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Top of their voices

From accents to Auto-Tune, singers fought to stand out from the pack

In November 1993, the critic Simon Reynolds wrote the following in an issue of Melody Maker dedicated to vocal heroes: "It is hard to say why one voice leaves you cold and another pierces the marrow of your soul, gets in your pants, fits you like a glove." And he went on to mourn the absence of a history of vocal trends. Now, at the end of a decade in which the singing voice has surrounded us in many different forms - soundtracking our internal worlds through our iPods and laptops, framing our external lives as they rise up from car radios and mobile-phone speakers - we need one more than ever.

Three modern vocal styles have been particularly prominent in the western world in the past decade: the mid-Atlantic, talent-show soprano; the highly processed, auto-tuned vocal; and the heavily ornamented regional accent. Their variety reminds us that a singing voice is a choice, particularly in a culture where human beings are bombarded with so many modes of delivery, phraseology and feeling. To sing is to present our individual selves in a way we are comfortable with, to locate our identities within wider traditions.

The mid-Atlantic soprano has become one of the modern world's most bankable instruments. It has been developed since the start of pop music, and has become the dominant way in which young female singers express themselves. These pop wannabes look up to the likes of Beyoncé and Christina Aguilera, and copy performances centred around technical tics - soaring high notes that prove their singing mettle, exaggerated warbles that indicate soul. Melisma - the passage of several notes over one syllable - is an important part of this process, a flourish first used in Catholic and Orthodox plainsong. Today's modern melismatic icons perform in stadiums instead of cathedrals, and they have become the worshipped rather than the worshippers.

Carrie Grant, a professional vocal coach who has worked with Charlotte Church and Melanie Chisholm from the Spice Girls, and as a judge on the BBC talent show Fame Academy, tells me that young female voices have become homogenised. She thinks that this has happened as recently as the past decade. "Singers used to come in to be coached and say, 'Make me sound like myself.' Now they say, 'Make me sound like someone else.'"

Grant mourns the disappearance of 1970s pop, in which distinctive, soulful singers such as Randy Crawford, Aretha Franklin and Minnie Riperton coexisted, and she blames two phenomena for having a negative impact: the powerhouse styles of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, and the TV talent contests that promise riches and dreams. She talks about the songs that have what she calls "money moments" - long, held notes near a song's climax, and key changes that are meant to register an uplift of emotion.

“They're meant to make us feel something, but do we actually feel anything? We rarely do," she says. "These moments are actually about the individual going, 'Look at me, listen to how far I can push this.' It's about singing being a sport, rather than something that moves us." It's also about pushing a well-known style one stage louder, Grant says - something that Pixie Lott, Duffy and Shingai Shoniwa from the Noisettes, for example, have all tried to do since the success of Amy Winehouse.

The new singing style is also a very audible means of what the philosopher Judith Butler calls gender performativity - the reinforcement of sexual identity through reiterated acts. A melismatic, mid-Atlantic vocal style is meant to reveal a woman bursting with emotion, who is nevertheless in control of herself. She is, in effect, Superwoman writ large.

Butler's ideas also help to explain the runaway popularity of Auto-Tune over the past ten years. A computer program designed to correct out-of-tune vocalists artificially, but which also produces effects of its own, Auto-Tune has been used to extremes by American male hip-hop artists such as T-Pain. By delivering all his vocals through the pitch-correcting program and bending the natural glissandos of his voice into stark, jumpy shapes, he has transformed it from a means of treatment into a style in itself.

And T-Pain's songs are principally priapic creatures. In "Tipsy", a man tries to get a girl drunk to take her home; in "I'm Sprung", a man gets horny and has to return to his woman even though she doesn't deserve him; and in "Chopped and Screwed", women wrong and tease men. It is no coincidence that T-Pain's heartfelt ballads - such as "Keep Going", a song for his wife and children on 2008's Thr33 Ringz - are delivered without the Auto-Tune effect. Nor is it surprising that international smash hits by fellow rappers, such as Lil' Wayne's innuendo-heavy "Lollipop" and Snoop Dogg's "Sensual Seduction", also make sexual desire sound automated and automatic, reducing sex to mechanics rather than a play of emotions.
As Butler might have it, Auto-Tune helps these dirty dawgs perform masculinity.

But perhaps it's progress of a sort: Auto-Tune does not sound particularly aggressive, a point made by a more conventional hip-hop artist, Jay-Z, on his song "Death of Auto-Tune". He raps "Pull your skirt back down, grow a set . . . / Your colour's too bright, your voice too light." His lyrics not only reveal an unpleasant longing for a mythical, pre-digital masculinity, but are also a reminder that technology can open up new possibilities for vocal expression.

Kanye West proved that Auto-Tune could have broader capabilities on his 2008 LP 808s and Heartbreak, the melancholy mood of which reflected a man being comforted by technology as he mourned the death of his mother. It also reminded us of black American music's love affair with technology - from the Afrofuturist experiments of Sun Ra to Afrika Bambaataa's splicing together of Kraftwerk and hip-hop - and revealed that technology could be harnessed to amplify feeling, not reduce it.

Back in Britain, however, something else was occurring. Regional accents were reappearing. They had last been heard prominently in punk, when artists such as the Clash and Billy Bragg had used them to kick against the mainstream and invest their songs with a sense of pride and place. By the 1990s, rock music had become increasingly nostalgic for "authentic" vocal styles, with grunge making the growly drawls of Seventies blues-rock popular as the cockney inflections of Britpop invoked the lyrical storytelling of Sixties songs.

In the past decade, however, many British artists seemed interested only in amplifying their own regional identities. This was also reflected in their lyrics, which reminded listeners that British cities could also shore up good stories. Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys stressed his rolling Sheffield vowels, for example, as he told us tales of scummy men and rhymed "Ford Mondeo" with "say owt". On her breakthrough single "LDN", Lily Allen created a refreshing new template for young British singers by describing the culture clashes of her home town in pronounced Estuary English - here, newcomers dined "al-frescow" while old ladies struggled with their bags from "Tes-cow". In viscous Glaswegian, Glasvegas's James Allan sang about knife crime and social workers, while Elbow's Guy Garvey eulogised tower crane drivers and picky buggers in his soft, Bury brogue.

David Crystal, a professor of linguistics, finds all this fascinating. He argues that it is not necessarily natural to sing in your own accent all the time, as pop lyrics often require the elongation of vowels and flattening of diphthongs. But he also remembers the pressure to sing in an American accent in the early days of rock'n'roll, when he was a budding musician in 1950s Liverpool. "The dream that was conveyed by that style of singing was just as important as its lyrical substance," he says. The Beatles came along and changed the rules temporarily, but that dream lives on - most obviously in the aforementioned talent-show vocal.

In the 21st century, regional accents are much more acceptable commodities. They were discouraged on the BBC until the early 1980s, Crystal points out, but the way they are embraced now makes it obvious why more variety has arrived in the record shops. "It is because times have changed dramatically," he says. "These days, we are largely allowed to be who we want to be, even when elements of our lives conspire to make this difficult. Our voices are there to help us reinforce who we are."

Indeed, pop does not exist in a vacuum. We should all listen closely to our singing voices, just as Simon Reynolds suggested we do - to see how the world changes them, and how they themselves change the world.

Read Jude Rogers on a decade in pop

This article first appeared in the 14 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Muslim Jesus

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 14 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Muslim Jesus