Our Punk Sound series implicitly argues that sound studies methodologies are better suited to understanding how punk works sonically than existing journalistic and academic conversations about musical genre, chord progressions, and/or genealogies of bands. Alexandra Vasquez’s sound-oriented work on Cuban music, for example, in Listening in Detail (2014) opens up necessary conversations about the “flashes, moments, sounds” in music that bear its meanings and its colonial, raced, classed, and gendered histories in material ways people can hear and feel. While retaining the specificity of Vasquez’s argument and the specific sonic archive bringing it forth, we too insist on “an ethical and intellectual obligation to the question: what do the musicians sound like” (12) and how do folks identifying with and through these musical sounds hear them?
In this series, we invite you to amplify varied historicized “details” of punk sound–its chunk-chunk-chunk skapunk riffs, screams, growls, group chants, driving rhythms, honking saxophones–hearing/feeling/touching these sounds in richly varied locations, times, places, and perspectives: as a pulsing bead of condensation dripping down the wall of The Smell in Downtown LA (#savethesmell), a drummer making her own time on tour, a drunk sitting too near the amp at a backyard party, a queer teenager in their bedroom being yelled at to “turn it down” and “act like a lady[or a man]”. . .and on and on. Today’s essay is by Tamra Lucid. Here, Tamra offers her thoughts on how both technique and expression reinforce a gendered understanding of music. When punk sound plays with extremes, how can artists who feel trapped by these polemics resist?
–Aaron SO! (Sounding Out!) + Jenny SO! (Sounding Out!)
“Don’t touch that!” a virtuoso guitarist had once told me when as a kid I reached for his guitar. The same phrase would later be delivered by a punk guitarist at a gig where I offered to replace a string broken during his performance. As noted in the book Girls Rock , women are often told not to touch these sacred instruments (18). I remember thinking that guitar was as complex as a car engine and as dangerous as a circular saw. Technique and theory are meant to liberate musicians (so that their dexterity can follow wherever imagination and inspiration may lead), but when experiencing gender discrimination from instructors and fellow instrumentalists, technique and theory can seem antagonistic. In this essay I show how the elite and virtuoso focus on technique and theory has catalyzed punk musicians to cultivate the raw, expressive, qualities of punk sound. Yet, paradoxically, I point out how movements toward a raw and visceral sound constitute a cage of their own, alienating an equally radical and virtuoso community of women in the punk scene. How do these sonic contours in the 1990s riot grrrl scene tell a story about injustice and community building through sound?
Theory and technique become a cage when they are used by sexist cliques, such as the heavy metal scene, which sought to maintain hegemony over local scenes and resources. For the gatekeepers, there are many benefits to this form of discrimination–women are encouraged to act as doting fans rather than joining bands. As a teenager I saw many young women told by male musicians that their only permissible roles were those of sex object or fan. Early in my musical career when I put out an ad searching for band mates some male musicians would call just to laugh at me.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s when canons of punk tone and composition ironically became defined by an athletics-like dedication to speed, precision and endurance, riot grrrl bands were criticized for their primitive skills. However, by removing the barriers to self-expression that this emphasis on technique and theory created, many people, not only female or female identified, were empowered to create music similar to performance art. As Liam S. Ruin of the Columbia, South Carolina hardcore band Shirley Temple of Doom (1993-1996) said in an interview I conducted with them for this essay: “I still think emphasis on technique is gross and ableist and boring and obvious.”
In this time of sonic reform, some scenes came to prize sincerity over skill. Here, a new canon of theory and technique evolved–another cage. Some related to the riot grrrl scene found themselves accepted by their community while receiving praise for abandoning a commitment to simplicity. For example Associated Newspapers News North West previewed a gig by Sleater Kinney in Manchester, UK by describing them as “too musically competent to be a Riot Grrrl band.” Likewise, the female hardcore bands Girl Jesus and Free Verse (though politically aligned with riot grrrl) found little support in a scene that viewed them as a threat. It was as if the language of technique and theory was the language of oppressors, and using it implied submission to the status quo. The directness of purpose which had liberated so many artists, became a new kind of cage for others.
