to recorded poetry … poses particular analytic challenges, which become more complex when the politics of identity are brought to bear on … questions of voice and poetry.” Among these challenges are essentialist assumptions, both about identity and recording medium, which are difficult to avoid when we listen. Hyland concludes that, when we listen to recordings, “the poet’s voice falsely takes on an authoritative ‘aura,’ as Walter Benjamin used that word”; one way to counter to this is to listen to the same poem read by the poet at different points in their career, in different contexts, as Hyland does with three recordings of Amiri Baraka’s “Black Dada Nihilismus.” Another approach is to play with recordings.
The concept of deformance dates to a 1999 essay by Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels. They take inspiration from Emily Dickinson, who sometimes liked to read poems backward, for the potential insights of reading against the form, scrambling the original sequence, and so on. According to McGann and Samuels, Dickinson’s
critical model is performative, not intellectual [. . . ]. it is anti-theoretical: not because it is opposed to theory (i.e., speculative thought), but because it places theory in a subordinated relation to practice. Deformative moves reinvestigate the terms … [of] critical commentary [, with] dramatic exposure of subjectivity as a live and highly informative option of interpretive commentary, if not indeed one of its essential features. [our italics]
Too often in the literature class room, the subjectivity of interpretation is something of a problem. While we might initially encourage a somewhat fluffy reader-response discussion of a poem, eventually we might also worry that students are simply wandering too far from it, following their own random associations with a phrase or metaphor, without learning to parse the rich intricacy of the whole poem. One effect of vocal deformance is that it makes space for the playful response, and also keeps bringing students back to the telling phrase, to the words of the poem, imagining what difference it makes if they are said in different ways, trying on different interpretations, as it were.
While vocal deformance can be applied to any performative speech, it particularly lends itself to poetry recordings. Poetry is, of course, an oral form with a fraught relationship between text and performance, and poetry reading styles are often perceived to be highly conventional, so that we feel we are listening to a Poem rather than a particular poem. From a literary and performance studies perspective, what could be more tiredly familiar than a canonical recording of a canonical poem by a canonical poet in a conventional style of poetry reading that deadens the audience to the charms and nuances of that poem? And how can we do something productive and interesting with the (sometimes extremely) idiosyncratic subjectivity of student responses to canonical texts?
As an interpretive practice, vocal deformance opens up new possibilities for testing assumptions about performance, poetic authority and gender, and, potentially, about race, class, education, region, and canonicity. Is The Waste Land (1922) the deadly serious poem that many readers often take it to be, partly because it is presented to them as an immensely influential Modernist monolith? How does T.S. Eliot’s seemingly grim reading of it, and our perception of his style, contribute to such an interpretation of the poem? After all, the working title of the poem was “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), and it includes many different voices or speakers, from the clairvoyant Madame Sosistris to Tiresias. What better way to defamiliarize and exploit the authority of the poem than to deform Eliot’s authoritative reading voice?
How do we respond to the now-canonical voice of Eliot reading the opening lines of The Waste Land, “April is the cruellest month, breeding / lilacs out of the dead land”?
Okay. Now what if we raise his pitch? Is he suddenly his own great-aunt? What does the same lament mean, spoken by a voice that sounds like an elderly woman?
And if we leave his pitch alone, but speed up his speaking rate, does he suddenly sound like an old-school radio announcer, the poem a deranged weather forecast?
In terms of digital humanities research, a refreshing aspect of vocal deformance is that it avoids some of the easy and misleading reassurances of the empirical move. It’s not that it only clarifies what we thought we were hearing (as visualizing intonation through pitch contours can), but that it encourages multiplicity in listening.
Vocal deformance is essentially a playful strategy for defamiliarization that reminds us, in many ways, of the subjective, creative, even arbitrary nature of interpretation. In this, it has clear affinities with the OULIPO movement (which Dickinson’s practice of reading backwards presages). It may help us imagine, create and respond to alternative sequences and versions of recorded canonical texts—and to any apparently stable, singular performance of a text. The art of the glitch is one deformative practice, with the goal countering screen essentialism, the unreflective assumption that a digital artefact is immutable, stable and coherent. For an example of glitching photographs, see Trevor Owens’s “Glitching Files for Understanding: Avoiding Screen Essentialism in Three Easy Steps,” and Michael Kramer’s blog post about using audio deformance in a digital folk music history seminar at Northwestern University, “Distorting History to Make It More Accurate,” which demonstrates some potential insights gained by glitching newspaper images, photographs and music (Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue”). John Melillo and Johanna Skibsrud’s “Two Sides for Wallace Stevens,” on Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room site, also offers a beguiling example of audio deformance.
Most deformative practices work with text and image, however, and the few that manipulate recordings introduce noise, skipped phrases, repetition, etc., usually without changing the acoustic features of the voice. It is well worth applying deformance more often to speech, not only in linguistics and the neurobiology of speech perception, but in humanistic study of performative speech because our perception of speech is nothing if not subjective, not to say mysterious, for two reasons.
First, our expectations of what we will hear influence what we do hear, from simple sounds to complex language comprehension. Often these expectations, which can be visual, auditory, cultural, etc., have been naturalized by the listener over time as unconscious reactions. Though many have anecdotal experience of this phenomenon (see an example about a black student, a white teacher, and a black student-teacher disagreeing on what the student said in a 2012 Sounding Out! piece by Christina Sharpe), it is has been demonstrated in many experiments as well. For instance, our perception of foreign-accented speech changes rapidly as we hear a few sentences and calibrate our internal expectations, as shown by Clarke and Garret’s 2004 study “Rapid Adaptation to Foreign-accented English.” And, according to Richard Warren’s “Perceptural Restoration of Missing Speech Sounds” (1970), “when natural speech is interrupted by noisy gaps like a cough or a slammed door, we unknowingly “fill in” the noise, vividly hearing speech sounds that do not exist acoustically. This phenomenon arises both from linguistic expectations as well as our deep familiarity with basic speech acoustics, as shown in Shahin, Bishop, and Miller’s “Neural mechanisms for illusory filling-in of degraded speech.” Similarly, in an illusion called the McGurk effect—noted by Harry McGurk and John MacDonald in 1976—just seeing a talker’s lip movements changes the perception of speech sounds categorically, say from “buck” to “duck.”
Though much of this reshaping of our acoustic perception happens unconsciously, we can also profoundly alter what we hear through selective attention. Particularly in everyday acoustic environments, we hear speech better when we expect it, and when it matches our specific expectations: from a given location, from a certain talker or type of talker, at a certain pitch, and so on (See “Speech Recognition in Adverse Conditions: A Review” by Mattys, Davis, et al. 2012). Perceptual filters fundamentally constrain our experience: if we attend to a talker in one ear, we may not even realize when a second talker in the other ear switches from English to German, as Cherry concluded in “Some Experiments on the Recognition of Speech” in 1953. Social and cultural knowledge also changes what we hear. Listening to someone whom a listener visually perceives as a “non-native speaker” can make speech sound not only more “accented” (see Donald Rubin’s “Nonlanguage Factors Affecting S Judgments of Nonnative English-Speaking Teaching Assistants” from 1992)—what we might call a subjective quality—but, as Molly Babel and Jamie Russell found in 2015’s “Expectations and Speech Intelligibility,” it can also trigger speech processing reactions that make the speech less intelligible to the listener making visual judgments regarding accented speech.
