Around 20 years ago the New Yorker writer John Colapinto was singing with his rock band in a club in downtown Manhattan when his voice began to give out. He would try to hit the high notes in the Rolling Stones song “Miss You” and his voice would break into a toneless rattle or vanish completely. By the end of the set he sounded as gravelly as Tom Waits. His voice never recovered.
He had developed a polyp on his vocal chords and though this could be removed, he would have to stay silent for six weeks after the operation, something he couldn’t face doing. Colapinto noticed that when his voice changed, people began to see him differently. It affects him less now that he is 62, but when he was in his forties his voice conveyed the impression of someone who had lived hard. “And, of course, I haven’t, I’ve been a pampered geek writer with spectacles sitting behind a keyboard,” he told me. Or then again, he reflected, maybe his voice transmitted essential truths about himself, hinting at years of drinking bourbon in smoky bars and singing “recklessly” in rock bands.
Colapinto spoke to me on Zoom from his home in Manhattan, where he appeared as the “geek writer” in square-framed glasses and a pair of large headphones, like those worn by pilots. I should note, however, that a New York Times story on his current band the Sequoias, made up of fellow New Yorker writers and the magazine’s editor David Remnick, described Colapinto as having “presence, baby”.
His experience of losing his voice is the departure point for Colapinto’s ambitious new book, This is the Voice. He argues that it is the human voice, which precedes our capacity for language, that distinguishes mankind from other animals. After all, the words we use form only a small part of the information we transmit each time we speak, about our mood, our intentions, our personality, our background. This is the Voice explores such phenomena as language acquisition in babies, the forces that shape the development of regional accents and what voices can tell us about power.
Women’s voices have played a dominant role in shaping language: babies listen to their mothers’ speech in the womb. A newborn’s cries will sound different in France or Germany, their first wails reflecting the prosody of their mother tongue. Children are taught the basics of grammar through “Motherese”. And yet, for most of history men have tried to silence female voices and exclude them from the public sphere.
One way that certain men police women’s voices is through the outrage generated by “vocal fry” – when the speaker adopts a low, crackling tone, like sizzling bacon. Ira Glass, the host of the podcast This American Life, has said that the angriest emails he has ever received have been complaints over female presenters using vocal fry – although, as Colapinto notes, men use it too.
Linguists have traced the adoption of vocal fry by young people to the popularity of the reality TV show Keeping up with the Kardashians; Kim Kardashian often speaks with it. When Colapinto began researching the book, shortly after Donald Trump’s election, he thought that by stripping the voice of emotion, vocal fry represented an attempt by young people to appear “impervious to life’s blows”, as cool and indifferent as a Kardashian, despite their economic precarity. But in the wake of the #MeToo movement, Colapinto became convinced there was something else going on. “I began to realise women were in a position we hadn’t seen them in for a long time, not since the early 1970s. They were angry, and justifiably so – my God, the world’s worst human was running arguably the world’s most powerful country,” he said. He noticed that the muscle movements required for vocal fry are the same muscles animals use when they growl. “It seemed to me, in their state of understandable and justifiable pissed-offedness, why would women not be growling?”
Anger is also the dominant emotion expressed by Donald Trump’s voice. Trump should not be a powerful speaker. His voice is unusually high and his utterances are frequently nonsensical. Yet people responded to the tone of his speeches, the sustained notes of grievance and rage. I wondered what Colapinto made of Joe Biden’s voice: the president is no orator, he has a stutter and frequently mixes up his words. But Colapinto sees something “quietly, exquisitely dramatic occurring” each time the president speaks. Biden is “speaking at a register that is so laid-back and calming and slow that it’s almost a liability”, Colapinto said. “But he realises he has to talk America, and the world, off a freaking ledge.”
When Trump was elected, people would ask Colapinto if he was considering moving back to Canada. But Colapinto, who grew up in Toronto, has lived in New York since the late 1980s and can’t imagine ever leaving. He remained in Manhattan during the first wave of the pandemic, and now he was looking forward to life returning to the city. “New York’s always at its best, I’ve discovered, after it’s suffered an existential blow,” he said. “You’re suddenly aware that it’s fragile, like everywhere is and everything is.”
The pandemic put a stop to the Sequoias’ rehearsals, but the band members kept promising one another they’d reform soon. “Writing is so cerebral, and rock ‘n’ roll is a way to put that all away and go nuts,” Colapinto said. “So yeah, I’m hoping like hell we come back.”
This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas