MAJOR LABEL: Good Feminist, Bad Feminist

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Last week for women in music was one of those lil’ of column A, lil’ of column B weeks. Taylor Swift became the first woman to win Album of the Year twice, and used the opportunity to make sure Kanye and everybody else knows that women work hard and are responsible for their own successes. Huge plus in the A column!

Then, on Friday, Kesha tried to nullify a contract that would force her to produce up to six more albums with Sony and Dr. Luke, her longtime producer who she says raped her when she was 18, and has emotionally, physically, and sexually abused her since. Kesha seemed in utter disbelief and openly wept as the verdict was announced. I think most of us were, sadly, not surprised that the court ruled in favor of a corporation rather than a human—it seems the $60 million that Dr. Luke alleges he invested in her was enough for the court to rule that he owned her, fair and square. It is worth mentioning that Sony has offered to let Kesha record with a different producer, but she and her lawyer, probably correctly, assert that the company wouldn’t offer her proper marketing support if she did that, especially since she’s spent so much time and money suing them. Plus, Dr. Luke would still legally own a piece of her work with other Sony producers while the contract is valid. So, column B.

It has been inspiring to see so many people support Kesha on Twitter, and it’s good to know that at least these people recognize the tried-and-true tactics Dr. Luke’s team has used to discredit Kesha’s claims—if he raped her, why didn’t she report it? She’s just trying to defame him!!—as victim-blaming defenses. She likely didn’t report it because she—crazy thought—wasn’t sure anyone would believe her and didn’t want to jeopardize her career. ‘Cause we see how well that turned out for her now that she HAS reported it, right? And even if you truly don’t believe the rape allegations because of the lack of physical evidence, let’s consider her assertion that he abused her for years; Kesha was diagnosed with an eating disorder and feels that because Dr. Luke commented often on her weight, calling her a “refrigerator,” he is at least partially to blame for her development of that disorder. Do we at least see why she might feel unsafe working with this man? Thankfully, many people do. #FreeKesha.

So the support was rolling in on Twitter when Demi Lovato tweeted her support of Kesha while condemning women who seem to be feminists only when it’s convenient for their careers—and EVERYONE assumed she meant Taylor Swift, because Taylor had not tweeted #FreeKesha. Demi clarified that that’s not who she meant, and that she’s just pointing out the hypocrisy of women aligning with feminism now that it’s more popular, seemingly to further their careers.

You know what I say to that? SO. WHAT.

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I’m thrilled that feminism is so popular now! Who cares why people are becoming feminists? Promoting equality and a voice for women is all that matters, whether you’re doing so for selfish gain or not. I honestly think Taylor believes what she’s saying and wants to help young women succeed (and for the record, she made a $250,000 donation to Kesha and offered her support). But even if you don’t believe her, why does it matter if she’s supporting other women out of the goodness of her heart or to help herself? Either way, she’s supporting women!

Feminism means a lot of different things to different people. It can mean bra-burning, man-hating, sexual liberation; it can mean girl power, Powerpuff Girls, girly-is-great attitude. Most recently, with our Emma-Watson-era feminism, it means inclusivity. It means anyone and everyone can and should be a feminist. It means we recognize the way that the patriarchy is structured and the ways that women are still undervalued and underpaid in society, and sometimes disbelieved like Kesha. It means we realize the ways in which men are also harmed by a strict adherence to gender-normative behavior (Get tough! Don’t talk about your feelings! But men are more likely than women to suffer from certain mental illnesses so…). It means we acknowledge that non-white women have not felt included in feminism in the past and would like to make sure we address their issues now. It means we agree that gender is a social construct and that there is room in feminism for transgender and gender-fluid individuals as well as cis-men and –women. In short: there is room for everyone in feminism.

The feminist movement is now, and always has been, about raising women’s voices and making sure they are heard in a society that can sometimes suppress them. So I officially do not care if you think Beyonce is a bad feminist because she shakes her ass onstage, or, leaving music for a minute, if Gloria Steinem thinks young women are bad feminists because statistically they tend to support Bernie over Hillary. These are women voicing what they want and who they are—that’s feminism. And I don’t think the people crying “bad feminist”—Gloria Steinem, Annie Lennox, Demi Lovato—are themselves bad feminists for questioning other women’s true motives in their feminist actions (although they could check the high-and-mighty tone for me, thanks). They contribute to an on-going conversation about what has changed in feminism and what remains the same.

