[Piece for The Wire’s issue 352 on ‘Words and Music’, June 2013].
Once you start listening you can’t stop hearing it. The voice – female, or female-sounding at least, pre-recorded ‘real’ voices or mechanised tones, or, often, a weird cut-up mixture of both, dominates the sonic landscape. From the supermarket checkout machines with their chaste motherish inquiries (‘have you swiped your Nectar card?’) to repeated assertions regarding the modes of securitised paranoia (‘in these times of heightened security’), the female voice operates as a central asset in the continued securitisation and control of contemporary space, cutting across what little is left of the public realm and providing the appearance and the illusion of efficiency, calm and reassurance in commercial environments. It is estimated that 70% of recorded voices in the UK are female, or female-sounding. We all know this vocal tone, because we have no choice but to know it: it spans a narrow range between reassuring and relatively high-pitched, though ever-efficient, to deeper, more refined and sales-oriented: from clipped bus stop name announcements to Cadbury’s Caramel bunny and Mark’s and Spencer’s ads that sound like you’re wading through sexy gravy.
[A version of this text was published in The Acoustic City, edited by Matthew Gandy and BJ Nilsen, JOVIS Publishers, 2014)
Four questions to begin with: What is the pitch of the neoliberal city? How does the pitch of the city construct images of and for the humanity that travels through it? How does gender relate to control of this space – corporate, commercial, privatised space and the few remaining places we might (often erroneously, or perhaps nostalgically) refer to as “public space”? How does the soundscape of the city relate to forms of control – what I will call here “soft coercion” – that often goes unnoticed, or at least blends into the background and becomes simply part of the tapestry of the urban sonic environment, alongside the whirr of traffic, the babble of the crowd, birdsong, sirens? We may think of the sound of the city as somehow being ‘neutral’ on its own terms, or at least cacophonous enough to escape linear description, but by paying careful attention to the patterns of urban sounds we do more than simply listen: the over-familiarity of certain sonic tropes starts to tell us something key about the way in which both gender and control are constructed and reinforced.