Monday, November 28, 2016

What Do We Call That, That... Affected Vocalization? I suggest "Jeweling" ...

There doesn't yet seem to be consensus on what to call that "thing" that many young female (and a few male) vocalists now do to stylize their vocalization. But once you hear it, you'll probably recognize it.

A few examples:

Why Did You Marry, by Nataly Dawn

Lucky, by Kat Edmonson

Fireflies, by Owl City

The style is now deployed to the extreme by many young singers, particularly those striving to distinguish themselves in TV competitions. Listen to the judges on America's Got Talent freak out about how "special" this is:

Grace VanderWaal on America's Got Talent

The formula for this style seems to be to transform every vowel into a tortured sequence of intermediate or even unrelated vowels. For example, the "I" in "I love you" might become \ äəij \ , rather than \ ī \ as in "ice" and so forth.

It's tempting to call this "diphthonging," but that would refers to fusing merely two vowels, e.g. a+i= ai, so perhaps "polyphthonging" or "multiphthonging" might be more appropriate. In any case, it's perhaps a form of "vowel breaking," somewhat related to the spoken phenomenon that we call "southern drawl" - that tendency to introduce intermediate vowels that sort of draw a word out; e.g.,

cat becomes \ cæjət \

pet becomes \ pɛjət \

And so forth. Drawl gives us some insight into the cultural reasons for ornamenting sung vowels: it's to lend some lilt to words that would otherwise be short and, well, otherwise unremarkable.

So where did this \ shɪjət \ begin, you ask?

Well, I remember noticing affected vocalization way back when Björk first came on the scene; here is an early example; see if you can count how many vowels she manages to insert into the words "quiet" and "still":

It's Oh So Quiet, by Björk

Sinead O'Connor certainly gave us some finely affected vocalizations as well; for example,

Nothing Compares 2 U, by Sinead O'Connor / Prince

O'Connor was of course one of many "Celtic" singers to bring the passagio into play, giving us that falsetto-like yodeling sound that conveyed heartache and vulnerability all over the airwaves. The style perhaps reached its pinnacle with Sarah McLachlan:

Adia, by Sarah McLachlan

But I digress; Sarah McLachlan really didn't polyphthong so much.

One of the most memorable examples of affected vocalization was furnished by Jewel Kilcher, known to most of us simply as "Jewel." Remember this vocal gem from the mid '90s?

Who Will Save Your Soul, by Jewel

Here, Jewel explores every human register and every vowel in every word. I think we need to award her bonus points for also using vocal fry a.k.a. "creaky voice" ...long before it was a thing. (Move over, Zooey!) Yes, Jewel did it all, and long ago. So maybe we should call it "jeweling" ?