Recently I’ve written two posts about bright resonance in response to Lake Bell’s audiobook chapter, “Sexy Baby Voice.” Bell describes “sexy baby voice” as having three characteristic features: “high pitch”, “vocal fry” and “slurring.” My first post supported Byron Ahn’s analysis that found that Bell’s “sexy baby voice” samples didn’t have reliably higher pitch than the non-“sexy baby voice” samples, and suggested that she’s probably talking about bright resonance. My second post drew on phonetic and pedagogical research to confirm Bell’s claim that while resonance is constrained by the size and shape of our vocal tracts, it can be consciously controlled to a certain degree.
In this post I want to connect bright resonance (what Bell calls “high pitch”) with creaky voice (“vocal fry”). The original reason they’re used together is youth.
Bell’s argument is that “sexy baby voice” keeps women from being taken seriously, so let’s imagine a young woman who wants to be taken seriously when she talks. Let’s say it’s 1990, and this woman is named Heather, and she has important things to say, whether it’s in a speech or in conversation. And importantly for our purposes, Heather is trendy and feminine.
On some level Heather is aware that dark resonance adds gravitas to speech. But she’s young, she’s petite, she hasn’t given birth and she doesn’t smoke, so she has a relatively short vocal tract and thin vocal folds. This means that without using any of the vocal habits I described in my last post, Heather’s voice will sound girlish, and will risk being prejudged as immature and unserious.
Heather may try some of those habits and find them wanting. She’s already avoiding twang and nasal resonance, which would make her voice sound even brighter. She could try rounding and protruding her lips and using the furthest-back tongue articulations, the time-honored strategy of boys and tomboys. But here’s the thing: she doesn’t want to sound too masculine. She wants to be feminine, but taken seriously. And maybe even sexy.
Another strategy, lowering the larynx, also clashes with the style she wants. It sounds too formal, too grand dame, too fussy. Not at all trendy or stylish.
Let’s imagine that after trying all these strategies, Heather’s a little tired and resigned. She relaxes her voice and it drops into creak. And it doesn’t sound fussy or tomboyish, but it has dark resonance. Maybe it even sounds a bit fashionably blasé!
And from a completely personal view, I just want to say that I do find creaky voice adds a bit of gravitas, and it can be very sexy. When I hear a woman with creaky voice combined with bright overtones, I get an impression of smallness in bigness. I think of creaky voice as the oversize sweater, boyfriend shirt or even mom jeans of the voice.
So Heather starts using creak whenever she wants to be taken seriously. And because she’s trendy, other young women imitate her. Heather is Creaker Zero of late twentieth century “vocal fry.”
Is that the way it actually happened? I have no idea. But it’s a possible scenario. And the scorn that’s been heaped on “vocal fry” over the past thirty plus years has been a potent example of the double bind that women are placed in so many times. Not enough dark resonance? Girlish. Rounded lips? Transgressing gender. Lowered larynx? Fussy. Creaky voice? You’re destroying your voice!
A lot of the politics of women’s voices has been covered by linguists I respect and admire, so for most of this I’ll just refer you to the responses of Deborah Cameron, Penny Eckert and Lisa Davidson to the 2015 “vocal fry” panic, and radio producer Katie Mingle’s all-purpose response to criticism of women’s voices.
This is one area where Malcolm Gladwell failed in this chapter. Gladwell is the producer of Bell’s audiobook and a friend of Bell, and in the chapter she turns to him for feedback. His biggest strength is the ability to find experts and present their ideas in ways that engage a broader audience, but in this chapter he doesn’t talk to Cameron, Eckert, Davidson or even Mingle. He just sits there and gives his own opinions, even conflating “high pitch” with “uptalk.” In his defense, it is possible that he tried to refer Bell to experts, but we don’t hear about it.