Vocal Stylings

via NYTimes:

Last summer, in a post about all my seasonal listening — which included an awful lot of podcasts — I commented on a weird sonic trend I had discerned among well educated, culturally savvy young ladies on the radio. Here’s what I wrote:

[This American Life’s] rebroadcast earlier this summer of their episode on Infidelity was, in a way, a sonic revelation for me. Click on the link and listen to the Prologue [0:54 -> 3:42]. I listened to this section at least ten times — not because I was particularly taken by the story, but because I was taken with the [female] guest’s voice. By “taken with” I mean: positively nettled. Over the past couple years I’ve noticed a mini-trend among well-educated, seemingly self-confident young women on the radio: their voices emerge initially from the front of their mouths, then, over the course of a sentence, move back into their throats. Their sentences trail off into whispery, raspy monotones — kind of East-Coast-Ivy-League-Valley-Girl-All-Grown-Up-And-Working-At-The-New-Yorker. It sounds knowing and lazy and jaded all at the same time. I heard it again near the end of the inaugural n+1 podcast — and again, in a differently “timbred” variation, in [a] Triple Canopy podcast [and regularly in Third Coast’s amazing Re:sound podcas]
. As podcasts make possible the increasing niche-ification of audio micro/broad-casting, I wonder about the cultivation of particular stylized “vocal types.” The “throatily jaded” sound seems to be one of them.

Lo and behold — there’s a name for that odd affectation. And of course it’s not specific to podcasts; it’s a global epidemic! It’s vocal fry. The New York Times ran a story about it in the Science section this week (it’s news for them, but not for vocal scientists — nor for my husband, an actor, who learned lots of vocal tricks in acting school, and who told me about vocal fry a while ago). Young women, it seems, are trend-setters when it comes to vocal stylings:

The latest linguistic curiosity to emerge from the petri dish of girl culture gained a burst of public recognition in December, when researchers from Long Island University published a paper about it in The Journal of Voice. Working with what they acknowledged was a very small sample — recorded speech from 34 women ages 18 to 25 — the professors said they had found evidence of a new trend among female college students: a guttural fluttering of the vocal cords they called “vocal fry.”

A classic example of vocal fry, best described as a raspy or croaking sound injected (usually) at the end of a sentence, can be heard when Mae West says, “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me,” or, more recently on television, when Maya Rudolph mimics Maya Angelou on “Saturday Night Live.”

Some researchers propose that use of the fry is a “natural result of women’s lowering their voices to sound more authoritative.” Or it can be “used to communicate disinterest, something teenage girls are notoriously fond of doing.” Apparently, the trend has spread to the late-20/early-30-something female literati.

Another trend I’ve noticed among the intelligentsia — and I’m certainly not alone in this — is a tendency among speakers at academic conferences (keynoters in particular!) to end their sentences with “right?,” then move quickly along to the next sentence. I’ve heard so many people do this at the last few conferences I’ve attended. Maybe “right” is the new conjunction. Or maybe it’s just filler — a self-assuredly affirmative “um.” Regardless, it irks me in its repeated, arrogant presumption of my agreement. It’s inflected as a question — you with me? — but functions as an imperative: stay with me, dammit! i’m right!

Another rhetorical strategy that I’ve become more conscious of, and which seems to be commonly used during Q&A sessions at academic presentations, is the “That’s interesting, but what I’m interested in is…” evasion. Somebody in the audience will raise a valid question or critique, and rather than engaging with that critique, the presenter frames it as outside his or her area of interest, and thus outside his or her realm of responsibility.

Questioner: “I appreciated your talk, but I wonder how you arrived at the conclusion that video games are a vastly more efficient teaching technology — and that all public schools should trash their books and fill the libraries with X-boxes — when your study ran for only one week, and your sample consisted solely of your son.”

Evader: “That’s super-interestaaaaannng, but what I’m really interested in is [some B.S. that probably includes the phrase “complex interplay].”

3 replies on “Vocal Stylings”

Oh, man, these are so right on. I felt a little bit ashamed for being irritated about vocal fry after reading the NYT article, because, yeah, that kind of makes sense that young women would use it to signal to each other or assume authority. But the “right” thing, I have no problem disparaging that. Once you notice it, it’s like a pebble in your shoe. For my part, I’ve noticed “sort of” entering my speech as a kind of replacement for “um.” I wonder if it’s a lady thing, to try to temper what I’m saying?

Anyway, this piece is super-interestaaaaaang, but what I’m really interested in …

Thanks, Miriam! Agreed: we should probably give the fry a little slack for the political work it’s trying to do — but on a purely sonic level…damn! It kills me!

It’s interesting what you say about “sort of.” I find myself often adding “conditionals” in class — “maybe,” “sort of,” “I think” (when, really, I know)… And then I edit myself: “No, it’s not sort of — it is, flat out!” Why this compulsion to temper or undermine ourselves?

Another thing academics love to do: preface every sentence with “so”, even if that sentence isn’t a continuation of anything. For example:

Question: “What kind of research do you do?”
Response: “So, I’m interested in the ways that…”


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