Trauma, Dissociation, and the Popular Singing Voice
University of Oregon,
Trauma marks the voice. Erwin Randolph Parson talks about survivors’ trauma-voice in therapy, saying it “tells more about what really happened, and what has been broken and shattered inside than ordinary words ever can” (1999, 20). Sexual assault is very common and often leads to traumatic responses in the body. Many women have written and performed songs about their experiences, and I argue that they use vocal timbre to express the subsequent trauma that sexual violence causes. Dissociation, a common trauma symptom, is a consequence of the freeze trauma response and disconnects the mind and body, creating both emotional and physical numbness (van der Kolk 2014; Scaer 2014). Survivors of sexual assault experience dissociation at higher rates than survivors of other types of trauma; many even describe feeling as if they remember their experience as though they were watching it from a bird’s eye view. Drawing from both psychological research (Overland 2005; Porges 2011) and music-analytical literature (Heidemann 2016; Malawey 2020), I show that dissociation is evident in the singers’ vocal timbre.
What kinds of sounds convey this intense disconnection from one’s body? In this paper, I describe three ways that singers portray dissociation through their vocal timbre. First, I show how light, vocal consistency—without big changes in volume, pitch, etc.—portrays dissociation’s characteristic numbness. Second, I demonstrate how the voice’s placement in sonic space (Duguay 2021, 2022) can be used to express disconnection through techniques such as reverb and distant micing. Just as someone experiences looking at themselves from across the room as they dissociate, the sound does not stay grounded in one spot and seems to travel across a large sonic space. Third, technological mediation of the voice can portray a separation from reality. Sometimes this production can make it sound as if that voice would not come out of the person singing, or even out of a human being. By examining these portrayals of trauma in popular music, I emphasize the immense emotional power of the voice—which can portray how you are feeling, or even who you are—through the lens of trauma.
Voicing Form in Beyoncé's Lemonade
University of Oregon
In her juggernaut 2016 album Lemonade, Beyoncé uses real-life events surrounding her husband Jay-Z’s infidelity to interrogate “the historical impact of slavery on Black love,” as the film’s director Malina Matsoukas puts it (Okeowo 2017). Both a 13-track audio album and a 65-minute film, Lemonade has generated substantial scholarly discourse, the subject of at least two edited collections (Brooks & Martin 2019; Baade & McGee 2021), a monograph (Tinsley 2018), countless articles from both scholars (Benbow 2019; Olutola 2019) and critics (Hope 2016; Richards 2016), and one highly critical polemic by a Black feminist icon (hooks 2016). Much of this literature has focused on how the album’s images and words portray a complex picture of Black femininity in American culture and history.
In this paper, I argue that the album’s Black feminist narrative also plays out in its musical aspects. In particular, I demonstrate that Beyoncé’s vocal delivery synchronizes with her songs’ forms to create a structural narrative that both reinforces and contributes to the thematic narrative of betrayal, healing, and restorative justice. As I show, Beyoncé uses variations in phonation, register, and laryngeal position to differentiate song sections throughout the album. These vocal shifts reflect the album’s tripartite narrative structure: In Part 1 (tracks 1–6), Beyoncé’s persona puts on various postures in reaction to her husband’s infidelity, reflected by different vocal styles in these songs’ successive verses. In Part 2, Beyoncé’s persona embraces healing, using more consistent and vulnerable vocal styles to peel away her hard façade. Finally, in Part 3, Beyoncé uses Aretha Franklin–like belt and coy, confident vocal fry to present her own persona and story as “surrogate[s] for African Americans and their struggle against oppression” (Prins and Myers 2021, 299).
In “How Not to Listen to Lemonade,” Robin James argues that critics’ tendency to situate the album’s Black feminism entirely within its visual aspects negates the political role of the album’s musical elements (2019). In presenting vocal delivery and song form as narrative features, my analysis instead shows how musical structure contributes to and intersects with the album’s Black feminism and broader socio-cultural significance.
Stability and Instability in Vocal Performance: A Case Study of Rihanna’s Anti (2016)
Brooklyn College and Graduate Center, City University of New York,
This paper presents a close reading of Rihanna’s vocal style across the tracks of her 2016 album Anti through a combination of quantitative and qualitative analytic methods. Rihanna has been more widely studied outside of music scholarship than within it. Within music scholarship, her solo work is less commonly studied than her work featuring rap artists or work where she is featured, and when her solo vocal work has been considered it has largely been in the context of auto-tuned performances. Anti is an interesting object of study for Rihanna's vocal style because at the time of its reelase, her vocals were specifically highlighted in numerous published reviews and her vocal producer Kuk Harrell was quoted as saying that Rihanna was heavily involved in production. Thus, one can view Rihanna’s voice on Anti as a curated product where she had agency throughout the entire creation process. While interest in describing the singing voice has steadily increased in recent years in music theory, close listening and spectrogram reading remain the dominant approaches, with only a small number of published studies making use of features estimated through audio signal analysis. The careful use of perceptually-informed audio features, however, can both capture the listening experience and facilitate research that is more descriptive, verifiable, reproducible, and scalable. The quantitative analysis in this paper is audio feature-based and performed using AMPACT — a signal processing toolkit for estimating low-level pitch- and timbre-related performance features — on isolated vocals tracks. The estimated audio features are compared using statistical modeling techniques to look for consistencies related to qualitative descriptors derived from holistic, close listening to the original audio tracks. Specifically, the analysis uses audio features (specifically jitter and spectral flux) that can capture and distinguish between the sonic qualities of stability and instability, revealing aspects of stylistic and emotional differences across tracks. The paper will also examine how Rihanna’s general vocal style can be characterized by these audio features, as well as implications for studying larger corpora.
Excess Inhalations in Taylor Swift’s Midnights (2022)
Lamont School of Music
Singers, wind-instrumentalists, and even pianists and music analysts are instructed to “breathe at the end of the phrase.” Similarly, several analysts of popular music have defined “phrase” as “all the words sung in one breath.” This approaches casts inhalation as a small-scale formal marker, mirroring its role in conversation. In contrast, this presentation explores the expressive potential of inhalation, specifically in tracks on Taylor Swift’s 2022 release Midnights. I define “excess inhalations” as those that do not coincide with the ends of syntactic units or poetic lineation. Further, I use a model of syntactic dependencies to characterize the varying disruptiveness of excess inhalations. In Swift’s singing and songwriting, excess inhalations can characterize formal sections and support depictions of memory and morality in the lyrics, abilities I demonstrate in analyses of “Lavender Haze,” “Karma,” and “Maroon.”
Because this model of vocal delivery considers only inhalation, poetic lineation, and syntactic structure, it is not limited to one genre. Further work may find commonalities in delivery currently obscured by genre, including the many genres Swift herself has inhabited (e.g., country, pop, indie, etc.). More broadly, the approach characterizes as “musical” phenomena of text delivery not encountered in other kinds of vocal performances, including speech, such as excess inhalations. Thus, this approach might be augmented with insights from phonetics and intonational phonology to further qualify what makes the delivery of some language “musical,” rather than poetic, narrational, or conversational.