Mariah Carey’s New Year’s Eve 2016 didn’t go so well. The pop diva graced a stage in the middle of Times Square as the clock ticked down to 2017 on Dick Clark’s Rockin New Year’s Eve, hosted by Ryan Seacrest. After Carey’s melismatic rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” the instrumental for “Emotions” kicked in and Carey, instead of singing, informed viewers that she couldn’t hear anything. What followed was five minutes of heartburn. Carey strutted across the stage, hitting all her marks along with her dancers but barely singing. She took a stab at a phrase here and there, mostly on pitch, unable to be sure. And she narrated the whole thing, clearly perturbed to be hung out to dry on such a cold night with millions watching. I imagine if we asked Carey about her producer after the show, we’d get a “I don’t know her.”
These things happen. Ashlee Simpson’s singing career, such as it was, screeched to a halt in 2004 on the stage of Saturday Night Live when the wrong backing track cued. Even Queen Bey herself had to deal with lip syncing outrage after using a backing track at former President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. So the reaction to Carey, replete with schadenfreude and metaphorical pearl-clutching, was unsurprising, if also entirely inane. (The New York Times suggested that Carey forgot the lyrics to “Emotions,” an occurrence that would be slightly more outlandish than if she forgot how to breathe, considering it’s one of her most popular tracks). But yeah, this happens: singers—especially singers in the cold—use backing tracks. I’m not filming a “leave Mariah alone!!” video, but there’s really nothing salacious in this performance. The reason I’m circling around Mariah Carey’s frosty New Year’s Eve performance is because it highlights an idea I’m thinking about—what I’m calling the “produced voice” —as well as some of the details that are a subset of that idea; namely, all voices are produced.
I mean “produced” in a couple of ways. One is the Judith Butler way: voices, like gender (and, importantly, in tandem with gender), are performed and constructed. What does my natural voice sound like? I dunno. AO Roberts underlines this in a 2015 Sounding Out! post: “we’ll never really know how we sound,” but we’ll know that social constructions of gender helped shape that sound. Race, too. And class. Cultural norms makes physical impacts on us, perhaps in the particular curve of our spines as we learn to show raced or gendered deference or dominance, perhaps in the texture of our hands as we perform classed labor, or perhaps in the stress we apply to our vocal cords as we learn to sound in appropriately gendered frequency ranges or at appropriately raced volumes. That cultural norms literally shape our bodies is an important assumption that informs my approach to the “produced voice.” In this sense, the passive construction of my statement “all voices are produced” matters; we may play an active role in vibrating our vocal cords, but there are social and cultural forces that we don’t control acting on the sounds from those vocal cords at the same moment.
Another way I mean that all voices are produced is that all recorded singing voices are shaped by studio production. This can take a few different forms, ranging from obvious to subtle. In the Migos song “T-Shirt,” Quavo’s voice is run through pitch-correction software so that the last word of each line of his verse (ie, the rhyming words: “five,” “five,” “eyes,” “alive”) takes on an obvious robotic quality colloquially known as the AutoTune effect. Quavo (and T-Pain and Kanye and Future and all the other rappers and crooners who have employed this effect over the years) isn’t trying to hide the production of his voice; it’s a behind-the-glass technique, but that glass is transparent. Less obvious is the way a voice like Adele’s is processed. Because Adele’s entire persona is built around the natural power of her voice, any studio production applied to it—like, say, the cavernous reverb and delay on “Hello” —must land in a sweet spot that enhances the perceived naturalness of her voice.
Vocal production can also hinge on how other instruments in a mix are processed. Take Remy Ma’s recent diss of Nicki Minaj, “ShETHER.” “ShETHER”’s instrumental, which is a re-performance of Nas’s “Ether,” draws attention to the lower end of Remy’s voice. “Ether” and “ShETHER” are pitched in identical keys and Nas’s vocals fall in the same range as Remy’s. But the synth that bangs out the looping chord progression in “ShETHER” is slightly brighter than the one on “Ether,” with a metallic, digital high end the original lacks. At the same time, the bass that marks the downbeat of each measure is quieter in “ShETHER” than it is in “Ether.” The overall effect, with less instrumental occupying “ShETHER”’s low frequency range and more digital overtones hanging in the high frequency range, causes Remy Ma’s voice to seem lower, manlier, than Nas’s voice because of the space cleared for her vocals in the mix. The perceived depth of Remy’s produced voice toys with the hypermasculine nature of hip hop beefs, and queers perhaps the most famous diss track in the genre. While engineers apply production effects directly to the vocal tracks of Quavo and Adele to make them sound like a robot or a power diva, the Remy Ma example demonstrates how gender play can be produced through a voice by processing what happens around the vocals.
Let’s return to Times Square last New Year’s Eve to consider the produced voice in a hybrid live/recorded setting. Carey’s first and third songs “Auld Lang Syne” and “We Belong Together”) were entirely back-tracked—meaning the audience could hear a recorded Mariah Carey even if the Mariah Carey moving around on our screen wasn’t producing any (sung) vocals. The second, “Emotions,” had only some background vocals and the ridiculously high notes that young Mariah Carey was known for. So, had the show gone to plan, the audience would’ve heard on-stage Mariah Carey singing along with pre-recorded studio Mariah Carey on the first and third songs, while on-stage Mariah Carey would’ve sung the second song entirely, only passing the mic to a much younger studio version of herself when she needed to hit some notes that her body can’t always, well, produce anymore. And had the show gone to plan, most members of the audience wouldn’t have known the difference between on-stage and pre-recorded Mariah Carey. It would’ve been a seamless production. Since nothing really went to plan (unless, you know, you’re into some level of conspiracy theory that involves self-sabotage for the purpose of trending on Twitter for a while), we were all privy to a component of vocal production—the backing track that aids a live singer—that is often meant to go undetected.
The produced-ness of Mariah Carey’s voice is compelling precisely because of her tremendous singing talent, and this is where we circle back around to Butler. If I were to start in a different place–if I were, in fact, to write something like, “Y’all, you’ll never believe this, but Britney Spears’s singing voice is the result of a good deal of studio intervention”–well, we wouldn’t be dealing with many blown minds from that one, would we? Spears’s career isn’t built around vocal prowess, and she often explores robotic effects that, as with Quavo and other rappers, make the technological intervention on her voice easy to hear. But Mariah Carey belongs to a class of singers—along with Adele, Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé, Ariana Grande—who are perceived to have naturally impressive voices, voices that aren’t produced so much as just sung. The Butler comparison would be to a person who seems to fit quite naturally into a gender category, the constructed nature of that gender performance passing nearly undetected. By focusing on Mariah Carey, I want to highlight that even the most impressive sung voices are produced, and that means that we can not only ask questions about the social and cultural impact of gender, race, class, ability, sexuality, and other norms may have on those voices, but also how any sung voice (from Mariah Carey’s to Quavo’s) is collaboratively produced—by singer, technician, producer, listener—in relation to those same norms.
Being able to ask those questions can get us to some pretty intriguing details. At the end of the third song, “We Belong Together,” she commented “It just don’t get any better” before abandoning the giant white feathers that were framing her onstage. After an awkward pause (during which I imagine Chris Tucker’s “Don’t cut to me!” face), the unflappable Ryan Seacrest noted, “No matter what Mariah does, the crowd absolutely loves it. You can’t go wrong with Ms. Carey, and those hits, those songs, everybody knows.” Everybody knows. We didn’t need to hear Mariah Carey sing “Emotions” that night because we could fill it all in–everybody knows that song. Wayne Marshall has written about listeners’ ability to fill in the low frequencies of songs even when we’re listening on lousy systems—like earbuds or cell phone speakers—that can’t really carry it to our ears. In the moment of technological failure, whether because a listener’s speakers are terrible or a performer’s monitors are, listeners become performers. We heard what was supposed to be there, and we supplied the missing content.
Sound is intimate, a meeting of bodies vibrating in time with one another. Yvon Bonenfant, citing Stephen Connor’s idea of the “vocalic body,” notes this physicality of sound as a “vibratory field” that leaves a vocalizer and “voyages through space. Other people hear it. Other people feel it.” But in the case of “Emotions” on New Year’s Eve, I heard a voice that wasn’t there. It was Mariah Carey’s, her vocalic body sympathetically vibrated into being. The question that catches me here is this: what happens in these moments when a listener takes over as performer? In my case, I played the role of Mariah Carey for a moment. I was on my couch, surrounded by my family, but I felt a little colder, like I was maybe wearing a swimsuit in the middle of Times Square in December, and my heart rate ticked up a bit, like maybe I was kinda panicked about something going wrong, and I heard Mariah Carey’s voice—not, crucially, my voice singing Mariah Carey’s lyrics—singing in my head. I could feel my vocal cords compressing and stretching along with Carey’s voice in my head, as if her voice were coming from my body. Which, in fact it was—just not my throat—as this was a collaborative and intimate production, my body saying, “Hey, Mariah, I got this,” and performing “Emotions” when her body wasn’t.
