Fry Now, Pay Layer
If I can’t use my natural speaking voice, then I don’t want your revolution.
Published: December 28, 2011
“Vocal fry” is when you force your voice into its lowest frequency, that growly, trying-to-be-Barry-White register that either makes you sound like a laid-back, hard-living sage (if you’re Jeff Bridges narrating a Hyundai commercial) or that you woke up with cottonmouth in the Golden Ring Mall parking lot (if you’re Ke$ha). Zooey Deschanel grinds out the butt of most of her sentences with a streak of vocal fry. Kim Kardashian creaks so much in her Skechers Super Bowl ad that she sounds like a honeymoon bed frame. Unlike other speech pathologies, such as lisps or stutters, vocal fry is entirely under conscious control, and its affectation is increasingly popular among American women. (I checked: Smoky-voice queen Lauren Bacall uses no vocal fry in her sultry, low-octave exhortation to “pucker your lips and blow” in 1944’s To Have and Have Not, but Ke$ha’s “Blow” is chock full of slutty Cookie Monster purr.) A recent study at Long Island University reported more than two-thirds of women in their sample group use vocal fry as part of their daily speech, usually at the end of sentences, and more frequently in groups of their peers. As a feminine speech pattern, it’s replacing the affectation of the upswing? You know, the Valley Girl uncertainty mark? That shows I’m not really an authority on, like, anything?
My mom the speech pathologist, however, is an authority. (She takes speech, and the speech of famous people, very seriously. At my house, growing up, we always watched Peter Jennings because Tom Brokaw’s misplaced glottal “L” drives her crazy.) She doesn’t mince words: “Vocal fry is an abusive use of the voice.” Apparently it vibrates the false vocal folds, which are an extension of the throat above the real vocal chords. It’s not part of your true voice, and making it a habit can cause throat nodules and polyps. “It’s popular among performers,” my mom told me. “You know, like Janis Joplin.”
Ah, Janis. What a mess. The archetypal sensitive soul who decided to out-party the boys and paid the price for pretending her liver was just like a man’s. Vocal fry might be the opposite of falsetto for women, in that it tries to copy the false authority of the booming male voice (in a mocking, kittenish way, like how cute you look wearing the top of your boyfriend’s pajamas), but you just end up destroying your speech. It’s as corsets are to ribcages and high heels are to Achilles tendons—make it part of the daily reshaping of your natural confines and the body will rebel. It advertises to the world that you’re prestressed concrete, the “I’m happy to destroy myself” ethic made aural.
If talking like a man is vocal fry, is working 80 high-stress hours a week like a man vocational fry? Is drinking like a man liver fry? Is pretending you don’t have cramps menstrual fry? Is buttoning up your tears so people won’t think you’re weak emotional fry? At the end you’re just fried. I’m done with any school of feminism that thinks it’s succeeded by turning me into a pretend man. I cry, and get tired, and can’t match you drink for drink. To paraphrase Emma Goldman, if I can’t use my natural speaking voice, then I don’t want your revolution.
But thankfully, there’s still room for real female voices in pop. Lady Gaga, for all her wacky costumes, is a classically trained vocalist who never abuses her instrument. The vocals in “Born This Way” are completely fry-free. Beyoncé flies through the multiple octaves of “Halo” without grinding into fry on the lowest notes. And while P!nk uses a little fry, like fret squeaks on guitar strings, in the opening lines of “Fuckin’ Perfect,” by the time she gets to the self-empowered chorus her voice is true. It’s interesting how female vocalists who’ve imbued their public image with a message of authenticity and self-respect also take care with their throats, and don’t rely on false vocal folds to sing in their true voice.
On a hunch I went back and looked at Deep Throat, at the dialogue scenes that usually get skipped over. Linda Lovelace has a Bronx accent but her speech is perfect—sweet, light, appropriate to her range, no pathologies and no vocal fry. If Linda Lovelace, god rest her battered soul, took greater care with her throat than Kim Kardashian does, we’re in big trouble.
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