As a roadie for Girl Jesus, I witnessed the immediate dismissal (including groans of disappointment) they suffered when confronting male bands at gigs many times. Despite these jeers I also saw the way their ferocious music and performance, anchored by guitarist Gina Rush’s use of middle eastern scales, Shell Davina’s unique and unusual drumming style, and Grit Maldonado’s flamenco-like bass lines, reduced many male bands to discouraged silence and listless performances. I remember thinking that riot grrrl, or what was left of it in 1993, would welcome such a powerful example of female creativity. The feeling of competence I felt as Girl Jesus approached each gig with confidence in their music and technology helped me to reinvent myself, encouraging me to graduate quickly from roadie to musician.
Gina Rush carefully chose her amps and had them modded by an expert. Shell used a vintage drum-kit that would make any collector drool. But these distinctions were rejected by the riot grrrl audience who found them elitist and classist. Though Girl Jesus was a band of working class lesbians they were treated the same way as male bands in the scene. As Shell reported in an article entitled “Queercore: Ready to Face the Market” by Brent Atwood in the May 6, 1995 issue of Billboard Magazine: “As a female band, we expected a strong network of women in music to stick together. Instead we found a lot of competition.” She also pointed out: “We’ve had more club owners be sexist to us than homophobic.” Despite their embrace of technology and technique, two domains that code as masculine, Girl Jesus nurtured into existence two of the more popular riot grrrl bands in mid-90’s Los Angeles, Patsy and my own band Lucid Nation, which began by rehearsing in Girl Jesus’s garage using their equipment. The name of Girl Jesus’s first cassette demo succinctly captured the problem: “Afraid of Our Own.”
A similar trajectory was found by the all female hardcore band Free Verse, whose first record “Access Denied” was released by the indie label Brain Floss Records. Free Verse began in Lawrence, Kansas in 1995 and in 1998 relocated to Seattle. Lucid Nation toured nationally with Free Verse in the summer of 1998. The experience was similar to what I observed as a roadie for Girl Jesus. Male bands who looked down upon female musicians with disdain were stunned by their display of skill and ferocity. However, when we played in Olympia, Washington, the riot grrrl community cowered against the back wall, clearly uncomfortable. On the road we smiled ruefully over the irony of masculinist male bands becoming fans while female fans who shared our politics turned their backs. This created a conundrum for Free Verse. Although they were able to deliver a feminist message to scenes and individuals who were hostile to feminism, they could not enjoy the community of like minded women who identified as riot grrrl.
Over time, Free Verse earned enough respect that they were able to open for leading bands from a variety of scenes. From Hardcore bands like The Blood Brothers to indie stars like Sleater Kinney. From queer core bands like The Need and The Butchies to riot grrrl supergroup The Cold Cold Hearts. Though Free Verse were chosen to participate in the Northwest Coalition For Human Dignity’s anti-racism tour October 2002, a tour sponsored by Ms. magazine and featured in ROCKRGRL magazine, the band was never able to achieve the following or recognition of the bands they shared bills with, information about them is hard to find on the internet today.
Liam S. Ruin, now one of the guiding lights of the new Riot Grrrl Intersectional movement, provides a more intimate look at how the pressures of technique and theory influenced Shirley Temple of Doom: “Not really any RG [riot grrrl] activity in Columbia SC. Um, Slant 6 played there once. Our scene was extremely nuclear. We played with our friend’s bands, The Trema, Erector Set, Guyana Punch Line. We were pretty much all in each other’s bands or dating each other or whatever. Making it up as we went along. Jessica saw me in the halls at school wearing a Pearl Jam shirt and told me ‘you’re way too cool to be listening to shitty bands.’ She made me a mix cd that was mostly D.C. Emo and Hardcore but it had Bratmobile, Bikini Kill and L7, too. Then she lent me her bass. I practiced with Joy Division and Heavens To Betsy covers till I could play along. We started a band with her boyfriend. Half of our band were really into Straight Edge H/C and the other half were into Huggy Bear, Fugazi, NOU, etc.”
Shirley Temple of Doom, despite reflecting a riot grrrl like platform in their lyrics received little attention from the riot grrrl community. Eventually the band collapsed due to internal tensions regarding technique–as if the rhetoric of extremes around technique and expression had become an expertly baited, misogynist trap. As Liam informed me: “The guys in the band were very technical and pushed me to play more technical bass lines but honestly, I get bored with proficiency. I’ve heard what guitars are supposed to sound like. I wanna hear what they’re not supposed to sound like. We split because of ideological differences. I got really into visceral bass-feels and wanted to sound like a disaster, and they wanted to be on Victory Records.”
