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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

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge