Radical Strain

For the contemporary female pop star singing is still not seen as deliberate work, but rather effusive labor.

Rifle through enough music blogs and you'll start to see hundreds of them: young duos in overexposed press photos, probably from Brooklyn, with a girl at the mic and a guy at the knobs. At shows she hangs toward the lip of the stage, pushing lungfuls through her pipes, swaddled in reverb, fog, and purple light. The blogs might describe her as wistful or ethereal or pretty. She might be called a chanteuse, even a seductress. Meanwhile, he's at the back, hood up, head down, eyes on the machinery, working furiously.

It's an arrangement that makes sense to consumers of music and critics alike. We listen to women the same way we look at them. Like beauty, a woman's voice emanates from her body without visible effort. Listeners don't hear the voice as an instrument, but as a primal extension of the singer herself, a through-line from her anatomy to yours. The voice is a component of a woman's affect—never learned, never forced, but something she's born possessing. Watch the audition episodes of shows like American Idol and the Voice. Like beauty, vocal talent rests on a binary: You have it or you don't.

Like it does with women's bodies, popular culture permits a narrow range of acceptable beauty in women's voices. There's a reason Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons has room to sing flat on a live television performance but Beyoncé is expected to catapult through multiple key changes with perfect tone and pitch. There's a reason Lana Del Rey bore the undiluted resentment of her audience when she failed to sing charismatically on Saturday Night Live. There is a reason Britney Spears' isolated, untreated vocals score listens in the millions every time they're leaked and the guttural quality of Shakira's voice is as hotly debated in YouTube comments as her sexual attractiveness. As an object of beauty for public consumption, a woman's pleasantness must permeate the senses.

The pressure doesn't just constrict the blockbusters. Even under the "indie" umbrella, where artists support ad campaigns for Levi's instead of Pepsi, audiences and critics expect women to adhere to a certain standard of vocal beauty. "Only the fact that the singer’s rather limited voice wears thin at times keeps I Never Learn from being an unqualified masterpiece," Jim DeRogatis wrote recently about Swedish songwriter Lykke Li's third album. I can't recall a man making a similar comment about Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, or Dylan Baldi of Cloud Nothings, or Jeff Mangum, or Jack White. Their limits contribute to their charm. They have never experienced their voices as obstacles to creating masterpieces.

Girls' limited access to equipment and encouragement is often cited as the reason for the disproportionately low number of women in music, but the male-dominated sphere of music journalism also imposes discrete critical standards upon women. Even contemporary web-based outlets like Pitchfork (disclosure: I've recently started publishing reviews there), which with its contentious album scores fulfills the dual role of magazine and encyclopedia in music culture, hold women to rigorous standards of music-making. At the time of writing, nearly 84 percent of Pitchfork's Best New Album designations have been awarded to male musicians or groups fronted by men. Of 524 total Best New Album reviews, 487 (93 percent) have been written by men. Similar numbers were recently self-reported in the publication's readership. When in 2012 Pitchfork solicited readers to submit their favorite albums to its People's List, only 12 percent of participants self-identified as women.

Like the affective labor women provide for no extra compensation in service or caregiving roles, like mandatory smiling from behind an espresso bar or politely socializing with aggressive men as a waitress, singing is not seen as deliberate work, but effusive labor. A female singer doesn't build music; she exudes it. Male songwriters and producers shape the female voice into a consumable product, laboring to refine the raw materials that women supply.

Weeks before the release of her second album Kala, M.I.A. confronted Pitchfork in an interview about male journalists' tendency to assign male producers credit for her beats, her lyrics, and even her politics. “There is an issue especially with what male journalists write about me and say 'this MUST have come from a guy,'” she told Paul Thompson in 2007. “Yesterday I read like five magazines in the airplane-- it was a nine hour flight-- and three out of five magazines said 'Diplo: the mastermind behind M.I.A.'s politics!'” While Diplo had two tracks on the album, M.I.A. clarified that, along with co-producer Switch, she had self-produced the whole LP.

In July of 2012, Pitchfork awarded Frank Ocean a Best New Music review for his album Channel Orange. One month later, Jessie Ware received the same honor for her debut Devotion. Ryan Dombal, who penned both reviews, describes Ware's voice as a "natural gift" that the album married with "throbbing instrumentation that breathes life into every single turn of phrase or sensitive vocal embellishment." He then spends a paragraph detailing the work of three male producers that assisted Ware with the album:

The record was largely produced by three men-- Dave Okumu of UK art rockers the Invisible, Bristol electronic upstart Julio Bashmore, and singer-songwriter Kid Harpoon, who co-wrote songs on Florence and the Machine's Ceremonials-- each leaving his distinct mark without distracting from the whole. Okumu's tracks, especially opener "Devotion", are dark and dense, hinting at passion's underbelly with each deep bass hit; Bashmore's are more airy and upbeat, primed for classy dancefloors worldwide; Kid Harpoon offers the most festival-ready songs-- big hooks, bigger drums-- like "Wildest Moments". Tying the disparate sounds together are Okumu, who co-produced and played many instruments on nearly every track, and of course Ware herself, who co-wrote all but one song. Her voice is a marvel throughout, often gaining power by holding back or briefly teasing its scope while staying faithful to melody over melisma.

Ware appears as an afterthought here, not an active subject within her own album but a "marvel" inside the machinery. Meanwhile, in his review of Channel Orange, Dombal grants Ocean agency over his artistic work even though, like Ware, Ocean shares songwriting credits with other producers on every track. The review also describes Ocean as "gifted," but with regard to his "voice, wit, charm, smarts, and ineffable humanity." He is a whole person, an actor, not merely a voice. Dombal refrains from granting subjectivity to Ocean's collaborators. He doesn't even list them. It's worth noting that Pitchfork gave Channel Orange a score of 9.5, a full point higher than Devotion.