How did the cage of technique and expression, evolve in a style of music that advanced freedom as its guiding praxis? Early on, rock musicians were considered unskilled when compared to classical, jazz and country musicians. Later, virtuosity became central to rock music as bands like Yes, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd, sought radical sounds to accommodate an aesthetic cultivated by Cannabis and LSD. As What’s That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and It’s History puts it: “Rock musicians now had a responsibility to create sophisticated music using whatever means were available.” Soon after this turn to virtuosity, guitarists like Eddie Van Halen became the Paganinis of their time, displaying jaw-dropping finger speed and impressive knowledge of scales and musical theory.
Later, punk rock crashed the party. First in the hands of the MC5 and The Stooges, and then the New York Dolls, The Ramones, the Sex Pistols and many other bands, rock music turned again towards primitive and cathartic sincerity. Musical virtuosity was literally spit upon. The Ramones famously told The Clash that they needn’t worry about improving their musicianship before playing live because “as you’ll see tonight, we suck.” Ferocity replaced dexterity. Nihilistic and cathartic lyrics displaced idealistic flights of fancy. Punk quickly developed its own criteria to indicate mastery of the genre. Bands like Fugazi and F.Y.P. typified a performance style that required frenetic motion while preserving the lockstep rhythm and hand speed, if not the musical knowledge and experimentation, of the earlier virtuosos. Then riot grrrl arrived, freeing a generation of punk women who were uncomfortable with the athletic performance style of these bands. For example, one of L.A.’s favorite riot grrrl bands Crown for Athena would perform at times with one member of the band sitting on the stage singing while clinging to the pant leg of another who stood immobile and emotionless. Frenetic performance and blazing chord speed was no longer a requirement for legitimacy on the punk stage.
Riot grrrl liberated me from the odious trial of confronting sexist music teachers, store clerks, booking agents, and record companies. I learned from the movement that I could get by with simple barre chords. I could use cheap and borrowed gear and I didn’t have to worry about great tone. One of the bands I admired, Foxfire, a band of female high school students from Los Angeles, used an oven pan instead of a snare drum. Riot grrrl bands emphasized community by booking shows with each other and with activist groups like Food Not Bombs. We made our own labels to distribute each other’s records. When Lucid Nation opened for Bikini Kill at Terraza Jamay in Montebello, Kathleen Hanna took tickets at the door.
As my musical skills developed I found myself feeling restricted by the aesthetics of riot grrrl. Beginning with Lucid Nation’s DNA record (2000) we began exploring cliches of what we called “butt rock,” now more popularly known as classic rock. While we attempted to master the techniques of classic rock our intent was to deconstruct them by introducing unexpected twists of sound (like chaotic analog synth and noise pedals) and lyrics containing feminist perspectives. At this point, we had moved on to other scenes, for example, the melange of Peace Punks, Black Panthers, and riot grrrls at Koo’s Cafe in Santa Ana, CA. We played hemp rallies and non-riot grrrl political events like fundraisers for Big Mountain and other Native American causes.
Eventually I developed a fascination with improvisation inspired by freestyle rap and augmented by the writing of Gertrude Stein and the recordings of Jack Kerouac. By the time our most successful album was released, the improvised Tacoma Ballet (2002), I prized musicianship and encouraged experienced collaborators, like Patty Schemel of Hole on drums and Greta Brinkman of Moby’s live band on bass, to bring to bear the breadth and depth of their musical knowledge. I was delighted that Rick King of Guitar Maniacs in Tacoma allowed us to use his highly valuable collectible gear such as a 1967 Gibson Flying V and an array of legendary vintage pedals when we recorded the album. I was proud when Patty said in an interview about Tacoma Ballet: “…there are always ideas that I have–interesting beats and such–that I could never incorporate into Hole or any other project. In Lucid Nation I got to incorporate all my weirdness.” Though Tacoma Ballet made it to #1 on the New Music Weekly Chart of College and Secondary Market Radio Stations in December 2002 it received very little attention in riot grrrl circles. I found myself silenced again, not by advocates of technique, but by a community who valued raw expression.
Of course, in 2002 riot grrrl was less popular than it had been a decade before–it mostly consisted of isolated zine writers and bands. Still, those who remained in the scene ignored Tacoma Ballet despite its success. When I asked them why, they explained that although they admired our work and the songs spoke to their experience, our band just wasn’t riot grrrl. I was told that the skills and awareness of musical history displayed on the record were too self conscious, that I had become ambitious, or as more than one zine writer said, I had sold out. Since I made no money on that record despite the attention it got, and we couldn’t tour behind it since the music was improvised, I found it hard to understand how such a purely artistic lark could be viewed as selling out. I didn’t sell out, my increased respect for theory and technique just felt wrong when viewed from the perspective of the riot grrrl canon.
