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Taking the False out of Falsetto

23 August 2008

How, pray tell, did falsetto become cool again? 

Male vocalists have employed the vocal technique over the past hundred years in lots of interesting ways.  Think of barbershop quartets, doo-wap, surf music, soul, and glam rock.  And who can forget the Bee Gees’ relentless whinnying over interminable disco beats?  More recently bands like The White Stripes and MGMT have cranked up the volume knob on their garage-band amps, and cranked up the irony in their vocal register to match.  Some of these altitudinous notes sound like they are coming from well-trained lungs, others as if from a Monty Python sketch.  But it misses the point to scrutinize too carefully the quality of the voice.  Falsetto toys with social meanings in a way that the normal register doesn’t.

A first point to make here is that falsetto crosses over gender expectations.  A man otherwise deemed “manly” can cross over from his normal, deep vocal range to something reserved for women.  It comes as no surprise that bands like 80’s bands Stryper and Poison used to wear tight clothes and make-up in conjunction with their high-pitched singing and screaming.  They garnered attention by transcending the bounds of normalcy and civilized behavior.  Philip Auslander points out in Performing Glam Rock (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 2006) that falsetto suggests a kind of liberation from social constraints by exhibiting the power of both sexes.  Hence he dares to call Brian Ferry from Roxy Music “a male version of the Sapphonic voice” (p.167), meaning one, who like the lesbian poet Sappho, had become supra-sexed and who thus achieved something like angelic powers. 

In a similar vein, Auslander points out that falsetto intimates a kind of sexual deviancy, manifested especially from the 1970s on.  I find this interesting, because it means that male vocalists appropriated a feminine mode within a masculine expectation, namely, they made “singing like a girl” into an expression of sexual aggressiveness proper to a man.  Think about the MTV videos from the late 80s/early 90s depicting feminine-looking men luring (clean, dolled up) groupies into their back rooms for sexual escapades.  These men had become “dangerous” by their ability to traverse the gender divide and so could lead women into unknown realms of pleasure and power.

Maybe the most important thing to observe is that falsetto unites authenticity with play.  That is, for all its pomp it comes across as “spontaneous,” the broadly accepted criterion of good rock music.  Because it violates civic norms (especially when combined with other gender bending performance techniques), falsetto suggests that a vocalist doesn’t give a damn about the world, and therefore must simply have integrity, i.e., be at home with himself.  But singing glass-shattering notes obviously exudes a real playfulness.  As showboating, it would seem to be entirely the voice of an imposter were it not for the fact that it also has self-consciousness built into it.  No one actually thinks that this is the lead vocalist’s actual voice.  He very obviously employs it because he can, not because he is limited to it.  (This is the heart of all “popular” gender bending, is it not?)  He is utterly authentic because he knows how to play the game so well.  And so, mutatis mutandis, there is nothing false in falsetto.

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