13 Nov 2015

Chapter 2.5: Sonic Bodies, Vocal-Objects and the Aural Gaze

This post is part of my series on Pop, Power & the Vocal-Subject

Over the last three chapters, I’ve discussed Donna Summer’s 1977 hit ‘I Feel Love’ in relation to a particular politico-aesthetic programme that found its most perfect manifestation in the rave culture of the late ’80s/early ’90s. As a disco song that anticipates house and techno, both in sound and in spirit, ‘I Feel Love’ and its vocal protagonist haunt the fault lines between shifting genres, identities, listening cultures and ideologies. Yet even the newest and most violent aesthetic eruptions cool and harden into something familiar. Deterritorialisations remain relative (see Chapter 2.3): each has its complementary reterritorialisation (see Chapter 2.4). The utopian spark of dance culture reterritorialises on specific spaces and institutions (clubs, labels, music festivals, style tribes), and on rave nostalgia, with its lost futures and historical fictions. Sounds reterritorialise on genre, style, voice, language, song, vocal-subject, meaning…

So what then are we left with? Desire passes from ‘intransitive intensity’ to something more straightforwardly sexual. Donna Summer materialises within the songworld as a vocal-subject, along with her own object of desire: ‘Oo I’ll get you’. And the listener/dancer is present as well, in a relationship with her and her desire. One of the obvious dangers that the listener faces when polyvalent desire gives way to unidirectional pleasure is one of an exploitative objectification. Is the vocal-subject then always first and foremost an object of the listener’s pleasure? And would this not turn Drew Hemment’s ‘house without a home’ — the ‘nomadic block of space-time’ that constitutes the heterotopian dancefloor (Hemment 1997: 5) — into a kind of mobile cage for the vocal-subject: the shrieking diva locked inside her diva house attic?

Listening to the Vocal-Subject

Certainly the enclosure of the female voice within a musical space-time created, owned and controlled by a male ‘artist’ (composer, conductor, songwriter, producer) has been a long-running feature of Western music’s gender politics. The diva singing and dying on the operatic stage, her fate propelled by the baton of the male conductor as avatar of the male composer, bears family ties to the glamorous woman fronting the otherwise all-male indie group, the band’s male instrumentalists and songwriters dressed plainly and soberly in the back. Certainly the sampled diva in diva house can be heard in the same terms: anonymous yet impassioned, with samples and phrases chosen for their bare emotionality, the palpable femaleness of the black woman’s voice.1

Summer’s performance in ‘I Feel Love’ is very different of course: incredibly poised and self-possessed. Simon Reynolds, framing the song as a ‘revolution’ that laid the foundations for house, describes Summer’s vocals as ‘gaseous’ and ‘eroto-mystic’ (Reynolds 2008: 16). Her whole vocal is floated in a head voice that might at first seem to render her less powerful than the ‘grainy’ chest she employs on a track like ‘Hot Stuff’. It might also seem more invasive, more interior, but also more ‘beautified’, given its distance from the register of speech (i.e., the vocal register in which we usually encounter the vocal-other).

We might begin to detect a binary here concerning the connotations of vocal register:

chest = exterior, speech, performativity, the outward presentation of the self

head = interior, song, thought, the inner life of the self

Yet there are already certain suspect racial overtones to such a binary, especially if we equate a strong, gritty chest voice with ‘black’ genres (soul, blues, R’n’B) and the ‘exterior’ (the body), and a soft, floaty head voice with ‘white’ genres (folk, indie, bubblegum pop), and this with the ‘interior’ (the mind). At the same time, the binary clearly doesn’t always work, particularly if we consider the use of male head voice (falsetto) in both sets of genres, wherein it can evoke a kind of choirboy sensitivity/introspection in indie music (Coldplay, Bon Iver), but also a ‘freaky’, androgynous sexiness (Prince, Wild Beasts, The Darkness) in opposition to the more growly, ‘grainy’ male voice that Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson identify as connoting ‘authenticity’ and ‘sincerity’ in genres like rock, folk and blues (see previous chapter).

chest = authenticity, directness, honesty, masculine

head = freakiness, sexiness, performativity, androgynous

While the connotations of vocal register and style clearly depend on genre norms, I would argue that Summer’s vocals in ‘I Feel Love’ do function to connote an interiority. It is less of an embodied performance (in which her desire would be shown on her sonic body) and more of a testament to inner sensations (in which her body (her chest, her throat) partially disappears). This is one way in which the vocal-subject could be said to resist objectification: she affirms her identity as a desiring subject while sliding out of her body.