Given what we know about the brain, the fact that expectations affect perception—of recorded voices reading poems, in this case—should not come as a surprise. A growing consensus holds that the brain’s job is not merely to represent the world; rather it strives to predict the world, make inferences about it, and correct those expectations whenever a mismatch is detected (see Knill and Pouget’s “The Bayesian brain: the role of uncertainty in neural coding and computation”  and Karl Friston’s 2010 “The free-energy principle: a unified brain theory?”) In somewhat familiar environments and situations (pretty much everything after infancy), predictive inference is far more efficient than continually rendering the perceptual world de novo. This means that vocal deformance—particularly when it manipulates a known voice, as with canonical poets, or a familiar way of speaking, as with conventional poetry reading styles—waves a red flag at the brain. Change wakes up the quiescent, habitual brain to something new and potentially informative, because the voice does not fit our expectations for what the person would or should sound like. Listen to Reggie Watts!
This effect can also operate inversely; that is, if we do not expect someone to have a particular voice, we may adjust the stories we tell ourselves about our perceptions, to better match our expectations. In musicology, we might think of Nina Eidsheim’s article on the racialized reception of opera singer Marian Anderson, the first African American to sing at New York’s Metropolitan Opera:
the timbre of her voice has routinely (if often admiringly) been characterized as ‘black,’ … [despite] classical music’s minimal indulgence of individual style … this distinction [has] to be based on an assumption that the black body is intrinsically different from the white body and that even when emitting a timbre recognized as classical, the resonance of a singer’s black body is evident (3, 4).
Certainly, as Jennifer Stoever writes, “listening [is] an interpretive site where racial difference is coded, produced, and policed” (62). The same is true of gender difference and many other identity markers and cultural factors related to authority and authenticity. As Shai Burstyn notes in the article “In Quest of the Period Ear,” about attempts to imagine how contemporary audiences experienced medieval music, “culture plays a highly significant—though not exclusive—role in shaping the cognitive skills of its members” (695). If it is remarkably difficult to escape our stereotypical expectations and perceptions of what a person’s voice “should” sound like, that is partly because our brain uses such expectations to make predictions about our sonic experience. We cannot overcome our expectations through good will alone, and engaging with these issues in the classroom, which can be challenging, also provides an opportunity to help students think critically about essentialism and voice, for those moments when a student in the back of the room mutters in surprise that Langston Hughes “doesn’t sound black,” or exclaims that Walt Whitman “doesn’t sound gay.” Though it is not designed to assess stereotyping in speech perception, the Harvard implicit bias test is a good way to engage students in questions of cultural bias and perception [also, see “So You Flunked a Racism Test. Now What?”].
Furthermore, our affective responses to acoustic, non-verbal qualities of speech matter tremendously to our interpretation of verbal semantics, of the meaning of the words spoken. According to voice perception research in Foundations of Voice Studies: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Voice Production and Perception by Jody Kreiman and Diana Sidtis, when we listen to speech, “[s]ome authors … have claimed that normal adults usually believe the tone of voice rather than the words…. For example, the contrast in ‘I feel just fine’ spoken in a tense, tentative tone might be politely ignored, while, ‘I’m not angry’ spoken in hot anger would not” (304). The teacher’s boring tone of voice on the Peanuts cartoon makes the point.
In other words, we pick up on the affective meaning of a speaker’s tone of voice, and weigh it against the semantic meaning of the words spoken. While Kreiman and Sidtis argue that tone cannot be reduced to intonation patterns, “the fundamental frequency of the human voice [pitch] … heads the list of important cues for emotional meanings” (311). Pitch manipulation, then, changes the affective meaning of speech. Tone of voice is also influenced by other acoustic features, including speaking rate or tempo, and rhythm. In poetry recordings, the poet’s tone of voice influences the listener’s interpretation of a poem.
Two fundamental intonation patterns are rising or falling pitch. In American English, relatively high or relatively low pitch at the end of an utterance, compared to the beginning and middle, seems to carry distinct meanings, as demonstrated by Janet Pierrehumbert and Julia Hirschberg. They developed the ToBI (Tones and Break Indices) system for marking the prosody or intonation of speech. Rising intonation can make any utterance sound like a question, whether it is one or not. A relatively high pitch at the end of an utterance—called a high boundary tone—can make the speaker sound less confident or assertive, and more open to other’s opinions. Rising intonation implies that more is to come, that the utterance is not conclusive or concluded, that it should be understood in connection to the next utterance, and sometimes, that the speaker seeks the listener’s agreement before proceeding.