While new music hardware and software have helped level the field in ways that were not possible in the 90’s, the cage of expression and technique continues to govern a new world of highly individuated scenes. EDM continues to fetishize the drop. Live performers need no longer be concerned about vocal pitch or knowledge of vocal harmony. Hardware like the Digitech VLFX, available on Amazon for under $200, corrects pitch and provides easy and automatic harmony vocals. In this device, music’s ability to create unexpectedly cathartic experiences has been diminished, while the simple mimicry of technique has been elevated.
Perhaps new regimes of data are to blame. Specific canons of theory and technique function as points of data that help define marketing audiences. After all, bands often succeed by conforming to the sonic norms of their given scene. For this reason, there is a tension between conservation and innovation. An artist must conserve as much of their scene’s identity as possible while finding subtle ways to innovate. Today, anyone can share their music on the internet regardless of traditional criteria. Despite this, a desire for acceptance and success continues to pressure musicians into accepting limitations to their creativity like technique and expression.
Cover image is of Tamra Lucid and by TheInfinite314 @Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA.
Tamra Lucid is an executive producer of Viva Cuba Libre: Rap is War the award winning documentary about Cuban hip hop legends Los Aldeanos, a producer of Edward James Olmos Presents Exile Nation: The Plastic People, and associate producer of The Gits documentary. Writing from her riot grrrl zines was reprinted in A Girl’s Guide To Taking Over The World: The Zine Revolution by Karen Green and Tristan Taormino,and in Hilary Carlip and Francesca Lia Block’s Zine Scene. Tamra blogs for Exterminating Angel Press and for Reality Sandwich where her most recent project has been a series of interviews with water protectors and filmmakers at Standing Rock. She’s a founding member and primary singer of Lucid Nation.
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Editor’s Note: Here’s installment #2 of Sounding Out!‘s blog forum on gender and voice! Last week we hosted Christine Ehrick‘s selections from her forthcoming book; she introduced us to the idea of the gendered soundscape, which she uses in her analysis on women’s radio speech from the 1930s to the 1950s. In the next few weeks we’ll have SO regular writer Regina Bradley, with a look at how music is gendered in Shonda Rhimes’ hit show Scandal, A.O. Roberts with synthesized voices and gender, Art Blake with his reflections on how his experience shifting his voice from feminine to masculine as a transgender man intersects with his work on John Cage, and lastly Robin James with an analysis of how ideas of what women should sound like have roots in Greek philosophy.
As I planned for SO!’s February forum, I wondered about my own connection to the topic: how is the loudness of a voice gendered? Does it matter who we call “loud”? As a Latina, I’m familiar with the stereotypes of the loud Latina, and as a Puerto Rican I faced them at every gathering. So for this week I decided to reflect upon my experiences in a personal essay. Lean in, close your eyes, and don’t let the voices startle you.–Liana M. Silva, Managing Editor
I was 22 years old when someone called me deaf. I was finishing my bachelor’s degree at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus. After four years of living in San Juan, I still hadn’t gotten used to the class and race microaggressions I encountered regularly because I was a brown girl who grew up in the country and was going to school in the urban capital, el área metropolitana. These microaggressions were usually assumptions about who I was based on how I talked: I called pots a certain way, I referred to nickels in another way, and I couldn’t keep my voice down–all indications, according to my “urban” friends, that I grew up in the country. But being called “deaf” was a new one.
My boyfriend at the time had no cellphone, and his mother would call me regularly to see if he was on his way home from a gig or to ask him to run an errand. She and I were not close, but we were cordial. I always felt we didn’t click on some level. This particular weekend day, she had called to ask if he had left San Juan already to come visit her, and I told her I had just seen him that morning before he left. Somehow she and I went from small talk into a conversation.
In my head, I thought I was making headway with her and that this was a huge step forward in our relationship. We talked about his gig the night before, about how my family was doing, things like that. Then she asked me if my family had a medical history of people losing their hearing. “No? I don’t think so. Why do you ask?” I said in Spanish.
“Because you talk so loud, and so do your father and your sister. Your mom isn’t loud.”