So Taylor, Demi, Beyonce, Gloria Steinem, take heart—you’re not bad feminists, because there are no bad feminists. There are only feminists. We may disagree about the best way to do things, but that’s not as important as the big picture. If you’re for gender equality, then you’re good, and you’re a feminist.

Album Review: “Picking Up the Pieces” Has Jewel Picking Up Where She Left Off

Jewel

Jewel released new music in the vein of her earliest work. And it’s AMAZING.

Picking Up the Pieces is Jewel’s latest album, released in September of 2015, and it features new songs, including collaborations with country veterans Rodney Crowell and Dolly Parton, alongside songs she’s been performing live since her seminal debut album Pieces of You was released almost 20 years ago. Jewel self-produced the album, recorded it entirely in Nashville, and released it on Sugar Hill Records, primarily known as a bluegrass and Americana label. Since Jewel’s last few albums have ranged from country to children’s music, the album represents both a departure for Jewel’s recent work and a return to her roots.

The entire album is a showcase for Jewel’s immense talents in singing, songwriting, and production. In the spirit of her debut release, which was recorded live at a café in San Diego where she often played, Jewel recorded much of the album live at The Standard in Nashville. Her vocals capture the energy of her live performances in a way that none of her other releases have, literally ever. She transitions effortlessly from powerful growl to whisper to clear soprano to almost spoken word, propelling her audience through the emotional journey of her stories. Particular standouts vocally include “Love Used to Be,” in which her mellow, speech-like vocals build and give way to an exasperated shout at the climax of the song; “Everything Breaks,” where her patented flips from chest to head voice offer text painting to the “break” idea; “My Father’s Daughter,” which features sublimely clear vocals from both Jewel and Parton; and “Carnivore,” in which Jewel demands her voice demonstrate the pain and power in her lyrics from beginning to end. Her vocal performance on this entire album is just incredible, and is undoubtedly her best to date.

In terms of the songs themselves, Jewel blends the old with the new seamlessly by focusing on inventive yet simple arrangements and on several common themes. Among these themes are family (the traits inherited and the sacrifices made), loss of love (at least partly inspired by her divorce), and brokenness. It is the last theme that interests me the most, as it’s the one that has followed her through her entire career (there’s that line in “Hands:” “I am never broken”) and has probably changed the most. It’s evident even within this album, since “Everything Breaks,” a heartbroken acknowledgment of an ended relationship, has been around since the mid-90s while “Mercy,” the final song on the album, is a new offering. In “Mercy,” Jewel attests that she will “keep being broken until [she] remain[s] open,” a stark change from her resistance to brokenness in “Everything Breaks” and “Family Tree,” (“If I don’t learn to bend, I know I’m gonna break just like you did”). It seems Jewel has discovered her true strength as an artist, which is her bravery in sharing her darkness; she is a pure, raw nerve seemingly unburdened by any fear of expressing her every emotion, and it is utterly cathartic to experience these emotions with her.

Her arrangements are well done, mixing simple acoustic guitar ballads with fuller, more groove-oriented numbers. I love her choice to keep many of her older songs, like “Carnivore,” accompanied only by acoustic guitar to keep the live-performance feel. On “Love Used to Be,” which is the strongest track on the album in my opinion, she tastefully builds the arrangement from acoustic guitar to militaristic drums to keys and electric guitar adding just the right touches as her voice reaches its apex. “His Pleasure is My Pain” blends sitar and Eastern influence with folksy, spoken poetry reaching a disarmingly dissonant conclusion (and I’ll point out, her chorus of “Yes, it’s true I’m too sensitive, but he takes pleasure in my pain” seems like the inevitable outcome of the chorus “I’m sensitive, and I’d like to stay that way,” from “I’m Sensitive” on Pieces of You). “Nicotine Love,” Jewel’s ode to addicting love, uses strings marvelously inventively, with playfully taunting staccato juxtaposed with arduous tremolo. There are some misses—“Here When Gone,” another of Jewel’s live-performance staples, develops her best groove of the album in the verses only to drop it for a stilted country shuffle in the choruses, and “Plain Jane,” while lyrically inventive and musically playful, suffers from lyric scansion problems in chorus that cause it to fall a bit flat overall. Nevertheless, the album flows well and represents Jewel’s musical as well as lyrical evolution.