When a woman apparently hangs in the air as she sings, never engineering but simply existing, critics evaluate her music on the basis of their ability to access her emotionally. The voice, at least, is honest. The draw of an album made by a woman is not to consume what she's created, but to traverse a pipeline directly to her being. She didn't make the product; she is the product. Critics often praise the confessional, cathartic aspects of women's music, favoring a frictionless ride to her core. Last month, when FKA twigs' debut LP1 made its rounds through the critical circuit, several male reviewers commented on her seductive lyrics as though they were being sung directly to them. “How does it feel to have you thinking about me? Um, can I get back to you on that?” wrote Alexis Petridis for the Guardian. “'How would you like it if my lips touched yours?/ And they stayed close, baby, till the stars fade out?' I think we know the answer,” James Reed concluded in his review for the Boston Globe, referencing the same track, the sensually overt “Hours”.

Despite the narrow confines of "good" singing available to women, certain artists have confounded the expectation that a woman must bare herself, emotionally or sexually or both, to her listeners. In the long tradition of atonal, weird, female vocals contemporary female pop artists sow confusion in the language men use to review them. On the 2006 album from the Swedish electronic duo The Knife, Silent Shout, Karin Dreijer Andersson lacerates her vocals with a mesh of digital effects. Even the record's title indicates a paradox located in the voice. She shifts her pitch, dipping into a range that would normally be perceived as male, then spiking into unearthly squeals. She layers herself, multiplies herself, obscures herself, grapples with herself. In Pitchfork's review, Mark Pytlik writes, "With 'Heartbeats'...she proved that her shrill voice (think Björk by way of Ari Up by way of Siouxsie Sioux by way of Mu's Mutsumi Kanamori) was capable of magic in its natural form, but little of Silent Shout grants us that pleasure." On the second track of The Knife's next album Shaking the Habitual, Andersson would go on to sing, "Of all the guys in the seniority, who will write my story?" before throttling her voice through an industrial filter.

By supplanting the pleasure of consuming the female voice with discomfort, Andersson complicates the role of the female singer. Despite her refusal to comply with gendered expectations of performance, male critics still assumed that she didn't engineer any of the electronics on Silent Shout. Robert Christgau describes Andersson's brother Olof as "cunning" in his synthesizer skills, while painting her vocal contribution as "wacky." In Pitchfork's review of Silent Shout's deluxe edition, Jess Harvell writes, "Olof Dreijer worked his sister Karin Dreijer Andersson's vocals through sickly FX, making her nursery rhyme delivery sound like it was coming from the bottom of a slimy well." When presented with male/female duos, most critics assume that the woman is there to sing while the man handles production. Andersson's solo work as Fever Ray later proved, at the very least, that she was capable of shifting her own damn pitches.

And then there's Grimes, whose insistence upon producing her own music has earned her countless unsolicited offers from men to assume the role of her engineer. As a solo woman artist, Grimes (the operational alias of Montreal's Claire Boucher) blasts apart the false binary of woman as voice-effuser and man as aural architect. The bubbling pop utopia on her breakthrough album Visions braids her vocals deep into the music. She keeps her lyrics indistinct, her voice shrouded and strained. Instead of performing as a "good" singer, rounding notes with perfect pitch and timbre, Boucher stretches her voice to the edges of its range. She hits breathy lows and broken highs, never in error, but in service of her complex songs. Live, she pins her microphone under her ear while she uses both hands to trigger beats and navigate leads. Even now, she is the only musician onstage for her live shows. Her music is a tapestry of misbehavior.

Grimes sees backlash from men who review albums for legacy music publications. One of Visions' middling reviews, written by Jody Rosen for Rolling Stone, complained that "Boucher's voice is all airy top end: She sounds like the cross between a J-pop pipsqueak and Alvin and the Chipmunks. It's an irksome, sometimes shrill sound; often, her lyrics are unintelligible. The result is an emptiness at the center of the record: Grimes isn't spooky enough to be 'ghostly,' and not substantial enough to hold your attention." Rosen scans her enigma as vacancy. If he can't enter the record through the traditional channel of hearing a woman's bare voice articulate words, he decides, he can't be expected to access the music on an emotional level at all.

By damming the most familiar access point for listeners, Boucher cultivates challenging, feminist pop music. At Pitchfork, Lindsay Zoladz—the writer responsible for most of the BNM reviews awarded to women in the past two years—wrote of Visions, "The most common complaint I've heard of Grimes comes from people wishing her songs were more structured or hooky, or that her voice was more 'present.' But-- never mind the fact that even the haziest moments on the record are anchored by melody-- this diffuseness is one of Visions' most refreshing charms." Instead of hearing Boucher's voice as a barrier, Zoladz integrates it into the music as a whole. Often, women critics hear what the male critics cannot see.

Boucher complicates public femininity by reaching for alien extremes in both voice and appearance. Pop music criticism has long been occupied by men who identify with male musicians while simply consuming women artist. But there is growing space for women to be ugly, rough, and weird within what we consider to be pop. Patriarchal templates of female singing need not limit artists who encourage listeners to trace new paths into their music along their flaws, glitches, and idiosyncrasies. Women in pop manifest a radical grotesqueness. I think of the male editor at a publication I once wrote for who complained in the same breath that Grimes' voice was annoying and that he "didn't get her hotness."

When female musicians disrupt a male critic’s ability to determine his own entry points into her work they force a choice between recognition on their own terms and rejection. Barring a narrative that strips the singer of her intent, female pop singers that strain their voices against conventional gender performance pierce attempts to make them vessels of male engineering and ultimately suspend the male gaze, at least for the duration of their song.