Transgressive Voices and the Vocal-Object

In this chapter, I will review some of the different ways in which vocal timbre has been related to subject- and objecthood, and how it has thereby been attributed with ‘resistent’ or ‘transgressive’ qualities. Overwhelmingly, these are assigned in relation to race and gender, through the ‘facialization’ of the voice (described in the previous chapter), whereby vocal-subjects are gendered and racialised according to the norms of listening culture and genre. Assuming that the reader recognises the above chest/head binaries (which may or may not correspond to ‘grainy’/‘non-grainy’ in Gilbert and Pearson’s adaptation of Barthes, or ‘non-machined’/‘machined’ in Deleuze & Guattari’s terms), we might interpret both in terms of a single masculine (chest)/feminine (head) binary, with the former pertaining more to ‘female’ voices and the latter to ‘male’ voices. In this interpretation, the ‘feminine’ head voice is marked as ‘positive’ in traditionalist gender terms for female voices (on the one hand, more pretty and decorative, less engaged, but on the other hand, more sensitive/inward and therefore more passive), while the ‘masculine’ chest voice is marked as ‘positive’ in traditionalist gender terms for male voices (serious, worldly, more speech-like and therefore more active). To differing degrees, a ‘masculine’ female voice and a ‘feminine’ male voice are marked with more conventionally ‘negative’ connotations in traditional gender terms, which may make them seem more transgressive/disruptive/edgy/noisy, or else more superficial/shallow/meaningless/trashy.

Female vocal-subject Male vocal-subject
Head voice
Chest voice

This distinction is used to provocative effect in Summer’s ‘Love to Love You Baby’; unlike the homogenous head voice of ‘I Feel Love’, this earlier song moves provocatively between head and chest. Here, there would appear to be a clear duality being established between the more innocent, sentimental head-voice refrain and the sexual, physical chest-voice moans. The verses descend coquettishly from one to the other, in the manner of a striptease, but it’s only when the refrain is reprised down an octave that the subversiveness of the song (and the active, physical sexuality of the vocal-subject’s ‘love’) is laid bare.

Jeremy Gilbert has also explored the intersectionalist politics of vocal timbre, again drawing on Deleuze & Guattari, in his incredibly pertinent essay, ‘More than a woman: Becoming-woman on the disco floor’ (2006). Gilbert discusses the Bee-Gees falsetto vocal style in terms of a Deleuzoguattarian ‘machining of the voice’: ‘a real physical act, a material de-stabilisation of masculinity and an attempt to transcend its ordinary physical limitations in the search for some of the specific physical-musical powers of the feminine body: a becoming-woman’ (Gilbert 2006: 3). Yet this specific strategy was borrowed wholesale from black, gay disco vocalists like Sylvester, and used to validate the film Saturday Night Fever, which ‘(mis)portrays disco as a largely white world of hyper-masculine heterosexuality and competitive individualism’ (1). The result was a reterritorialisation of the transgressive gender fluidity, traversed by black gay artists, onto a new but resolutely straight, white, male identity:
The general effect of the Bee-Gees-Travolta assemblage was to identify disco in the public, mass-mediated imagination with a set of values, encoded in a formulaic and competitive style of dancing, which had nothing to do with the egalitarian, liberatory space of the New York ‘downtown party network’ from whence it came…Indeed, we might say that the function of this assemblage was to recode the flows of energy and possibility set free by this particular deterritorialising machine in a form appropriate to the emergent needs of post-Fordist capitalism. (3–4)2