Jewel has had a lot of time since Pieces of You was released, when she was just 21 years old, to grow and experiment as an artist. And she certainly has, though not always to the delight of her fans; while her songwriting has remained strong throughout her career, her various stylistic incarnations, from country to children’s music to dance pop, had left her fans wondering who she was trying to be musically, and when she’d find herself again. She’s been a personal inspiration for me, as a little girl who played guitar, and I remember when she released “Intuition” from her foray into pop music 0304. I felt like I’d lost her to the Britneys and Christinas of the world. I cannot adequately express how fulfilling it is to me to see her journey come full circle and to hear her embrace her true style as an artist.

Returning to her folk roots was surely not as easy for Jewel as it might sound—I have no doubt she worried that the record might sound dated, or that it might seem like she was trying too hard to repeat her greatest success. Thankfully, Picking Up the Pieces honors the spirit of Pieces of You without copying it or pretending that Jewel hasn’t evolved in 20 years; her growth as a singer, songwriter, producer, and artist is evident in examining the two. Picking Up the Pieces presents a wiser, more contemplative, more somber Jewel than her first album depicts. Her lyrical style is less the gushing, earnest ingénue and more the thoughtful, evocative storyteller, even in songs that she’s been performing since her Lilith Fair days.

But really, the greatest triumph of this album is the tenacity and strength Jewel finds in raw, unfettered emotion. Her voice soars with every growl, whisper, croon, and crack, and her lyrics demonstrate the beauty she has found in brokenness. This is her gift to her fans, this is who she is, and it is thrilling to see she has finally found it.

The Indie Pop Voice Phenomenon, Part 2: So What Do We Do Now?

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To read part 1 of The Indie Pop Voice Phenomenon, click here!

Okay, so here’s the big question—what do we do about indie pop voice? The trend is clearly very popular and not showing signs of letting up anytime soon, and as such exerts a huge influence on young singers and their vocal habits. As singers, should we use it? And as voice teachers, should we encourage it in our students or quash it? You’re about to hear my opinion, so I’ll openly admit my bias—I’m not really a fan of the accent in its current form, especially when I hear certain words, like “one” or “just,” repeatedly getting the exact same strange treatment from singers. So I came at this article fully expecting to condemn it. But I won’t, at least not completely—and here’s why.

As a voice teacher, I like to let my students craft their own sound as naturally as possible. So, I don’t really impose a lot of value judgements on them, but I let them make their own decisions about how they sound, provided they do three things:

  • Sing healthily—meaning without extra tension and with adequate breath support. Pretty much everything else is not really considered health for my students and me, but style/aesthetic.
  • Allow the way they speak to influence the way they sing—usually in terms of pronunciation and phrasing. From there, if they’d like, they can change things up and experiment to find the sounds they like best and that they feel are most beautiful and evocative in their voices.
  • Eschew imitation at all costs—a singer’s bread and butter is her uniqueness, which usually springs from allowing her speaking voice, which is uniquely her, to be slightly heightened to become singing.

So let’s examine indie pop voice using each of the above points—I can’t find any signs that it’s unhealthy, as it’s purely a pronunciation/resonance issue. It may not comport to the classical-derived standards of singing on the purest, most open vowels possible, but we’re not singing classically, so we’re good there. As to the second point, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence that we speak this way—except there MIGHT BE. It’s tough to find recordings of people speaking and pinpoint examples, so this is purely anecdotal evidence, but I have noticed lately that when I ask people how they’re doing, sometimes they say, “guoid!” just like Selena Gomez. What if we do talk this way? Who am I to say we don’t? And if you talk this way, sing this way, by all means!

