Before we move on I would like for you to do something for me. I’d just like you to say this to yourself….”Oh my god I was reading this blog today and it was sooooooo funny.” But please, say the words “soooooo funny” as if you are talking lower and with the back of your throat. Close your eyes if that helps. No this is not some twisted form of blog meditation. This is vocal fry people. Vocal what?! If you’re like me then you are wondering what the hell is going on. I had no idea either, until my friend Howard Stern told me about it. Let me explain….
So I’m listening to Howard Stern this morning and he wastes no time talking about his failed attempt at masturbation the night before and how he broke from his rigidly boring sleep schedule to stay up late and watch The Bachelor finale last night. I know, I know – some people are hardcore Stern fans and some are definitely not, but the one thing Howard points out from the show was pretty interesting. Not only that, it’s something I’ve never heard of – vocal fry. Even the words sounded strange to me – like a bad 90’s band being introduced to a crowd – “and now welcome to the stage, …..Vocal…..Fry!” Well anyway, Stern delves into the topic passionately and you can tell immediately it’s something that absolutely drives him nuts. In particular, he targets the winner Lauren B. and the way she talks. “It’s making me mental! I could not marry this girl….she’s got to stop!” – he rants. And it’s not until he plays sound bites from The Bachelor that I start to understand more of what vocal fry is. And I must say – it is definitely a thing. And it’s something I have heard and noticed before but just never gave too much thought to. It’s also kind of hard to describe on paper, but when you hear it you will know the sound. Howard may be rude, crude, outlandish, and many other things to people but what Howard does know and has an ear for – are voices. He is always particularly curious during his interviews about singers’ voices and how they take care of them over time to make them last. He himself has logged countless hours of talking for over 30 years on air and his voice is something to him that is very sacred and he is always improving. So shit – I guess he knows what he’s talking about, although it’s hilarious how much girls talking this way pisses him off. I think he may be a little more sensitive to it than others, which is not shocking. He goes on to blast the talking, saying things like “these girls are like half human, half frog!” When the dust settles from this vocal fry bashing he then seems to contrast things by saying how much he has always loved his cohost Robin Quiver’s nice feminine voice and how it’s stayed so very consistent over their many years together. So hey – he did manage to say one nice thing! By the end of it I am left wondering if this vocal fry thing annoys me too or if I’m sexist for even considering it. Now I’m just curious, and as I sit here writing this now (I don’t even know if I should be writing about this) I also don’t even know if Midsis talks like this sometimes or not. I really don’t think so. Plus, she is a pretty talented enunciator, especially next to my mumbling tendencies. But all of a sudden the most important thing on my mind is vocal fry – I definitely need help, and I definitely need to dig deeper into this.
So who do I turn to for more answers? As The Knife says “You know who knows?? Google knows.” So I turn to our mutual friend, Google. Actually wait, I first text my trusty friend Zeff, he knows things and he’s another Stern listener of many more years than I – and yes he has heard Stern mention this phenomenon years ago and now he notices vocal fries all the time! What the hell? This has been going for years?? Then I turn to Google….and sure enough among many other headlines, there’s a clip of Howard Stern from November 2012 discussing,…..you guessed it….vocal fry after watching a previous season of The Bachelor, who at that time was another Ben. I guess Howard really does love the show and of course he loves playing more sound bites of another even throatier young woman talking or “croaking” as Howard describes it then. Ok I’ll admit that it was a little painful sounding this time around compared to Lauren B., who was a bit more subtle. After more searching I find out that vocal fry is actually the scientific term – holy shit. It’s called the vocal fry register, the lowest vocal register that is produced with a loose rattling/fluttering of the vocal chords, especially at the end of sentences in this case. According to Wikipedia, it’s also known as pulse register, laryngealisation, pulse phonation, creak, croak, popcorning, glottal fry, glottal rattle, glottal scrape, or strohbass. I’m thinking I might start to use some of these alternate terms to shake things up….”Whoah did you catch the glottal scrape on that girl??” Actually, no – I’m pretty sure that will make me sound like more of an a-hole. Anyway, this vocal trend is very popular with young girls and I guess the term is more commonly known to them, so I don’t feel so bad for being late to the vocal fry party going on out there. A study from 2011 suggested that over 2/3 of college girls used vocal fry. I then find more and more famous vocal fryers – Katy Perry, Zooey Deschanel, Kesha, Emma Stone and The Kardashians. So that makes me wonder if radio and reality TV are spreading this trend more wildly through American female culture. Then I find another article suggesting that maybe the trend was started by Britney Spears when she famously vocally fried/croaked the line “Oh baby, baby……” back in 1998. Ok – this thing goes deeper than I thought.