The simultaneous reproduction and containment of radical voices here echoes the complicated gender politics at work in Romantic opera, in which the transgressive voice of the heroine — especially as it comes to disrupt and overflow the delineations of conventional aria forms and tonal paradigms — is silenced with her death, just as her transgression against the social rules of the day (defying the patriarch, following her own desires) is punished.3 As Catherine Clément put it in her classic catalogue of operatic gynocide, Opera, or the Undoing of Women: ‘All the women in opera die a death prepared for them by a slow plot, woven by furtive, fleeting heros, up to their glorious moment: a sung death’ (Clément 1988). In his review of Clément’s book, Paul Robinson held up the resistant quality of the diva’s voice in its very materiality and grain: its defiance of the violent, phallogocentric regimes of language and meaning, the machinations of the plot, pouring instead into pure ‘power’, ‘resolve’, ‘emotion’. ‘Women in opera are rarely experienced as victims’, he protests. ‘Rather, they seem subversive presences in a patriarchal culture, since they so manifestly contain the promise - or rather the threat - of women's full equality’ (Robinson 1989). However, by celebrating the ultimate transcendence of the female voice above the opera’s sacrificial ritual, Robinson affirms that very transgressive aspect which gives the string-pulling patriarchs the impetus to publicly put these women to death in the first place.4

The ideologies surrounding operatic vocal writing are incredibly complicated and have shifted frequently, in relation to the broader ideologies of the time, and women’s place within them. They are also deeply embroiled in the question of ‘grain’, and the dominant musical values of the time (see previous essay); for example, should a coloratura run of vocalised pitches, without text, be heard as less expressive than text (i.e., somehow ‘empty’ of meaning, decorative, or pure signifiance), or should it be heard as more expressive than text (i.e., replete with all the inexpressible feelings and emotions that cannot be captured in the limited system of language)? At any rate, insofar as it is the song act of a vocal-object, the transcendentally ‘noisy’ operatic death is only a transgression of the patriarchy within the opera’s onstage diegesis. As Clément points out, it is turned back into pleasure for the opera’s patriarchal spectatorship. If the audience can always turn your voice back into pleasurable pathos (especially when they don’t even understand the language you’re singing in, as is often the case), would it not be more transgressive and resistant of these women to just stop singing? This is what Elizabeth I eventually does for her death scene in Britten’s Gloriana, and it has frustrated audiences ever since.

We must also consider the vocal register table above in terms of the intersection of gender-based and racial prejudices (after all, vocal registers and timbres are heard differently depending on the racialisation of vocal-subject and of genre). The diva who refuses to die noisily is refusing to become a sonic object, to externalise her pain, desire or the very intensity of her final moments of being for the pleasure of the listeners. If she starts talking instead, she is swapping objecthood for subjecthood — what could be called a ‘phallogocentric’ subjecthood — by entering the validated, hegemonic, masculinist domain of language. This is appropriate for Britten’s Elizabeth, whose power stems largely from her appropriation of traditionally ‘male’ resources. However, these resources clearly aren’t available to the majority of women, who cannot merely reject their objecthood. This is also central to Fred Moten’s theory of the black radical tradition in In The Break, in which he celebrates the particular capacity of the black vocalist to act as ‘the object which resists’, building on a black avant-garde perspective that refuses to forget the originary objecthood of the African American as slave/commodity: ‘The history of blackness is testament to the fact that objects can and do resist’ (Moten 2003: 1). In his discussion of musicians such as Cecil Taylor and Duke Ellington, as well as writers like Amiri Baraka and James Baldwin, Moten advocates a form of (musical) action that occurs ‘in the break’ between regimes of meaning:
I am interested…in the implications of the breaking of…speech, the elevating disruptions of the verbal that take the rich content of the object’s/commodity’s aurality outside the confines of meaning precisely by way of this material trace. (Moten 2003: 6)
Here again is the radical potential of signifiance: the interruption of identities, the evasion of language and meaning, the grain of the voice, ‘the transference of a radically exterior aurality that disrupts and resists certain formations of identity and interpretation by challenging the reducibility of phonic matter to verbal meaning or conventional musical form’ (Moten 2003: 6).5

Thus, on Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach’s ‘Protest’ (the central section of ‘Triptych’, on the Freedom Now Suite (1960)), the pleasurably ‘expressive’ yet wordless vocalisation of ‘Prayer’ gives way to screaming, as Roach’s percussion grows more intense. Moten recognises in this scream a scene from the memoirs of Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave and abolitionist, in which he hears his Aunt Hester screaming as she is whipped. For Moten, this is the ‘primal scene’ of the black radical tradition, ‘the originary performance of the violent subjection of the slave’s body’, which cannot be made to disappear but continues to return as an ‘ongoing disruption’ (4). Aunt Hester’s scream is the ‘echo that haunts, say, Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts” or the fractured, fracturing climax of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat”’ (22):
If we return again and again to a certain passion, a passionate response to passionate utterance, horn-voice-horn over percussion, a protest, an objection, it is because it is more than another violent scene of subjection too terrible to pass on…It’s the ongoing event of an antiorigin and an anteorigin, replay and reverb of an impossible natal occasion, the performance of the birth and rebirth of a new science, a phylogenetic fantasy that (dis)establishes genesis, the reproduction of blackness in and as (the) reproduction of black performance(s). (14)