The third point is the most important—if you sing this way in order to sound like someone else, or because it’s becoming so popular, you should stop. Your voice is your honesty, your point of view—your voice is you, and it’s not believable coming from you if it sounds like somebody else. And maybe you’re subconsciously employing indie pop voice, possibly because you’ve heard it so much, and there’s nothing exactly wrong with that… except now you know. So notice whether you employ this accent, and if you do, ask yourself why! Do you do it because you talk that way and it feels very you? If so, great. Do you do it because it’s kinda fun and you can honestly say you do it differently than everyone else? That’s cool too. Do you do it because you’re trying to sound like Adele or Amy Winehouse, or because you think it makes you unique? If you sound like any of the above people, it certainly does not make you unique, and that should give you pause.

There’s another major reason that I won’t issue a blanket statement that people should stop using indie pop voice, and it’s that there is inherent sexism in the way a lot of people talk about this trend. The mere fact that so many people online call it “indie girl voice” is a clear indicator of that, but that’s just the beginning. Except for the Buzzfeed article, I’ve only seen discussions of women using the trend with no mention of any men. I’ve seen it condemned as annoying, fake, and often babyish in various message boards; even Carson Daly said it reminded him of baby talk. I can’t decide if he’s reacting to the treatment of vowels or to the prevalence of breathiness and head voice in this style; it might be a combination. But I’ll point out that baby talk can be consciously done and a powerful, influential tool, as Paris Hilton will tell you. Some commenters even say indie pop voice reminds them of vocal fry—I’m honestly not sure how that could be possible, unless they’re getting it mixed up with another technique like breathiness or rasp. Vocal fry is a register that occurs below chest voice, and though some voice teachers use it as an exercise to combat hyperfunctional singing, I really can’t think of any singers that actually use vocal fry when they perform. The only link I can see is that it’s another speech trend that people condemn women for using and not men. So yes, indie pop voice is more prevalent among women than men, and yes, it is everywhere—but if those facts alone make it more annoying than, say, every male punk singer trying to sound like Billie Joe Armstrong, who was trying to sound like Joe Strummer, then that’s probably caused by a sexist undercurrent, because they’re very similar phenomena.

In short, I really hate to be another person telling women how they should speak/sing—between uptalking, vocal fry, and now “indie girl voice,” we really get harped at from all sides. So I won’t tell you, if you sing this way, whether you should continue or not; as with all my students, I leave it to you to craft your own sound. Clearly, indie pop voice comes from a long line of employment by incredible singers, so if you use it, you’re in good company. Bottom line: you should be do what feels the most naturally, honestly YOU. If that’s indie pop voice, well I think that’s all “guoid!”

The Indie Pop Voice Phenomenon, Part 1: Where Did It Come From?

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Pop music vocalists have always had their share of unusual pronunciation and accents, and the most recent trend is so-called “indie girl voice,” or more generally, “indie pop voice.” This vine star parodies it, and even Buzzfeed has noticed it. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, definitely check out the above links—I think you’ll recognize it once you hear it. I notice this accent A LOT in artists like Taylor Swift, ZZ Ward, Halsey, and Adele, as well as in the young singers I teach. All this leads me to ask: where did this trend come from? What should we call it? And what should we, as singers and/or teachers of singing, do about it?

I first noticed the trend a couple of years ago, and it seemed to only affect certain words. Notice the way Kesha and Joy Williams of the Civil Wars each say “one” in the following, each from 2013:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHUbLv4ThOo (start at about 0:18)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MnkM_ebv9BI (start at about 0:56)

What you’re hearing is a diphthong, which is essentially two vowels one right after the other within the same syllable. There are lots of diphthongs that occur naturally in the English language, like the “ah-ee” of the word “I” or “oh-ee” of the word “boy.” In fact, most American English speakers would treat the vowel “oh” as a diphthong of “oh-oo,” especially at the end of a word (say the word “hello” while looking in a mirror, and notice how your lips close to an “oo” shape at the very end).