The more I read about it and watch videos about it, the more my head starts to spin. Researchers have found that the fry is used by girls and women to give their voice more credibility and the impression that they are in the know. However, others argue that the result is that they actually wind up sounding less confident, thus undermining the power of their communication. Uptalk also seems to be tied to vocal fry – you know, that other vocal tic where one raises their voice with an inflection at the end of the sentence as if they are asking a question when they are not. I honestly didn’t know it was called uptalk either. But many seem to think that vocal trends like this tend to make women sound less educated, trustworthy, and in the end – less hirable. For example, a Time article from two years ago discussed how these and other speech patterns can hurt those interviewing for a job. Oh and they also reference the deep nasally Chicago accent as one those negative speech patterns – shit! Feminist and best-selling author Naomi Wolf also got after young women when she wrote this thought-provoking open letter to millennial women, basically telling them to quit frying their vocals and get their strong voice back or they won’t be taken seriously. However, just like anything there is another side to this coin. Mainly, I really found this article helpful, in which Stanford linguistics professor Penny Eckert tries put the brakes on this vocal fry bashing. She joins journalist Jessica Grose, who was called out for her upspeak on a Slate podcast, and speech pathologist Susan Sankin as they have an even-handed discussion about these vocal trends amongst women. And what Eckert immediately points out is that vocal fry doesn’t affect just women (oh shit I know where this is going). In fact, she says “the biggest users of vocal fry traditionally have been men, and it still is.” SHIIIIIT. Excuse me for a moment while I curiously and nervously talk to myself. F$%k I don’t think so – I don’t know. Let’s just move on. Eckert brought up something else interesting though, which is that when she first heard upspeak on the radio she was shocked. She then played the woman speaking for her students and asked them what they thought and interestingly, they said “Good, authoritative.” These are Stanford college students, mind you. So yes it’s in California and closer to Hollywood influences, but come on – these are pretty smart kids. That does get me thinking if this isn’t a generational thing and some older folks just hear nails on a chalkboard when the younger kids hear something they can identify with. Susan Sankin counters the argument by suggesting that these patterns are “just distracting from the message” and that it just gives the impression that the person speaking is less decisive. Jessica Grouse, who considered working with a voice coach to improve her speech patterns, eventually felt like she was limiting herself by doing so and stopped trying to change. Though she did add that she now considers her audience when she is speaking:
“I have started thinking of voice almost as the way I think about outfits. If I’m going for a job interview I’m going to wear a different outfit than when I’m out with my friends. And before I wouldn’t have thought, ‘Oh I use a different voice when I’m at a job interview and when I’m out with my friends’, and now I do think of it a little bit more as these two separate things, whereas before I had zero awareness of it. And I don’t know if that’s necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s just about wanting to change for yourself instead of feeling like you’re being forced to change by external forces.”
Anyway, I liked that quote because it’s a little more balanced and modern point of view from someone who’s actually in the trenches on this issue. And plus I can’t be here on The Sister Project Blog bashing women’s vocal fry and saying they should change it when I still don’t even know for sure if I’m glottally frying my vocals all around town myself. And I’m just not Howard Stern. I guess it’s just like anything – in extreme cases I can see it being pretty annoying to people (take Dubstep or bad reality TV), but it also depends on age and circumstance. But hell – that’s true about a lot of other things. People still have a problem with tattoos and piercings and hair styles and all kinds of other shit. That doesn’t mean we young people are about to change. See what I did there??? I grouped myself in there with the young people, partly because I am trying to be cool and mostly because I truly do still feel young at heart. I guess this vocal fry news just threw me for a loop. And now I am mostly curious what other men and women alike think about it, as well as the young punks and the old timers. And hey it’s something else to talk about besides politics! Why feel the Bern when you can feel the Fry?!? I know one thing – I will be more mindful of this phenomenon now that I know what the hell it’s called and probably be noticing it more moving forward for better or worse. This is the point where I realize that I’m a 36 year old dude, who is not a vocal expert, and not a woman and I just wrote a book report on vocal fry in young women’s culture (although it affects men too). You’re welcome for something you didn’t ask for. Now please – tell me what you thiiiiiink (in my best glottal scrape). One last video.