Why Are There NPR Music Reporters Who Need to Police Singers’ Masculinity?

NPR arts reporter Neda Ulaby, we need to talk. Long time listener, first time blogger. Big fan, by the way — hearing you talk about upcoming movies and groundbreaking artists when I drink my morning coffee is always a treat, and usually inspires me to check out whatever you’re delving into.

But your story the other day: Why Are There So Many Tough Guys Who Sound Like Ladies On The Radio? What exactly was that? Did your dog eat your homework? Did you come in late from a dinner with friends and realize, oh shit, my deadline is in two hours and I have nothing?

I’ll explain what I mean. Let’s start at the beginning.

If you turn on the radio and hear a falsetto, chances are it’s a guy. A really manly guy. Pop music is filled with male vocalists who present as hyper-masculine, muscled and tattooed, but who sing in really high registers. Think Usher, Jason Derulo, Justin Bieber, Trey Songz, Nick Jonas or The Weeknd, who’s up for seven Grammys this year.

Also, think Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Steve Perry of Journey, Jeff Lynne of ELO, Phillip Bailey of Earth Wind & Fire, Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations, Frankie Valli, Roy Orbison…I could go back further in pop history, but we don’t have that much time. My point is, sure, you’re mentioning people who are of-the-moment, which is great for clicks, but I need to remind you that this is not a new phenomenon. Which, okay, her expert briefly mentions…

“Men singing in high voices is nothing new, says Robin James, a philosophy professor who writes about popular music on her blog, It’s Her Factory. “This goes all the way back to the oldest European sacred music,” she says, referencing boy choirs and castrati. But she agrees that child sopranos and medieval male singers prevented from going through puberty are no one’s idea of studs.”

…before immediately discounting her statement. Are you kidding me right now, Neda. Sure, some castrati were prevented from going through puberty, specifically those castrated before the age of 10. But the ones who were snipped after continued to develop — in fact, the lack of testosterone often caused their bones to grow unusually long, leaving them taller and more barrel chested than their un-castrated male peers. They could also sustain erections. One choice quote from an article by Tony Perrottet on the topic:

For Europe’s high society women, the obvious benefit of built-in contraception made castrati ideal targets for discreet affairs. Soon popular songs and pamphlets began suggesting that castration actually enhanced a man’s sexual performance, as the lack of sensation ensured extra endurance; stories spread of the castrati as considerate lovers, whose attention was entirely focused on the woman. As one groupie eagerly put it, the best of the singers enjoyed “a spirit in no wise dulled, and a growth of hair that differs not from other men.” When the most handsome castrato of all, Farinelli, visited London in 1734, a poem written by an anonymous female admirer derided local men as “Bragging Boasters” whose enthusiasm “expires too fast, While F—–lli stands it to the last.”

(Author’s note: Did Farinelli’s groupies call him “Fuckinelli” behind his back? This is the greatest day of my life.)

Soprano in the pitches, bass in the britches, amirite?
Soprano in the pitches, bass in the britches, amirite?

They were, in fact, many people’s idea of studs, Neda.

“And it’s hard to imagine earlier generations of popular male singers, such as Curtis Mayfield, Teddy Pendergrass or the Bee Gees, talking as matter-of-factly about their high voices as Adam Levine.

‘First of all, you have a high voice and I have a high voice, so we’re already best friends,’ the lead singer of Maroon 5 joked to a contestant on the NBC show The Voice. Fellow judge and bro-country superstar Blake Shelton took it even further.

‘I think you sound like a very original, different sounding artist than anybody else I’ve ever heard before,” he gushed. “Let me just tell you this about your voice: I freaking love it. … I mean, I don’t know how you get that high but then look that studly up there. I think you’re a stud.'”

I don’t know what you mean by “It’s hard to imagine earlier generations of popular male singers…talking as matter-of-factly about their high voices as Adam Levine.” Are you suggesting that Curtis Mayfield was ashamed of his voice? I’m not sure what you’re getting at.

So what’s up with all these manly men singing like girls? Perhaps it has something to do with a generation of vocalists growing up during the metrosexual era and worshipping Michael Jackson. Singing high was cool, and so was expanding the possibilities of masculine self-expression.