By stressing the collaborative nature of the produced voice, I don’t intend to arrive at some “I am Mariah” moment that I could poignantly underline by changing my profile picture on Facebook. Rather, I’m thinking of ways someone else’s voice is could lodge itself in other bodies, turning listeners into collaborators too. The produced voice, ultimately, is a way to theorize unlikely combinations of voices and bodies.
Featured image: By all-systems-go at Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Gendered Sonic Violence, from the Waiting Room to the Locker Room-Rebecca Lentjes
I’m happy to introduce the final post in Guest Editor Justin Burton‘s three part series for SO!, “The Wobble Continuum.” I’ll leave Justin to recap the series and reflect on it a little in his article below, but first I want to express our appreciation to him for his thoughtful curation of this exciting series, the first in the new Thursday stream at Sounding Out!. Thanks for getting the ball rolling!
Next month be sure to watch this space for a preview of sound at the upcoming Society for Cinema & Media Studies meeting in Seattle, and a new four part series on radio in Latin America by Guest Editor Tom McEnaney.
— Neil Verma, Special Editor for ASA/SCMS
I’m standing at a bus stop outside the Convention Center in downtown Indianapolis, whistling. The tune, “Braves,” is robust, a deep, oscillating comeuppance of the “Tomahawk Chop” melody familiar from my youth (the Braves were always on TBS). There’s a wobbly synthesizer down in the bass, a hi hat cymbal line pecking away at the Tomahawk Chop. This whistled remix of mine really sticks it to the original tune and the sports teams who capitalize on racist appropriations of indigenous cultures. All in all, it’s a sublime bit of musicality I’m bestowing upon the cold Indianapolis streets.
Until I become aware of the other person waiting for the bus. As I glance over at him, I can now hear my tune for what it is. The synthesizer and hi hat are all in my head, the bass nowhere to be heard. This isn’t the mix I intended, A Tribe Called Red’s attempt at defanging the Tomahawk Chop, at re-appropriating stereotypical sounds and spitting them back out on their own terms. Nope, this is just a guy on the street whistling those very stereotypes: it’s the Tomahawk Chop. I suddenly don’t feel like whistling anymore.
As we conclude our Wobble Continuum guest series here at Sounding Out!, I want to think about the connective tissues binding together the previous posts from Mike D’Errico and Christina Giacona, joining A Tribe Called Red and the colonialist culture into which they release their music, and linking me to the guy at the bus stop who is not privy to the virtuosic sonic accompaniment in my head. In each case, I’ll pay attention to sound as material conjoining producers and consumers, and I’ll play with Karen Barad’s notion of performativity to hear the way these elements interact [Jason Stanyek and Ben Piekut also explore exciting possibilities from Barad in “Deadness” (TDR 54:1, 2010)].
Drawing from physicist Niels Bohr, Barad begins with the fact that matter is fundamentally indeterminate. This is formally laid out in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which notes that the more precisely we can determine (for instance) the position of a particle, the less we can say with certainty about its momentum (and vice versa). Barad points out that “‘position’ only has meaning when a rigid apparatus with fixed parts is used (eg, a ruler is nailed to a fixed table in the laboratory, thereby establishing a fixed frame of reference for establishing ‘position’)” (2003, 814).
This kind of indeterminacy is characteristic of sound, which vibrates along a cultural continuum, and which, in sliding back and forth along that continuum, allows us to tune into some information even as other information distorts or disappears. This can feel very limiting, but it can also be exhilarating, as what we are measuring are a variety of possibilities prepared to unfold before us as matter and sound become increasingly unpredictable and slippery. We can observe this continuum in the tissue connecting the previous posts in this series. In the first, Mike D’Errico tunes into the problematic hypermasculinity of brostep, pinpointing the ways music software interfaces can rehash tropes of control and dominance (Robin James has responded with productive expansions of these ideas), dropping some areas of music production right back into systems of patriarchy. In the second post, Giacona, in highlighting the anti-racist and anti-colonial work of A Tribe Called Red, speaks of the “impotence” visited upon the Tomahawk Chop by ATCR’s sonic interventions. Here, hypermasculinity is employed as a means of colonial reprimand for a hypermasculine, patriarchal culture. In sliding from one post to the other, we’ve tuned into different frequencies along a continuum, hearing the possibilities (both terrorizing and ameliorative) of patriarchal production methods unfolding before us.