But the word “one” as sung above contains what you might call a manufactured diphthong, or one that doesn’t occur naturally in our language. A lot of diphthongs may be brought on by accent, a southern twang or a Cockney clip. This accent, the “indie pop voice,” is a product not of a geographic region, but of the virtual, musical region of “indie.” Mostly, indie pop voice is characterized by sustaining the second vowel of an existing diphthong as opposed to the first (the way Adele says the word “hello” in her recent hit of the same name), and also by adding an “ee” or “ih” sound to the end of pure vowels like “oh,” “uh,” or even “ae” like “back.” This would explain words like “good,” “just,” and “touch” mentioned in the Buzzfeed article above; “good” becomes “guoid,” “just becomes “juist,” and “touch” turns to “touich.” The accent also calls for closure to “ee” before and after singable consonants like “n” and “r,” which explains the words “one” that I noticed or the “stare” and “care” examples in the Buzzfeed article. Adele also exemplifies the “ee and r” phenomenon in “Hello:” listen to the way she sings the very last word of the song, “anymore,” and it’s almost “anymoreeeeeeeeee.”

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As for the origins of this trendy accent, there are a few good theories that I’ve mostly culled from other voice professionals and random commenters online—it’s not a well-researched topic thus far, to be honest (by the way, it seems most people online are calling it “indie girl” as opposed to “indie pop”). The one that pinpoints the most recent possible origin is the Adele/Amy Winehouse theory, and it makes sense. Those two singers cropped up late in the last decade, when the singers who are coming up now would have probably been in middle or high school. Thus their popularity may have profoundly influenced the next generation’s singing style. Adele’s recent use of the accent is well documented above, and you can hear it in her earliest hit, “Chasing Pavements” and throughout her work (start at 0:20 and listen to “lust” and “I”).

Amy Winehouse preceded Adele, and uses indie pop voice in early hits like “Stronger than Me” (start at 0:33 and listen to “through” and “care”) and later ones like “Back to Black” (start at 0:15 and listen to “regret,” “wet,” and “bet”).

Others claim Regina Spektor, Bjork, or Kate Bush are the cause of the accent’s inception, and I think it’s important to note that all these women have very particular natural accents in their speech that may influence their singing (Adele, Winehouse, and Bush are all British, while Spektor is Russian American and Bjork is Icelandic). But perhaps the most important similarity to note between these women is that they all count jazz among their main influences, especially Winehouse and Spektor. Indeed, I hear little evidence of the “indie pop voice” as it exists today in Bjork’s sound except in her version of “It’s Oh So Quiet,” a Betty Hutton cover. So are these more current singers the originators of the totally invented “indie girl voice” accent, or did they adapt it from the jazz/big band singers who influenced them? Listening to Betty Hutton’s version of “It’s Oh So Quiet” lends credence to the idea that she influenced Bjork’s pronunciation, and the way the White Christmas crew sings the word “snow” is a toned-down version of the current accent. Even Ella, in the way she closes to the “ee” in “skies” and the “r” in birds, seems to have been an inspiration for this trend, along with Billie Holiday, with her long “l” on “I’ll” and her “ih” at the ends of “you” and “through.”

So it’s most likely that this is less of a current trend and more of an evolution, through jazz and blues to singer-songwriter through the years and now, to so-called indie girls. At this point, I think it’s important to note that the trend is not limited to women; Shawn Mendes, mentioned in the Buzzfeed article, has maybe the most exaggerated version of this accent I’ve ever heard, and Great Big World (starting at 2:26) does the same thing to “one” that the female artists do. But it does seem particularly prevalent in women, perhaps because of the Adele/Amy Winehouse influence. Still, I’d really prefer not to call it the “indie girl voice,” since guys can and do use it. “Indie pop voice” seems like a slightly better, or at least more PC, term for it. The term still doesn’t really acknowledge the trend’s likely jazz origins, but it speaks to both to the fact that this is an accent, rather than a vocal technique like vibrato or voice breaks, and the accent’s main current use in indie pop.

There’s the origin story of indie pop voice—stay tuned next week as I discuss how we handle the phenomenon as singers and voice teachers!

To read Part 2 of The Indie Pop Voice Phenomenon, click here!