‘Once You Start Listening You Can’t Stop Hearing It’

[Piece for The Wire’s issue 352 on ‘Words and Music’, June 2013].

Nina Power


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.

It is the voice that Thatcher paid speech coaches at the Royal National Theatre to learn, vocal training that made her voice deeper and more authoritative, ridding her of the ‘hectoring tones of the housewife’ as her biographer, Charles Moore, puts it. It is the voice of the postwar radio, a bit Radio 4, a bit like rationing. It is the voice of soft power and coercion; it is the sound of control from Sat Navs to train stations, from pre-recorded, keystroke-activated telephone messages to the voice that calls on ‘Inspector Sands’ to investigate fire or bomb threat in stations without – allegedly – alarming the public. The words spoken through and by these voices are informative (‘Old Street’ being my particular favourite tube station announcement, as Emma Clarke, dropped from the post of announcer following parodies she made of her own voice, mixes up high posh – ‘Old’ sounding like ‘owed’ or ‘auwed’, all pinched and clipped, with ‘Street’ sounding oddly casual, with the ‘t’ almost severed off: ‘Owed Stree’). This voice operates perhaps as a kind of anti-music, though it is on a continuum with the use of classical music to ‘calm crowds’, a post-Clockwork Orange technique sometimes used to quell the threat of ‘antisocial behaviour’, a technique first pioneered in Montreal in the mid-1990s. Here words and music are seen as separate tools of control, a stark division of labour that reinforces archiac images of unruly mobs and nagging women.

Half-servile, half-bossy: the words are not the point of the recordings, but the tone is. The female-sounding voice is pragmatic in situations where the pitch needs to rise about the rumbling of a train, or the sound of aeroplanes taking off, say, but it is also a voice that tells us a lot more than how travel relates to time. Pre-recorded ‘real voices’ meet artificially generated femmebot vocals, and even the ‘authentic’ voices are turned into bits that can be disaggregated into useful blocks: ‘this train is delayed by approximately’/ ‘fifteen’/ ‘minutes’. Do we hear form or content first, or do they simply fuse into expression, all the more effective in the case of background and ubiquitous speech? ‘It’s much more important how language sounds than what its concrete content is’ says the time-stretched and masculinised voice of Trish Lyons (as Viralux) on the short film ‘Fassbinder’. Laurie Anderson’s pitch-shifted ‘Voice of Authority’, and her ‘male’ alter-ego, Fenway Bergamot, has long explored, with parodic and political intent, the cultural demand and desire to link male voices with speech that commands, moving from mimicry to commentary as her position on the authority of this voice shifted over the years. On 2010’s Homeland, where Anderson appears as in both visual and audio ‘drag’ as her male alter-ego, her words – half mocking, half commentating – particularly on the heavily wordy ‘Only An Expert’ nevertheless relies heavily on racing beats and dramatic melodies in the chorus. Here words and music pull together in the name of archness and parody, restoring a unity to their shared existence, rather than tearing them apart as we see in the public realm.

Anderson’s project finds extraordinary resolution and perfection, even, in Beyonce’s recent ‘Bow own Bitches/I Been On’, where female aspiration, autonomy and alpha-femme archness morphs abruptly into a pitch-shifted deep-voiced ‘male’ homage to Houston. By exploding gender through machines, Beyonce raises the question that Thatcher felt she had to answer: what does the true voice of power sound like? The division of vocal labour that feminises quotidian announcements but preserves the ‘male’ voice for the ‘serious’ work of politics and thinking reinforces the division of cultural space across strict gendered lines. And yet when pop turns to the mechanisms of gender reinforcement and spatial control, it often does so parodically, ironically and subversively: the machine here is an ally in the war on conformism and reinforcement. Janine Rostron’s Planningtorock’s project, which explicitly aims to challenge the bounds of sonic and sexual identity, addresses, as she puts it, how you can communicate with the voice ‘even without words’. Rostron, whose move from Bolton to Berlin forced her to confront questions of dialect and identity, on her Planningtorock track ‘Misogyny Drop Dead’ presents a voice so perfectly balanced between one gender and many that a new possibility for the voice emerges in its entirety – the voice as undecidable. Sweden’s The Knife too, with their new album, ‘Shaking the Habitual’ present a similar strongly ambiguous sonic universe in which gender is pitch-shifted, thrown around all over bouncing bass, bird-sounding keyboard twitterings and 80s electro-brashness and made the subject of mesmeric lyrics: ‘Let’s talk about gender baby/ Let’s talk about you and me’ as opening track ‘Full of Fire’ puts it.

To decide, as the sonic reinforcements of daily life push us to do, is already to determine. An advert for voice manipulation makes this possibility strangely clear:

Fake Voice is a voice changer software that helps you change your voice to male, female, old, young, teen, hard, robot, shrill, or some one totally new. It helps you transform your voice to something new. Just integrate Fake Voice with your IM and do voices with your friends.

‘Male, female, old, young, teen, hard, robot, shrill’. ‘Someone totally new’. The question of the words themselves take a back seat to the form: where pop is so often predicated on the divide between someone else’s words, another’s expression, and a subsequent dissipation of meaning into the world at large, why not draw attention to the means of production, to the machines themselves, and put them to use in destroying the ways in which they control and create space and ‘normality’?

The petty everyday fused forms of multiple female stereotypes: the manipulator of banal information, the carer, the mother, the secretary, the careful one, the one supposed to be concerned about safety haunt the mechanised female voice, and the words this voice is forced to speak. But the pitch-shifted voice, the androgynous sonics of the still human but perfectly genderless, hint at another world entirely: a world not of heavily sexed coercion and control, but of a world in which words are less servants of domination than opportunities for experimentation, of the music of words themselves.

Published by Nina Power

Writer, Philosopher

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