That was over 10 years ago, but the comment still stings. I am certain that wasn’t the only time someone called me “loud” or pointed out the tone of my voice, but it’s the one time that still rings in my ears when I think about the intersection of gender and sound. It wasn’t just that I spoke at a high volume, it was that I was a woman who spoke at a high volume. I was the girlfriend who was loud.
Of course we’re not born loud- or soft-speakers – we learn to use the volume level that prevails in our culture, and then turn it up or lower it depending on our subculture and peer group.
-Anne Karpf, The Human Voice
What does “loud” mean, anyway? Denotations fade into connotations. As I write this, I struggle to think of how to describe loud in a way that doesn’t feel negative. Because every time I think of “loud” its negative connotations float up to the surface. Just take this Merriam-Webster online dictionary entry for “loud.” Aside from the reference to volume, “loud” also means sounds that are offensive, obtrusive—annoying.
To be fair, I’ve always been self-conscious of my voice, and not in the way most people hate the sound of their voice. I always felt my voice was not girly enough. I always felt as a teenager and a young adult not “pretty” enough, not thin enough, not “feminine” enough, so my insecurities also extended to my voice.
Growing up, I heard people tell me time and time again to keep my voice down, that I was talking too loud, that people next door could hear me, et cetera. Grandparents, cousins, parents, friends: I got it from every corner. Shush. But I don’t recall anybody saying that about the boys/men I hung out with. Add to that the comments I got about my appearance: “you’re too fat,” “your hair is too frizzy,” ‘you’re ugly.” I associated being loud with being unattractive. Just another flaw.
It’s no coincidence then that describing a woman as loud is almost never said as a compliment. Although a man can be loud—he might even be expected to have a deep, booming, commanding voice, as the above video describes—when a woman is described as loud, it’s almost never in a good light. Karpf mentions in The Human Voice: The Story of a Remarkable Talent that “Loudness certainly seems to be judged differently depending on the sex of the speaker. Talking loudly is considered an act of aggression in women, but in men as no more than they’re entitled to.” In other words, society deems men to be allowed to be loud, and by extension loudness comes off as a masculine feature. So loudness, something that at its base means high volume, ends up being constructed as more than just decibels. Women who are “loud” become noisy, rude, unapologetic, unbridled.
Mija pero que duro tu hablas.
In Puerto Rico, the word for “loud” was alto (high) but also duro (hard). I knew early on that when someone told me that I spoke duro they didn’t mean it in a kind way. The voice was described as hard, harsh, shards of glass. It hurt to be called loud. It hurt to be called hard. Especially when you understand that society accepts only certain ways of being a woman: soft, delicate, fragile, dainty. It was never meant as a compliment to have someone call your voice “hard.”
If I was listening to my mother and my aunts or cousins speaking, and then chimed in, I would get the “shhhh” or if they wanted to be discreet they would make a gesture with their hands to indicate to me that I should bring my voice down. I learned early on that a lower voice was more appealing than the loud voice hiding in my vocal box.
I am Puerto Rican, and even though I was born in New York City, I was raised in a small town on the western side of Puerto Rico. I was already well-aware of stereotypes and digs about my being born in New York, even at a young age. My cousins would tell me I was stuck up, I thought I was better than other people because I had cable, I only listened to music in English (I guess that was a bad thing to them). When I moved to San Juan, I was no longer a displaced Nuyorican but a country bumpkin. Peers, friends, and new acquaintances would not classify me as a Nuyorican but, because I was living in San Juan at the time, would categorize me as an islander, de la isla, which basically meant I was not from el “area metro.” I was, in short, a country bumpkin to them.
The loudness of my voice was not just a marker of where I came from (the country, with all of the classicism that the phrase entails) but for me became conflated with gender. I knew that even when I wasn’t living in the city, I had been called loud. It’s just that when my peers asked me to lower my voice or to not speak so “duro” it was also because they thought of me as jíbara, country.
Sometimes I would get carried away when I was telling a joke among my female roommates, or I’d be excited to share some news, and eventually someone would tell me to tone it down. Baja la voz. As I reflect upon my college years living with roommates in a crowded apartment in a crowded city, I remember that we often got together and laughed, talked over each other, shouted across the apartment. But I would get carried away and then someone would say something about it. Mira que nos van a mandar a callar. Someone’s gonna tell us to shut up.
It was in college, however, that I learned to modulate my voice. I am physically capable of whispering, but when I spoke in English in a classroom setting (I was an English major in a school whose language of instruction was Spanish) I felt even louder in English. So I made the effort to tone down my voice, literally. I equated English with career, and by extension with my professional persona.
Ultimately, English would be the language I spoke (and still speak) in academic circles; with the language came also the tone and the volume. Men in my classes seemed more often to initiate conversations in my classes, and sometimes even in the ones where they were a minority. Meanwhile, the driven graduate student that I was, I wanted to step in but not stand out because of my voice. I didn’t want to give them (or the professor for that matter) a chance to discount me because I was a loud Puerto Rican woman at an American school. Eventually I learned how to switch back and forth. So did my fellow female classmates.
I remember as a teacher modulating my voice so I would be less loud and less abrasive in a college classroom. I wanted to assert my authority. If some women resort to vocal fry in order to be taken seriously, as this 2014 article in The Atlantic (online) suggests, I resorted to modulating my voice. That was my way of passing: passing for creative elite, passing for feminine, passing for authoritative. I tried to assert my credibility as a burgeoning scholar and professor by tweaking my voice. I laughed a little softer, I spoke a little slower, I sounded a little lower. I teetered between trying to sound feminine and trying to downplay my femininity through my voice.
Was I trying to sound more like the stereotype of a woman so I could be more credible in the classroom? Was this my own version of respectability politics? “Don’t be so loud and they’ll listen to you”?
“White supremacy grants white people the ability to be understood as expressing a dynamic range; whites can legitimately shout because we hear them/ourselves as mainly normalized. At the same time, white supremacy paints black people as always-already too loud.”
The negative rhetoric about women and loudness is also connected to respectability politics. Take for example the stereotype of the angry black woman (which is in the vicinity of the loud Latina). If women must be delicate and feminine, being loud would be unattractive, unseemly. Loud also means “not being silent,” in other words, speaking when not spoken to. Robin James touches upon “loudness” in contemporary music, and how the turn toward less loud tracks also has to do with racialized ideas about who can speak and who can be loud–in other words, what counts as noise and what counts as harmonious sound. She cites Goldie Taylor’s piece in The Daily Beast about how, regardless of how angry she felt about the racial injustices in the United States, she would never be able to scream and shout without consequences. Loudness is something racialized people cannot afford.
The stereotype of the angry woman points to how the notion of who is loud and what tone of voice is considered loud are constructed. Although there are studies that point out that the sound of one’s voice indicates to others that one is in a position of authority or that one’s voice can make or break one’s career, there is yet to be a study that shows how the biology of the body that produces the voice affects what one can or cannot do. In other words, the connection between voice and our abilities, or our social class, is constructed—in our heads.
Assertive, aggressive, leader: these descriptions benefit men, for the most part. Aggressiveness is seen as a masculine trait, and along with that a loud tone of voice is also seen as masculine. (This idea is also problematic, for it sets anything that isn’t aggressive and assertive as female, and therefore negative.) The opposite applies to women; the same way our society associates fragile delicate things with femininity, a fragile, soft, low tone of voice is the acceptable range for a woman. And James and Taylor’s comments point to how race also changes the equation. Damned if we speak, damned if we don’t.
Over the years, I’ve become more comfortable with the way I sound. I’ve also become more comfortable switching between my aural codes, like I do with English, Spanish, and Spanglish. I know that there’s a volume that I use in certain spaces. I also know that in other spaces I don’t have to watch over how loud I am. If I am in a familiar space, with people I am close to, I feel less inclined to watch myself. I feel safe, not judged. I can be as loud as I want to be. But loudness is also an accepted way of speaking around my family. If I spoke in a low tone, I’d probably be picked on for that. My father, for one, has a booming, deep, loud voice, and so do many of my family members.
For me, embracing my voice is also a kind of body acceptance. My body, plus-sized and all, takes up space. My voice takes up space too. As a teenager and an adult I was constantly shamed for the way I look (skin too brown, voice too loud, face too painted, hair too short), and for a time tweaking my voice became a way to try to fit in. But I later learned how to respond to the remarks. I learned to be sarcastic. I learned to make jokes. I learned to talk back. I didn’t find my voice; I embraced my voice.
Dear readers, let us know in the comments: have you been chastised for being loud? Or for not speaking loudly enough?
Featured image: property of the author.
Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!.
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PercussiveThoughts is giving me a facial. The voice tells me about the “little scrubbies” in the exfoliant, and I begin to hear their delicate sibilance on my temples. If I’m lucky, a pleasurable, tingling sensation might begin somewhere on the back of my head and travel down my spine, turning my facial into something closer to a massage. The sole caveat is that I’m not really being touched at all.
This is ASMR, “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response,” a pseudo-medical designation whose native soil is YouTube. The term pulls together a range of physiological and affective states: goosebumps, chills, relaxation, melting, tingles, and so forth. PercussiveThoughts and her fellow vloggers (I call them “Whisperers” here and explain why below) aim to trigger these frissons through a cornucopia of techniques. Sound is paramount; Whisperers scratch rough surfaces with their fingernails and percuss everyday objects with fingertip drum-rolls. And, of course, they whisper, sometimes using lozenges or gum to increase the opportunities for swallowing and lip-smacking.
What’s interesting about these videos is how they manage to traverse the gap between the sonic and the haptic. There is, of course, something familiar about this leap. Like the magician’s hat that produces rabbits and endless handkerchiefs, an audio speaker produces a volume and variety of sound out of proportion with its small, blank visage. In the case of Whispering, however, sound is transduced into touch, and the taut membranes of the listener’s headphones become coterminous with his own skin.
Apart from Steven Novella’s suggestion that ASMR might be a mild form of seizure, it does not yet appear to be a subject of scientific research. So Whisperers have taken on the role of amateur scientists themselves, with YouTube serving as a public petri dish. For this very reason, Novella has also cautioned against the assumption that ASMR is a real physiological phenomenon at all, since feedback loops of suggestion on the Internet might create “the cultural equivalent of pareidolia.”
Whisperers, however, have no doubts. And while the ASMR acronym is a recent development, many Whisperers say their first encounters with the phenomenon occurred sometime before their first exposure to the Internet and often before adulthood: during make-believe tea parties, while watching their classmates draw or braid each other’s hair, and, perhaps most commonly, while watching The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross.
The audience for Whispering is anyone who can have this experience, which apparently isn’t everyone. Contrary to the soporific themes of their videos, Whisperers and their fans identify themselves as having awakened to a special form of pleasure. Some have even made videos recounting their first experiences. The downside of this ability is the anxiety about its social acceptance. Whisperers sometimes opt for anonymity in their videos, revealing their faces only after much encouragement from fans. Rarely do they they let their family and friends in on the secret.
That this familiar, tingly feeling has assumed a pseudo-medical acronym is hardly coincidental. ASMR isn’t just pleasurable, it’s therapeutic. Hundreds of YouTube comments attest to the power of ASMR to help relieve them of insomnia, anxiety, and panic attacks. Nor has this dimension been overlooked by Whisperers themselves, who regularly perform as doctors or therapists in their roleplay videos. This is particularly interesting in light of recent scholarship on human/machine interactions. In Addiction By Design, Natasha Schüll shows how therapy for video-poker addiction can take the same format as the gambling itself, namely, “ongoing technological self-modulation to maintain equilibrium” (250).
Homemade Whisper videos, while habit-forming, are clearly not the sort of intricately-engineered machines that Schüll writes about. Nor do they wreack the same sort of havoc (depletion of one’s life-savings, deterioration of one’s physical health, etc.). And yet, both are arranged in problematic feedback loops of self-medication. The slow-paced, low-volume respite that Whisper videos offer is made all the more necessary by the fact that viewers must go online to watch them. This paradox is amplified by YouTube’s advertisements, which will sound especially abrasive because viewers tend to turn the volume up while listening to Whisper videos. That some of the more popular Whisperers earn money from their videos only complicates things further.
“No, we don’t get as many men here as women,” PercussiveThoughts says, as though responding to a question from me. Of course, I wouldn’t be so rude as to contradict her – I know better. To judge from the comments below, she gets plenty of male visitors. And her colleague ASMR Velous confided during an interview that around 70 percent of her viewers are men. For this reason, some Whisperers have made gender–neutral or male-oriented videos.
Gender is a major, and sometimes contentious, topic of discussion in the Whisper Community. In the YouWhisper web forum, the discussion topic “Gender Preference?,” has the greatest number of views (more than 170,000). In general, female Whisperers are more popular than their male counterparts. The three most popular male Whisperers that I could find–WhisperMister1, MaleSoothe, and TheLyricalWhispers–each have fewer than 5,000 subscribers and their per-video view-counts tend to peak around ten or twenty thousand.
Not long ago, GentleWhispering, one of the better-known names in the Whisper community, set off a series of heated back-and-forths with her ~FeminineGrace & Charmforsleep~ video. In it, she discusses universal traits of femininity while brushing her hair absent-mindedly. Whatever one might think of her opinions, the fact that GentleWhispering’s viewership dwarfs all other Whisperers to date suggests that something in her technique is working. My guess is that it has a great deal to do with her hands.
While giving Russian language lessons on a chalkboard, she points to a word with her middle, ring, and pinkie fingers while keeping the chalk poised delicately between her thumb and index finger. When she is about to touch the fabric of an armchair, her fingers arch back–rather than claw forward–as though to ensure that the contact is as light as possible. And, like so many other Whisperers, she takes any opportunity to tap hard objects with her well-kept fingernails.
The “femininity” of GentleWhispering’s hands is the performance of a soothing, caring touch, and her whispering voice is the transubstantiation of this touch through sound. Sometimes, she even short-circuits the analogy by massaging the microphone directly.
But even the performance of gendered touching does not quite explain how these sounds and images manage to reach through the speaker and screen. After a second glance at these videos, we might wonder if the preponderance of partial objects has something to do with it.
I’m talking about all of those disembodied hands stroking opposite hands or displaying objects detached from their collections. Often, for the sake of anonymity, the Whisperer’s eyes are kept out of frame, leaving only an expressive mouth, like CalmingEscape’s, with its signature tics and swallows. If even the mouth is too revealing, the camera gazes down at covered breasts, ”objects,” in a Freudian panoply of sexual cathexis (is it a coincidence that some Whisperers even roleplay as the viewer’s doting mother?). One has to wonder what effect is achieved by this strange summation of partials.
In spite of widespread insistence that these videos are not sexual, the comparison with sexual fetish is too obvious not to make. Sticking with Freud for a moment, the hyper-presence of the Whisperer would seem to disavow the separation implicit in internet communication. Her mouth speaks individually into each of the listener’s ears while also hovering on screen. Her hands animate dead objects through rappings and close-ups. In her omnipotence, she can even tell us what to do.
Fetish or not, the word “whisper” is a perfect synecdoche for this fragmentary whole, and that’s why I’ve used it instead of ASMR. A whisper is, by definition, “unvoiced.” The cheeks, mouth, teeth, and tongue accomplish the acoustic filtering that gives words their shapes, but the larynx produces noise rather than tones. Lacking pitch, a whisper might be called only a “part of speech.” And yet it speaks volumes by shifting the register of communication. Whatever is said in a whisper gains the aura of genuineness, honesty, and intimacy.
Of course, in a YouTube video, these qualities are suspect from the moment one clicks the play button. But perhaps this is what makes Whispering work. One hears in these videos, above all, the effort of performance. It is the performance of gender, as discussed above, but more generally the performance of interaction, intimacy, and proximity. What every Whisper video whispers is “Let’s pretend!” And nothing proves this better than the fact
that some popular Whisper videos contain rather unpleasant sounds. Consider TheWhiteRabbitASMR’s dentist appointment video. If one is willing to grit one’s teeth through the long sections of abrasive drilling, it’s because she so adeptly crafts the intimate space of fantasy in which it takes places.
The pleasure of pretending was made clear to me when ASMR Velous recounted her childhood tactic for inducing ASMR. “I would constantly trick people into pretending to do things. I had this little play kitchen set, and I would cook up imaginary food for people and make them pretend-eat it really slowly and make those eating sounds like [chewing sounds], and I would just sit there and be all tingly. And I just loved it….I made up this game with my friends, where we would basically mime a profession and the other person would have to guess the profession you were miming. That was another way for me to trick my friends into pretending to do stuff.”
PercussiveThoughts is wrapping things up. “That completes your facial… So you can sit up. Well, thank you. Thank you so much. I’m really glad you enjoyed it.”
I did enjoy it! But thank goodness it’s not really over; I can just hit the reload button. No matter how many times I do, I know that my pores won’t be any cleaner when I look in the mirror. But that’s not the point. Rather, Whisper fans take pleasure in the intimacy and complicity of pretending. That complicity applies even to the skin of the listener, a surface as vibrant as the skin of the speaker.
Joshua Hudelson is a Ph.D. student in the Music department at NYU. He received his MA in Digital Musics from Dartmouth College, where he conducted ethnographic fieldwork on the Electronic Voice Phenomenon community. He is currently writing about the Noiseless Typewriter.