Patricia Pisters and Hannah Bosma wrote the book Madonna: De vele gezichten van een popster. It is an interdisciplinary study of Madonna's work, sometimes relating it to broader cultural contexts, sometimes we discuss a piece or a fragment of Madonna's work in detail. Each chapter has a theme. The first chapter is about the issue of high and low culture in relation to Madonna's work, a chapter about feminist interpretations of Madonna, there is a chapter about Madonna's music, a chapter about Madonna and stardom, a chapter about Madonna's film Truth or Dare, a whole chapter consists of a close reading of the music, lyrics and video of "Justify My Love", and the last chapter is about Madonna's voice. Madonna's voice is also the subject of Hannah Bosma's paper here.
And how important is Madonna singing off key in a few shows, compared to her thirteen albums and many singles and remixes in which her singing is of course well-produced? Does it matter how many rehearsals and production work was needed to get these clean results?
Instead of talking about Madonna's voice in terms of either good or bad, I would like to discuss her voice here in relation to stereotypical vocal gender patterns in Western culture. In this way, we will hear much more in her voice. We will also see that these ideas about a good or bad voice are in fact strongly related to ideas about gender.
To start with Madonna's "thin, high" voice first. In fact, from her earliest recordings on, her voice is not always thin and high. Mostly, her voice is in the pitch range of speech. Sometimes, we can hear her sing with a rather raw, rauceous voice. But obviously, in some of her most wellknown hitsongs her voice sounds rather high and "girlish"; for example: "Lucky Star", "Holiday", "Into The Groove". But what's wrong with a girlie voice? What's wrong with sounding like a virgin?
Humans have a large potential of possible pitches for their speaking voice. But due to different mean sizes of their vocal folds, vocal pitch is for women in general higher than for men. Of course, there are also cultural influences that make women speak higher than men - a difference that is perceived as "just natural". But several studies of speech behavior also show that in Western culture high speaking voices are in general taken less seriously than lower voices; thus: female speaking voices are taken less seriously than male speaking voices - regardless of what is being said. In conjunction with this is the tendency of Western career women to lower their voice, as research showed. Although there are of course certain biological restraints in vocal possibilites, fortunately women (and of course also men) still have a wide pitch range to choose from. However, by lowering their voices, these career women reinforce the stereotype that power and a low voice go together.
A similar stereotype can also be found in rock music. Women with low, raw, raucous voices are perceived as strong, sexy, wild and intense. Their voices seem to witness an intense, wild life with lots of sex, drugs and alcohol. They are one of the boys.
Madonna's girlie voice can be considered as a statement against this stereotype. Like other humans, Madonna has a vast pitch area to choose from, and different songs of her witnesss this. (As some very old recordings of Madonna in the band Emmy suggest; and also in parts of other songs we hear that Madonna can also sing with other voices than her girlie voice, like for example in parts of "Burning Up", "Waiting", "Till Death Do Us Part". But often, Madonna chooses the kind of voice girls normally have, as in "Express Yourself", "I Know It", "Borderline", "Burning Up", "Think Of Me", "Everybody". But Madonna has the power girls normally don't have. Madonna is superpopstar, co-producer, co-composer, one of the richest women in the world and manager of her bussiness. Madonna decides what she does and with whom she wants to work. Also in her songs, videoclips and shows, Madonna conveys that she is in charge: that she knows what she does and does what she wants. In her songs, she commands her lovers as well as her public. Madonna shows that one can have both a girlie voice and power too.
In 1992, Madonna's album Erotica was released. This album is for the most part produced by Madonna and Shep Pettibone together. In his essay about Madonna's album Erotica, Simon Frith explains that for him, the quality of New York disco and dance music of Shep Pettibone and others, lies in the tension between singer and producer: in the way the producer seems to control the singing voice. Frith refers to: "the voice swelling demandingly around the beat, the singer pulling herself together again each time the producer broke her lines up into a tumble of urgent fragments." According to Frith, "The essence of the New York disco sound was the anonymity of its voices". Frith goes on: " These dance records were all ballads of sexual dependency, and their emotional effect was pointed up by the studio reality of the singers' dependency. The more powerful the disco diva, the more heart-stopping her vulnerability to producer trickery; New York disco meant assertion of control in situations - love, sex, and in the studio - in which singers had none." To state the obvious: there is a very traditional, stereotypical, heterosexual gender pattern in Frith's vocal erotics which I find difficult to celebrate.
Of course, Madonna's voice is not anonymous, and she always seems in control. Frith notes: "If the classic disco singer was held in by her producer, Madonna holds herself back and in doing so also holds back the rythm." Frith regrets this: for him, Erotica is problematic in this respect. For Frith, a male producer controlling an anonymous strong female voice is more sexy than Madonna controlling her self and her own songs. And as for me, I too love the big strong virtuoso voices. But I get sick and tired of all those cliché dance tracks in which female voices are expressing ecstacy and emotional intensity while male producers and dj's are in control of sound and technology. Madonna certainly is not a virtuoso singer in the traditional sense. But against the background of this stereotypical gender pattern of ecstatic feminine vocal virtuosity controled by masculine technological display, I perceive in Madonna's songs other vocal qualities that are inspiring and are worth listening to.
Madonna's voice is not "wild", "intense", "direct" and "immediate". She plays with many different voices and thereby keeps her distance, gaining power and authorial subjectivity. This is especially clear on Erotica. It is an interesting and appealing aspect of her vocal work that is neglected by Frith and others.
Is the assertion of power and control enough? Being out of control is not only the essence of victimization - it is an essential aspect of life too. Music, like life, consists of the interplay of control and abandonment, of the symbolic and the semiotic, of order and indeterminacy, of discipline and noise. Male artists often are at the same time concerned with systems and order as well as with freedom, madness, noise, indeterminacy and the subversion of systems - which they often, but not always, project on women and the feminine. Moreover: one needs a good psycho-social position to feel the security and freedom to be able to be relaxed, flexibel, free and vulnerable. Why can't women have it both ways? Is it desirable to be tense and rigid instead of out of control? Is female abandonment possible without hysteria? Can women "let go" without being powerless? Other, younger female composer-vocalists like Björk and Alanis Morissette indeed show that that is possible. And with her album Ray of Light, Madonna has arrived in a new phase, combining control, power, release and vulnerability, in her lyrics as well as in her vocals. On Ray of Light, Madonna's voice sounds more relaxed, singing glissando's and melisma's, oh's and mmm's as well as texts about control and about deliberately losing control, changing, traveling, running, swimming to the ocean floor, crashing to the other shore, walking on a thin line, flying quicker than a ray of light. But Madonna is not losing power and control, Madonna is singing ànd speaking and has a lot to tell, again; on the last track Madonna is speaking, telling a story about live and death.