Uptalk, notably practiced among Generation Xers and now millennials, sounds conciliatory, agreeable and open, on the one hand, and lacking in confidence and authority, on the other—depending on the listener and the context. Marybeth Seitz-Brown argues that criticizing uptalk “implies that if women just spoke like men, our ideas would be valuable … [and] sexist listeners would magically understand us, and we would be taken seriously. But the problem is not with feminized qualities, of speech or otherwise, the problem is that our culture pathologizes feminine traits as something to be ashamed of or apologize for.”
Conversely, women can be criticized when they sound too much like men; see “Why Do So Many People Hate the Sound of Hillary Clinton’s Voice?” Falling intonation—and ending an utterance on a relatively low pitch, or a low boundary tone, implies conclusion, closure and confidence. The utterance, such intonation implies, finishes the argument (if there is one), does not seek the listener’s agreement or opinion, and suggests that this utterance can be understood on its own, without connection to subsequent utterances. Donald Trump, for example, is fond of falling intonation and low boundary tones (for a parody of masculine confident declarative intonation, have a listen at Troy McClure from The Simpsons.)
Of course, not all women use uptalk, and not all men use falling intonation with low boundary tones. In American culture, for better or worse, low boundary tones do seem to carry a tone of authority. And in poetry reading as well. Eliot’s original, and now canonical, reading of the opening line of The Waste Land, “April is the cruellest month,” uses falling intonation, so that it sounds like a confident assertion, with a low boundary tone on “month.”
“[B]reeding / lilacs out of the dead land” sounds like a steady, inevitable process, ending on a slightly higher relative pitch, implying that there is more to come, and that the phrase should be understood in connection to the next line, “mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.”
What is so compelling and seemingly authoritative about Eliot’s reading style? In some basic sense, the falling intonation of the first phrase does it. Why does it strike many contemporary listeners as pompous? How might we undercut the seeming authority of the Eliotic voice? Make him do uptalk. Here we have simply inverted his intonation.
Suddenly he sounds doubtful. The opening line becomes a question—“April is the cruellest month[?]”—instead of a confident statement. Suddenly, Eliot himself expresses the skepticism or confusion many an undergraduate has felt—before we encountered this poem, did we not assume that spring, the return of life and fertility, is a cheerful escape from winter? And his deformed recital of “breeding / Lilacs out the dead land” suddenly sounds more like an agonized complaint, expressing the painful, reluctant awakening of desire in one who had found the dull sleep of winter comforting. Inverting the typical poetic authority of falling intonation into uptalk may embolden readers to entertain very different readings of the poem’s opening.
The editors of Poetry Archive had hopes of stimulating listeners of The Waste Land when they made available a 1935 recording of the poem, claiming: “Whilst the sound quality is understandably not so good, the recording is fascinating for Eliot’s faster, more energetic rendition. Listening to this urgent interpretation blows the dust of this iconic poem and helps us encounter it afresh.” However, if the fundamental falling intonation pattern of Eliot’s reading style doesn’t change—and overall, it doesn’t, between the 1935 and 1946 recordings—his voice may remain, for listeners, an aloof poetic authority.
Falling intonation with low boundary tones, then, is a fundental tone of poetic authority. Listen to Adrienne Rich reading from her poem, “What Kind of Times Are These” (1995), which leads the reader to a place “between two stands of trees … near … [where] the persecuted / … disappeared into the shadows.” She insists, “this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,” and concludes, “to have you listen at all it’s necessary / to talk about trees.”
