Why I Don’t Like Girl Singers
A deliberately provocative title. Of course I like many girl singers.
The other day, I put on an album by a female artist, got through one song and then had to switch to something by a guy. Sort of like eating something sweet but wanting something salty; I just knew that I wanted to hear a guy’s voice.
That confirmed something I’ve known about myself for a long time, but have ignored. It’s not easy to admit that I don’t like my own kind, especially because women have historically been denied the access and acceptance so easily afforded to men in popular music. I can’t ignore this fact any longer, though. I like guy singers better than girls.
A simple explanation could be pure biology. I’m attracted to men, therefore I like to listen to them more. I’ve jokingly referred to the singers that I have “crushes” on in this blog; most of them I do not actually have crushes on. I mean, come on, if Geddy Lee really asked me on a date…well, I’d probably go, because I hear he has good (expensive?) taste in wine. Something that absolutely does drive me crazy about certain male singers, though, is their voices. A good voice will create a “crush” on them. Steve Earle, Raul Malo, Ron Sexsmith, Hank Williams (you can’t have a crush on a dead guy, right?), Ryan Adams, Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam…I get all dreamy about their voices and then forget about them. (Let me clarify that there is nothing wrong with the way they look or anything, it’s just that I only have so much room in my head for whatever constitutes a full-blown crush. I also have an age ceiling for crushes, which automatically kicks Hank out of the category.)
Far too facile an explanation.
The voice is the sort of pinnacle of human expression. It’s the conduit for many things: speaking, singing, non-linguistic vocalizations; it displays emotion, illness, and stress more readily than many other parts of our bodies. It’s the marker by which we identify someone, especially when no other signs of identification are available. In short, the voice is a complicated thing. We can quickly be excited or turned off by the sound of someone’s voice. Add to that visceral reaction the levels of feeling that are possible once you’re attached to the person (or not, as the case may be) and the voice becomes a pretty powerful thing.
I believe that there is a lot more room for men to be expressive singers than for women. Not to say women aren’t expressive, more that women don’t have the same variety of options. Have a listen to this Steve Earle tune:
In the course of one short song, he has a rasp and sometimes a growl, there’s clarity, he uses hiccups and gasps; there are times when his throat is tight and voice is strained, others when his throat is open and his voice is more resonant. That’s before we even think about how he’s articulating the lyrics.
Now listen to this one (you all know it, I know):
Scoops, hiccups, growling, roughness, all in the name of an aesthetic that pays tribute to country, punk, and rock.
But if a woman were to adopt these qualities, to this degree of variety, in her singing, she would have a far harder battle developing an audience. Think Janis Joplin. How many people actually like her? I don’t. I never choose to put her on.
The expectation remains that women have pretty voices, that they sing with clarity, resonance, maybe some sweetness. The baby-voice movement in indie music (and some recent country) is evidence of this. Also see every commercial for a department store. Gah.
My friend thinks this is because women tend to be directed by the industry, or audience expectation, into “prettier” sounding genres. You know, folk, pop, singer-songwriter, where clarity is prized over diversity. Of course, there are always exceptions.
Some prettiness in there, but at least more variety is mixed in.
Or the classics:
Take your basic yodel. Huge problem for women, right? I know this because when I learned Patsy Montana’s “I Want to be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” (hilarious aside: my colleague had Bob Wills’s “New San Antonio Rose” on a listening test this semester and one of his students called it “I Want to be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” by Jimmie Rodgers. Hm.) it wasn’t hard to yodel with her. Women don’t have the natural break in their voices the way men do, so I think that automatically takes away some expressive potential. I’m guessing unless you do it really well as a woman, it doesn’t sound all that interesting, but it’s a much harder thing for men to learn to produce that falsetto/chest quick switch.
There are female singers who dirty up their voices, and they are the ones I tend to like. I’m thinking of Lucinda Williams, Kathleen Edwards, Neko Case, those types. Listen to what Neko Case does with “Rated X”.
Or how Edwards migrates though some crazy register shifts in “Westby”.
The issue of imitation comes up too; how often do we like a singer who can replicate another’s voice? The whole reason I liked Chris Isaak’s Beyond the Sun record was because he imitated those original guys so well. Billy Cowsill is another example of someone who could channel Elvis and Roy Orbison. When LeAnn Rimes emerged, people couldn’t believe the likeness between her and Patsy Cline. As much as we want to admire a new voice, we can’t help but be drawn in to those that are familiar too. Here, I don’t think the gender issue matters so much.
Whether it’s biological or the consequence of genre expectations, it seems harder for women to find room to adopt all the vocal techniques men more commonly use. Would a female singer be successful singing a song like this? Probably not.
I think about singing a lot, so this isn’t surface-level musing for me. I notice when a singer’s register changes over the course of a couple albums, or when they start holding on to the ends of phrases longer. I’ve spent a lot of time listening closely to songs hundreds of times, documenting hiccups and breathing patterns in the academic work I’ve done on singing. Still, I imagine my suggestions here will rub people the wrong way, or maybe compel you to give examples of women who challenge the conventional notions of good female singing and still sound great.