But Neda, who inspired Michael Jackson to “sing like a girl”? I’ll tell you: Marvin Gaye. Stevie Wonder. James Brown.

Who inspired James Brown to “sing like a girl”? Singers like Little Richard.

I could keep going.

You just try telling James Brown he sings like a girl.
You just try telling James Brown he sings like a girl.

Men singing in falsetto have been around nearly as long as vocal cords.

Let’s set aside the fact what what you’re saying is hugely heteronormative, misogynistic, and masculinity policing. There is a musical reason for this that has nothing to do with gender expression. High notes cut through and grab your attention. In literally every music group, from church choirs to jazz combos to metal bands, the highest pitched voice or instrument gets the melody. When a musician playing a low-pitched instrument, such as a rock bassist, takes a solo, what do they do? They climb the octaves to get to a more brilliant, intense register.

That’s because our ears are conditioned to pick out the high tones as the most important. Think of music like architecture: the foundation, steel beams, and windows are all just as important as the spire on top of a skyscraper, but it’s that spire that people remember. So it is with the high tones in music. It’s what our ears pick out first — in fact, since high pitches travel faster through the air than lower pitches, it is literally what our ears hear first. Edit: Fellow Labber and math-knower Ryan has pointed out that I remembered this incorrectly. Sound travels at the same speed no matter the pitch, but we perceive high pitches as louder than low pitches.

When professor Robin James looks at all the music videos of macho guys doing shirtless pushups and wooing ladies while showing off their uppermost registers, she sees a new centering of the gender spectrum.

“Kind of like the man bun,” she says. “My masculinity is so secure, I can even wear a traditionally women’s hairstyle and still be seen as masculine and macho.”

The range of the male “normal” is getting bigger — and getting higher.

Don’t blame the man bun. It had no part in this. Men have been singing high tones nearly as long as Western harmony was a thing, because Western harmony gives the high tones all the good stuff. High tones get noticed, and if there’s any genre whose central goal is “PLEASE NOTICE ME!”, it’s pop music.

Featured image of The Weeknd used via Creative Commons license from ANSPressSocietyNews, Farinelli image used via Wikimedia Commons, Marvin Gaye image used under Creative Commons license from Heinrich Klaffs.

Ashley Hamer

Ashley Hamer (aka Smashley) is a saxophonist and writer living in Chicago, where she performs regularly with the funk band FuzZz and jazz ensemble Big Band Boom. She also does standup comedy, sort of, sometimes. Her tenor saxophone's name is Ladybird.

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  1. Smokey Robinson, anyone?

    I didn’t listen to the NPR piece, but the quotations provided here do not support the accusation that Ulaby was being misogynistic or policing masculinity.  It just sounds like a puff piece not up to Ulaby’s usual standards, with shallow research and a poorly supported thesis. Maybe she should write a pop-culture cover story for TIME.

    If Smashley and Neda were in my seminar, I would remind the class to focus on factual errors and inconsistencies (as Smashley did) and avoid inflammatory language.  Writers should call out bias — absolutely — but they’d better have impeccable documentation (which Smashley didn’t) or they damage their own credibility.





  2. So what’s up with all these manly men singing like girls?

    As someone who has been gender policed all their life, it sure sounds like gender policing to me. The whole point of the article is to question what these singers are doing. Without the assumption that this is what men aren’t supposed to do, the whole thing falls apart. Why say “manly men” if not to emphasize that their singing isn’t “manly”? And “like a girl” has long been and still is a put-down, especially when applied to men.

    The writer probably didn’t think of it as gender policing, and would probably say she didn’t intend it that way. She simply unthinkingly repeated long-standing tropes that she’s never heard questioned.

    Like racism and sexism, most of the time the person who does it hasn’t thought about it and usually won’t even recognize it if it’s pointed out.

    And if all else fails, you’ll hear “lighten up,” “it’s just a puff piece,” “it’s a joke,” etc. But these sorts of things go on all the time, they’re pervasive. It’s how cultures (rape culture, racism, etc.) keep themselves going.

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