She sounds like she means it. Rich has to write poems about nature, her tone implies, to wake people up to the political horrors of the American past and present. Poetry as a form, in pastoral guise, allows her to sneak in political content, potentially grabbing the attention of people who might only listen to poetry if they think it is safely, simply about nature. (Click here to hear the entire poem, starting at 4:01.)
When we invert her intonation, turning it into uptalk, she sounds as if she is questioning the wisdom of this approach, and/or chiding her listeners for making her take it. In this case, uptalk exerts a different kind of authority, the challenging question.
Is it ethical to manipulate the intonation and other vocal qualities on poetry recordings, for the purposes of teaching and research? Obviously it would not be, if we were to present the manipulated recordings as the authentic voice of a poet. And all peoples have the right to protect culturally sensitive recordings, such as sacred songs, music, dances and prayers; see “Native American Intellectual Property Issues.” Otherwise, potential conflicts are similar to those with sampling in the music industry (See Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola’s Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling ). Vocal deformance, however, can help remind us that no single reading of a poem, by the poet or someone else, is the ultimately authoritative one.
In teaching writing, we (the authors) sometimes ask our students to explore alternative methods of presenting the same material. This can be as simple as writing the same sentence, the thesis for instance, in three different ways, or it can involve a different format. Write a poem, record oneself reading it, then try to represent it with a collage of images. Turn a 2,000-word essay into a 250-word presentation with verbal and sonic components. An instructive trick with the opening line of W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1940): “About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters.” They were never wrong, the Old Masters, about suffering. The Old Masters were never wrong about suffering. Each version of the opening creates a subtly different emphasis, on suffering versus the wisdom of the Old Masters.
Too often, we lock ourselves into one approach, and cannot imagine an alternative. Locked into one approach, too often we cannot imagine an alternative. Alternatives we cannot imagine, if we lock into one approach too quickly. Writing three different opening paragraphs to the same essay, or rearranging the lines of the poem, stimulates our imagination and our critical faculties because it dramatizes different possibilities, possibilities that offer a different emphasis. And when we play with the pitch, intonation and speaking rate of a poem, this can change the tone as dramatically, from a challenge to confession, or an assertion into doubt.
In the classroom, poet Harryette Mullen is often popular with students, both for her poems on the page and for her expressive reading style, while students can sometimes resist recordings by Adrienne Rich (saying that she sounds lecture-y) and Louise Glück (saying that she sounds bored by her own poems), even as they are engaged by the poems on the page.
When Mullen reads “Present Tense” (2002)—a beguiling comical poem, loosely about the grammatical present and the speaker’s and the world’s present circumstances —what is it about her contrastive intonation that sounds expressive? She ends her opening phrases, “Now that my ears are connected to a random answer machine” with rising intonation and high boundary tones. This draws the reader on: keep listening, the statement’s not finished.
When we flip the intonation pattern, so that each utterance ends on a relatively low pitch, she sounds more conventional, a poetic authority declaring observations, confident and closed off.
Another tone of poetic authority approaches pure monotony. It was practiced by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Irish modernist poet W.B. Yeats and, perhaps through Yeats’s influence, by American poets such as Yvor Winters. Note how similar they sound here. Winters reads the opening of his poem “The Journey” (1931), moving into a Yeatsian monotone after the title and location of Snake River Country, “I now remembered slowly how I came[.]”
Here is Yeats reading the opening of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”: “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree[.]”
All we have to do to turn Winters into Yeats is raise his pitch a bit:
Monotone performance is—at least acoustically—quite uninformative for the brain. Early parts of the auditory brain rapidly adapt or habituate to a wide array of regularities such as pitch and temporal pattern, and they only signal when the pattern changes, as noted in “Early selective-attention effect on evoked potential reinterpreted” (Näätänen, Gaillard et al., 1978). But expectations can work differently across speech’s descriptive dimensions. When speech is usually vivid, as in a direct quotation (“He said ‘I’m leaving now”), higher-level voice-processing areas in the right temporal lobe actually work harder to process (unexpectedly) monotone quotes, according to Yao, Belin, et al.’s “Brain ‘talks over’ boring quotes: top-down activation of voice-selective areas while listening to monotonous direct speech quotations” (2012). In other words, sameness of pitch often means the brain must work harder to grasp meaning.
Interestingly, David Hadbawnik relates in Sounding Out! his disappointment with the productions of three audio recordings of three poetic specimens from Middle English created with SPARSAR, because “they produced monotone outputs that fail to account for prosody.” Vocal deformance might allow him to try to approximate Middle English prosody with the specimens.
MacArthur has written elsewhere about “poet voice,” which she also calls “monotonous incantation.” But how close are contemporary canonical poets to actual monotone, compared to Tennyson and Yeats? Here is Glück, whose reading style is often mentioned as an example of Poet Voice, reading the third stanza of “The Wild Iris” (1992): “It is terrible to survive / as consciousness / buried in the dark earth”:
Not much manipulation is required to make it purely monotone, which may account for some students saying she sounds bored by her own poems—though they do not say that about Yeats. They say Yeats’s voice makes them feel like they are in church.
Ideally, Glück’s manner of reading her poem should not prevent students from appreciating it. While in other contexts we may defend women’s use of uptalk, it also seems fair to raise the point that academic poetry reading can seem to discourage the expression of affect. (See Donald Hall’s well-known polemic, “The Poetry Reading: Public Performance / Private Art” (1985) and David Groff’s “The Peril of the Poetry Reading: Page Versus Performance” .) Vocal deformance, among other strategies, might help students perceive as much drama in Glück’s poems as they do in Mullen’s—and find as much as poetic authority in both poets’ voices as they do in Yeats’s churchy one. Here, we’ve manipulated Glück’s voice to sound more like Mullen’s style of reading, with a wider pitch range and rising intonation and high boundary tones.
If we want to explore alternatives to conventional modes of reading poetry, as many do, directly deforming the acoustic qualities of canonical recordings is an excellent way to defamiliarize performance conventions. Ideally, it can help us listen to alternate versions of the history of poetic performance and to different, unimagined possibilities in the present. Given the extraordinary vitality of spoken word and slam poetry outside the academy, it would be a missed opportunity to suppress varied reading styles in the classroom. At the same time, it would be a great shame to leave behind canonical American poetry when the poets’ reading styles fail to appeal to students.
Finally, if we want to liberate students from the anti-performative tendencies of academic culture, resist essentialist readings of poems according to our assumptions about the identities of the poets who wrote them, and dramatize the idea that there are many ways to read a poem, vocal deformance can help, alongside other strategies. As Yvon Bonenfant wrote in a 2014 Sounding Out! piece, “we are mostly neurotic, or otherwise hung up on, what kinds of sounds we make, where and when.”
Instead, let’s play in different voices.
NOTE: To illustrate vocal deformance, we used Straight, a state-of-the-art open-source voice synthesis program developed by Hideki Kawahara at Wakayama University in Japan, with the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute and the Auditory Brain Project. We also used Drift, an open-source pitch-tracking tool that uses an algorithm developed by Byung Suk Lee and Dan Ellis, implemented by Robert Ochshorn and Max Hawkins with support from MacArthur’s ACLS Digital Innovations Fellowship in 2015-16, to visualize intonation with pitch contours.
Marit J. MacArthur is associate professor of English at California State University, Bakersfield, and a research associate in Cinema and Digital Media at the University of California, Davis.
Lee M. Miller is associate professor of Neurobiology, Physiology, & Behavior at the University of California, Davis, and technical director of the Center for Mind and Brain.
Featured Image: Cropped and Enlarged version of Bill Smith’s “Voice Glitch,” Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
A Listening Mind: Sound Learning in a Literature Classroom–Nicole Furlonge
Audio Culture Studies: Scaffolding a Sequence of Assignments–Jentery Sayers