Barad locates the performative upshot of this kind of indeterminacy in the fact that the scientist, the particle, and the ruler nailed to the table in the lab are all three bound together as part of a single phenomenon—they become one entity. To observe something is to become entangled with it, so that all of the unfolding possibilities of that particle become entwined with the unfolding possibilities of the scientist and the ruler, too. The entire phenomenon becomes indeterminate as the boundaries separating each entity bleed together, and these entities only detangle by performing—by acting out—boundaries among themselves.
Returning to Giacona’s discussion of “Braves,” it’s possible to mix and remix our components to perform them—to act them out—in more than one way. Giacona arranges it so that ATCR is the scientist, observing a particle that is a colonizing culture drunk on its own stereotypes. Here, “Braves” is the ruler that allows listeners to measure something about that culture. Is that something location? Direction? Even if we can hear clearly what Giacona leads us to—an uncovering of stereotypes so pernicious as to pervade, unchallenged, everyday activities—there’s an optimism available in indeterminacy. As we slide along the continuum to the present position of this colonialist culture, the certainty with which we can say anything about its trajectory lessens, opening the very possibility that motivates ATCR, namely the hope of something better.
But listening and sounding are tricky things. As I think about my whistling of “Braves” in Indianapolis, it occurs to me that Giacona’s account is easily subverted. It could be that ATCR is the particle, members of a group of many different nations reduced to a single voice in a colonial present populated by scientists (continuing the analogy) who believe in Manifest Destiny and Johnny Depp. Now the ruler is not “Braves” but the Tomahawk Chop melody ATCR attempts to critique, and the group is measured by the same lousy standard colonizers always use. In this scenario, people attend ATCR shows in redface and headdresses, and I stand on the street whistling a war chant. We came to the right place, but we heard—or in my case, re-sounded—the wrong thing.
Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s “listening ear” is instructive here. Cultures as steeped in indigenous stereotypes as the United States and Canada have conditioned their ears to hear ATCR through whiteness, through colonialism, making it difficult to perceive the subversive nature of “Braves.” ATCR plays a dangerous game in which they are vulnerable to being heard as a war chant rather than a critique; their material must be handled with care. There’s a simple enough lesson for me and my whistling: some sounds should stay in my head. But Barad offers something more fundamental to what we do as listeners. By recognizing that 1). there are connective tissues deeply entangling the materiality of our selves, musicians, and music and 2). listening is a continuum revealing only some knowledge at any given moment, we can begin to imagine and perform the many possibilities that open up to us in the indeterminacy of listening.
If everything sounds certain to us when we listen, we’re doing it wrong. Instead, for music to function productively, we as listeners must find our places in a wobbly continuum whose tissues connect us to the varied appendages of music and culture. Once so entangled, we’ll ride those synth waves down to the low end as hi hats all the while tap out the infinite possibilities opening in front of us.
Featured image: “a tribe called red_hall4_mozpics (2)_GF” by Flickr user Trans Musicales, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Justin Burton is a musicologist specializing in US popular music and culture. He is especially interested in hip hop and the ways it is sounded across regions, locating itself in specific places even as it expresses transnational and diasporic ideas.He is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, where he teaches in the school’s Popular Music and Culture program. He helped design the degree, which launched in the fall of 2012, and he is proud to be able to work in such a unique program. His book-length project – Posthuman Pop – blends his interests in hip hop and technology by engaging contemporary popular music through the lens of posthuman theory. Recent and forthcoming publications include an exploration of the Mozart myth as it is presented in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus and then parodied in an episode of The Simpsons (Journal of Popular Culture 46:3, 2013), an examination of the earliest iPod silhouette commercials and the notions of freedom they are meant to convey (Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies), and a long comparative review of Kanye and Jay Z’s Watch the Throne and the Roots’ Undun (Journal for the Society of American Music). He is also co-editing with Ali Colleen Neff a special issue of the Journal of Popular Music Studies titled “Sounding Global Southernness.” He currently serves on the executive committee of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music-US Branch and is working on an oral history project of the organization. From June 2011 through May 2013, he served as Editor of the IASPM-US website, expanding the site’s offerings with the cutting edge work of popular music scholars from around the world. You can contact him at justindburton [at] gmail [dot] com.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“Further Experiments in Agent-based Musical Composition”-Andreas Duus Pape