Bad Witch Aesthetics and Modern Music, or Ugliness as Power

Turn on the radio you will hear: smooth female voices cooing at and crying for listeners, as hairless and harmless as the men they worship. A joke, yet I’m not smiling, and neither is the monster in the corner.

Men created the radio, and whether by chance or by choice (likely, a mixture of both), this unparalleled advance in technology set women back. The fuzzy frequencies brought out the shrillness of female voices, and for a long time, only dulcet, sweeter tones crossed over well. (Who sang in Singin’ in the Rain?) The nasal and tinny were kept silent, as were female screams, until they later became the cornerstone of another industry that still hasn’t learned to love its women.

But there’s power in the full breadth of the female voice. A cursory listen: sirens, banshees, La Llorona stalking the streets at night. They scream, snarl, wail, warble, curse, cry, seduce, slay, and save, auditory Roman candles that cut listeners to the bone.

Men too can cry out, but this isn’t a story about male voices. They already have their story, from the radio to the silver screen to the smallest slivers of screen. They continue to narrate and dominate discussions, even the ones they have no part in. There is beauty in their cracks and grooves and gulfs too, but we have no problem accepting the imperfect male voice; its history is already heard through the radio.

But the imperfect female voice! Tell me, who too often is accused of losing their pitch and tone, whose untouched vocals are released into the digital space for everyone to critique and gawk over? The Red Hot Chili Peppers mime their playing at the Super Bowl and get by with an online explanation; Beyoncé lip syncs at the inauguration and has to set up a press conference just to fight back accusations that her talent is a sham. All hail the female voice; for it’s all women have to offer when it comes to music, but in order for even that to be true, it must be the pure octaves of a diva, or girlish chants and choruses, or glistening, breathless intonations. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with any of those things, but as someone once sang, “Perfection is a disease of a nation.” Auto-Tune in theory isn’t the enemy, but the same could be said of Photoshop.

That is what makes those “ugly” female voices standouts. These are the howlers who never would’ve made it onto the early radio: Karen O and her ecstatic whoops; Kathleen Hanna’s near-screech; Meredith Graves and her distorted shrieks; Corin and Carrie cresting their vocal ranges against staccato guitars and booming drums; M.I.A. and her between-tone snarls. Even the young aren’t safe: Girlpool’s vocals are as raw as the frayed laces of your favorite sneakers; Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield atonally slides words into each other, while Ibeyi chants and weaves twin vocals into rough knots. And even the most polished singers know there’s power outside of pitch: when she chooses so, Rihanna spikes her lyrical delivery, and Florence made a career out of adapting the full-lunged shout.

The future of music is bright, or rather, diverse, interesting, and challenging, but the difference between genres has much to do with the political and cultural conditions and issues in which musicians exist. Group rock music combines technical skill and deep expression, with wiggle room as for actual “proficiency.” It’s a wide net, but for as many all-male four-piece drum/bass/guitar/guitar & singer groups as there are out there, there are just as many musicians of all genders pushing the limits of the genre, both sonically and lyrically. The producer and the vocal performer are often the same, for the unit of sale is singularly together. Deviation of a few parts (such as: having a woman in the band instead of having an all-male band) are noted and scrutinized, but don’t take away from the inherent structure of the band. And while individual members might be more or less than the others, they’ll all be linked back to the band, no matter how long the unit itself lasts.

Our particular generation’s most popular music, as a whole, is different. Some vocalists are able to capitalize on the special qualities of their voice and delivery, or capitalize on outside celebrity, and sell that as themselves. Like modern day Ariels, they exchange their vocal talent/name for a whole new world created specifically for them. They are the ones to take the stage and headline shows, to take on titles of iconology and idolatry, though their music will never solely be “theirs.” Many of these artists have a hand in production, but there are enough people on their credits that it would be disingenuous to think that it was not a whole village, child situation.

On the other hand, much of that pop music hybrid splinter EDM has a wide gulf between the producer and the vocal performer, as producers separate and reshuffle the two basic units of popular music (the “music” and the singing) so that the music takes center stage. Here, it’s the madcap interplay between instrumental energy and our affection for the inclusion of human voices that takes top billing, not the voice itself. While this is great for producers, who are more and more stepping out of the shadows of the industry, the issue becomes that most producers are men, and the majority of the interchangeable vocal sprinkles they use are female — sure, when vocal superstar and world-renowned producers team up together, perhaps the gender disparity is less obvious, but then go to a rave and try to suggest that there aren’t gendered assumptions present in EDM.

And in EDM, these women couldn’t be picked out of the limelight: wide-eyed, wide-smiled, long-hair -don’t-care eternal summer sun nymphs. These voices suggest the promise of the fountain of youth, sentence fragment declarations of love and joy, and of above all else, beauty. These songs are beautiful by script and easy to assemble, and they sell the auditory companion to their IRL fantasies. This is, for the corporate music world, perhaps the ultimate product.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s unlikely that qualities and artistry and innovation and general weirdness will fall to the music soundscape’s wayside. Indeed, the current label of music apart from other spheres of art and expression is beginning to collide into other creative fields, and young creatives, musicians included, have more control and more ability over the minutiae of their personal visions than ever before, and more of a chance to share them than ever. That freedom to expand will only grow, and with it, the blossoming of diversity in female voices, already in eruption, will finally fully bloom.

Lilian Min is a culture writer living in West Hollywood. When she’s not standing on her tiptoes and typing set lists into her phone at shows, she’s a contributing editor at HelloGiggles.

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