This is the fifth post in a series inspired by Lake Bell’s audiobook chapter “Sexy Baby Voice.” In previous posts I’ve covered the three key features she uses to define this vocal style – bright resonance (which Bell refers to as “high pitch”), creaky voice (“vocal fry”) and legato articulation (“slurring”), and discussed the various ways that we can manipulate our vocal tracts to create or amplify bright or dark resonances. Now I want to talk about your voice.
Not your voice, but what people mean when they say “your voice.” A friend who’s a vocal coach and read my earlier posts sent me a not-very-funny opening scene from a sitcom called Loudermilk, where the title character (played by Ron Livingstone of Office Space) mocks and insults a young woman who takes his order at a coffee bar. The salesclerk is friendly, prompt and thorough; Loudermilk has no cause for complaint. His abuse is entirely based on his dislike for the sound of her voice.
Anyone who’s read this series or listened to the “Sexy Baby Voice” chapter will recognize three particular features of salesclerk’s voice: bright resonance, creaky voice, legato articulation. The Loudermilk scene could have been inspired by the scenes about “sexy baby voice” in Lake Bell’s 2013 film about the voice-over industry, In a World…
Loudermilk mocks the salesclerk’s creaky voice by using creaky voice in his own responses, and the salesclerk asks “why are you talking like that?” Loudermilk responds, “This is my voice,” and she says, “No, it’s not.” After mocking her voice more and ranting a bit, he says, “just stop doing that.” Her response mirrors the earlier exchange: “I can’t help it, this is my voice,” to which he responds, “No, it’s not.”
As Loudermilk receives his coffee and leaves, the salesclerk, infuriated by his abuse, shouts at his back, “You’re a total dick!” Surprise! She doesn’t use legato articulation or creaky voice – because it’s really fucking hard to shout with either of those features. He turns back and says, “There, there you go, you’re talking!” as though she’d proven his point.
Loudermilk’s insistence that the salesclerk’s use of creaky voice is not “your voice” echoes a deleted scene from In a World… that Lake Bell includes in the audiobook chapter. In the scene, Bell’s character conducts “a vocal experiment” on another character who habitually uses “sexy baby voice.” She asks the other character to count to ten, alternating “the lowest point in your register” (i.e. with dark resonance) on odd numbers with “the highest point in your register” (bright resonance) on even numbers, and then say “Here’s my voice.”
Of course, “Here’s my voice” is the eleventh utterance in the sequence. As an odd-numbered utterance, Bell’s character pronounces it with relatively dark resonance, and the other character follows suit. As with the Loudermilk scene, we’re meant to marvel at the transformation: this woman’s True Voice, stripped of all that sexy baby junk! The message of both scenes is the same: that “sexy baby voice” is fake and women only use it because they’re insecure, but maybe they can be tricked into experiencing the power of their True Voices.
I don’t know about you, but when I first heard the deleted scene with the “vocal experiment,” the first thing I thought of was Elizabeth Holmes, the business executive who is currently in prison for selling a fake technology to investors. In addition to amassing wealth and power through lies and hype, Holmes is famous for having an unusually low voice for a woman – not just dark resonances, but when she speaks publicly, her fundamental frequency is in the range more typically used by American men.
During the height of Holmes’s success, several people felt that her claims were too good to be true, and they suspected her voice of being fake too. When recordings surfaced of Holmes speaking in a more typical pitch range for an American woman, that was presented as casting doubt on her honesty in general. Is her voice as big a fraud as her company?
I’ll have more to say about the notion of “your voice” and what it means to accuse someone of habitually using a fake voice, but astute observers may note that this double bind – don’t talk too “high-pitched,” but don’t talk too low-pitched either! – is an echo to the double-binds put on women in all kinds of areas – be assertive but not bossy! be attractive but not slutty!