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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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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.