Moten frames Aunt Hester’s scream as a ‘passionate response’, testament to the fact that, pace Marx in Capital, the commodity can speak, and thus that the object can resist. ‘Passionate utterance and response together take the form of an encounter, the mutual, negative positioning of master and slave’ (21). This encounter is reproduced in Lincoln and Roach’s performance, wherein
Lincoln’s relation to Roach disturbingly and rightly echoes Hester’s relation to the master and to Douglass. Roach’s double identification and desire link him to Douglass and are all bound up with Lincoln’s political, musical, and intellectual lingering in a quite specific and brutal kind of horror as Roach’s object. (23)
Recourse to speech as subjecthood was denied to the slave, and the black aesthetic tradition that Moten describes is a testament to this, and to the originary resistant act: the scream of the commodity. As such, it holds a kind of anti-expressive expressivity, whose meaning is embedded deep in tradition, history and the records (or recordings) of violence and oppression.

The Resilient Sonic Body and the Aural Gaze

Unlike the operatic deathsong of the fallen woman, Lincoln’s scream is not a noise that lends itself easily to recuperation as pathos. However, recent shifts in gender politics (and ‘dominant musical values’) have completely recoded the ‘noisy’, ‘grainy’ female voice, in relation to what Robin James calls ‘resilience discourse’. In her book Resilience & Melancholy, James describes resilience discourse as a general development in hegemonic Western ideology, according to which the ‘expending [of] resources to avoid damage’ is replaced by the ‘recycl[ing of] damage into more resources’ (James 2015: 7, emphasis in original):
First, damage is incited and made manifest; second, that damage is spectacularly overcome, and that overcoming is broadcast and/or shared, so that; third, the person who has overcome is rewarded with increased human capital, status, and other forms of recognition and recompense, because: finally, and most importantly, this individual’s own resilience boosts society’s resilience. The work this individual does to overcome their own damage generates surplus value for hegemonic institutions. (James 2015: 7)
This shift in the mechanism of value production and in strategies of biopolitical control is accompanied by a shift in ‘properly feminine subjectivity’ (i.e., ‘privileged female ideals’) from ‘fragility’ to ‘resilience’ (80). While traditional ideal femininity required the ‘performance of fragility’ under patriarchy, the rise of resilience as a ‘new feminine ideal’ is a product of society considering itself ‘post-feminist’. Women under ‘post-feminist’ neoliberalism must ‘overcome the fragility they’ve learned to embody as women’:
Post-feminist society assumes that women are always-already damaged by patriarchy. All women are feminized, but “good” women visibly overcome the negative effects of feminization. In other words, women’s gender performance is a two-step process: femininity is performed first as damage, second as resilience. This performance involves emotional and affective labor on oneself and one’s corporeal schema — or, in the language of mainstream feminism, one’s “body image”. (82)
This is manifested in neoliberal pop music, particularly EDM-style pop, which employs ‘noisy’ timbres and effects (‘soars’, ‘drops’ and ‘stutters’) that function as sonic damage to be overcome by the vocal-subject: ‘Neoliberal pop is resiliently noisy’ (43). Most significantly, this ‘overcoming’ must be ‘visualized’, in a narrative mechanism that James calls ‘Look, I Overcame!’. This narrative constitutes a new, typically neoliberal kind of ‘looking’, which replaces previous patriarchal strategies, such as ‘the male gaze’ and ‘controlling images’. The male gaze, as theorised by Laura Mulvey, is a concept grounded in the aesthetics of Hollywood cinema, which ‘subjectifies the gazer as male by objectifying the film’s feminized elements’ (James 2015: 94). Controlling images, a concept formulated by Patricia Hill-Collins, also function through the imposition of subject/object binaries, whereby black women, for example, are reduced to an image — one of a set of stereotypes — and thus objectified and controlled. In contrast to these ‘cinematic’ strategies of domination, James’s notion of visualization is termed ‘post-cinematic’ (after Steven Shaviro). As such, rather than functioning in terms of a master camera gaze, which organizes, dominates and makes the world appear more coherent by filtering out or blurring oppressive systems/damage, visualization involves ‘[putting] damage at the centre of our attention’ (101). We are assaulted by a barrage of images, sensorily over-stimulated, so that we can ‘hear, see and feel the damage we (or the characters we watch and identify with) ought to overcome’ (101). For James, this means a departure from the simple subject/object binary as strategy of domination and source of pleasure for the ‘gazer’:
The gaze is the means by which a classically liberal, modernist subject identifies and abjects objects from himself, as subject, and from society. Because the exclusion of the object is what constitutes the subject as such, this exclusion — in, for example, the form of resolution or closure — is invested as the site of traditional aesthetic pleasure. (102)
However, in visualization, ‘damage isn’t something subjects avoid, or which subjects do to objects — damage is the means and medium of subjectification’:
Post-cinematic looking is a feedback loop in which we make visible, for others, our own self-objectification. To be recognized as a resilient subject, one must be seen by others as actively monitoring oneself (e.g., through quantified self practices like diet or exercise tracking). Because these practices collapse “image” and “bearer of the look” into the same role, conventional subject/object distinctions don’t make much sense. (102–103)
In discussing ‘Look I Overcame!’ visualization in practice, James focuses on music videos, as fundamental elements of her example texts (Beyoncé’s ‘Video Phone’, Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’). However, I would argue that this ‘visualization’ of the overcoming of damage occurs on the ‘sonic body’ of the vocal-subject as well. A broad vocal range, centred on a strong chest register and high belt, can be heard as an externalisation of the vocal-subject: a self-possessed performance of her presence, even before any vocal actions are committed or feelings expressed. The virtuoso deployment of this broad register, especially in soars and repeated noisy choruses/breakdowns, signifies an explosive, self-propelled overcoming, localized on this sonic body. The more the synths pound and the bass rolls, the more roars, whoops and sighs are invoked. The vocal-subject of the EDM pop banger is in some ways the opposite of the sampled house diva. While the latter is captured, sliced up and deployed as an impotent, fleshy accessory to the groove, the resilient vocal-subject is set in the centre of the track in all her vocal wholeness and then pummelled by sublime cascades of synth, while her attempt to rise higher and higher over the surge is captured and recycled as pure, pleasurable resistance.6

It seems that a certain type of vocal-subject — one whose overcoming can be inscribed on their sonic body in an unequivocal, conventional way — is a sine qua non of this particular ideology of neoliberal pop. If you don’t have a perfect body or a perfect face, you can still redeem yourself if you have a perfect voice. For some reason, an assessment of someone’s voice is deemed less ‘superficial’ than an assessment of someone’s face, hence the condescending national back-patting in the wake of Susan Boyle’s rise to fame (the only one of Simon Cowell's token ‘freaks’ to be redeemed).7 There is a certain tyranny of ‘The Voice’ (and, indeed, of the TV programme The Voice, as its temple) — that perfectly formed vocal-subject on which the requisite damage and resilience can be inscribed — which is perhaps less of a particular vocal identity than a way of making-oneself-appear, vocally (James’s ‘self-objectification’). It still happens to correlate most closely with a particular idea of the ‘soulful’ black, female voice (even when it is employed by white men), most probably because the injunction to be resilient and to show oneself overcoming is directed most militantly at those at the intersection of oppressions. ‘Multi-racial’, ‘post-feminist’ neoliberalism is predicated on a denial of structural oppressions, and the possibility for anyone to ‘bounce back’, ‘pull through’ or empower themselves to ‘break the glass ceiling’, if only they work hard enough at it. Following this logic, the poorest and most vulnerable will always only have themselves to blame.

By channelling The Voice, even the most outwardly unattractive, unfashionable and wretched can make themselves a resilient sonic body, show it onstage, and have a studio audience applaud. Identifying with, and appropriating, the resilient vocal-subject — as ‘strong’ black diva voice — has long been a source of strength and unity for the gay male community, in speech as well as song, in listening, imitation and ventriloquism. Brian Currid warns of the danger of misidentifying the idealised vocal-subject’s body (as mediated by the constructed songworld) as a ‘real’, ‘natural’ body, and one that is profoundly racialised:
[The electronic music diva] serves to project a colonial fantasy of black feminine embodiment and ‘natural’ sexuality. Rather than seeing the sound of the diva as a technological artefact, the historically located technological procedures used to generate diva-nity (echo effects, simulated crowds, the extension of high notes and disco orchestration) are identified as natural emanations from the fantasy body of the ‘powerful’ black woman. (Currid 1995: 189)
This misidentification, and its reduction of women of colour to a two-dimensional image or a costume to be worn, has been the source of quite a few recent controversies. However, it is also possible to understand the ubiquitous practice of lip syncing in the gay male subculture in terms of a knowingly imperfect realisation of the vocal-subject: a ritualistic materialisation of the resilient sonic body, which is the real body (and the real source of power and value) to which the fake (material) body of the performer only refers. Currid continues:
When the burden of embodiment is seen as glamorously worn by the lip-synching drag queen, the phantasmatic missing diva-body is enacted ironically in the identity performance of the dancing queen. The club and its sonic drag are then a site of the display of the always present incongruity between the recorded voice and the seen body; through the performance of this incongruity, the further incompleteness and failure of all performances of gendered identity is revealed. (Currid 1995: 190)8
Thus, at its most serious and powerful, drag acknowledges the necessary limits and failures of the material body, and its attendant identity, while asserting the realness of the assumed vocal body qua vocal body (rather than a hypothetical material body to fetishise, envy and imitate). For Richard Middleton, ‘this is what the “loss” of the body documented in the record form actually reveals – that these bodies, the ones we (collectively, socio-cyborgianally) make for ourselves, are the only ones we ever had’ (Middleton 2006b: 25).

Our hearing of Summer’s head voice in ‘I Feel Love’ is therefore dependent on all sorts of historically contingent values and ideologies, and their attendant strategies of domination and resistance. Certainly, the desire she asserts does not invite damage or punishment; moreover, as a smooth, grainless and disembodied vocal-object, her sonic body is testament neither to the scars and wounds of centuries of oppression, nor to sexist damage that she has overcome. If we are to recognise a relationship of gendered oppression at work — one which reflects the relations of patriarchy which still govern society and its cultural products — we might discern it in her very fragmentation. One of the key strategies for objectifying women in the cinematic ‘male gaze’, according to Mulvey, is the chopping up of their bodies into their constituent parts: shots/close ups of legs, faces, hands, lips, etc.: ‘Unlike fully human, fully-realized subjects, who exist…as desiring subjects in three-dimensional space, female body parts are two-dimensional, “flat” objects of desire’ (James 2015: 94). By appearing only in a disembodied head voice, and not as a full sonic body with a full vocal register (and all the ‘grain’ that it entails), we might hear the vocal-subject as incomplete, or as a chopped-up ‘body part’.

However, all this relies on the equivalent of a ‘male gaze’ when listening to a song: an ‘audio gaze’, which constructs the listener as masculine subject, and objectifies the feminized vocal-subject. Equally, for James’s concept of visualization to extend to the sonic damage she describes at the start of the book, some sort of ‘sonic visualization’ narrative must also be implied. While I do think there is a political dimension to the relative position of listener, microphone/speaker, and vocal-subject, it would necessarily be very different to that of the audience, camera/eye, male protagonist and female object in cinema. The perceived directionality of the camera/screen/act of seeing, which allows the gaze to be conceived as a force that emanates out from the eye (i.e., a ‘penetrating gaze’), is quite different to that of the microphone/speaker/act of hearing, whereby sounds are conceived as surrounding, flowing towards, and entering into the ear. The appearance of the sonic body of the vocal-subject is also more ‘active’; it can only be perceived in the course of a vocal action and, as utterances, these actions tend to be self-mediating. Most significantly though, as discussed in previous chapters, the rest of the songworld — i.e., the diegesis into which the listener/microphone enters — is (usually) understood as being partly internal to the vocal-subject. While the listener is still in a more omniscient position to the vocal-subject, their perspective is (usually) at least partially mediated by the vocal-subject’s subjectivity. This fluctuates along with the power that the vocal-subject possesses over the songworld: the more power she possesses, the more her subjecthood is impressed on the musical environment in which the listener is immersed. Thus, while some voices may be encountered by the listener as flat, fragmented and impotent vocal-objects, others will inevitably be encountered as vocal-subjects, with as much perceived autonomy and agency as the (male) protagonists in the movies (although not as much as the camera itself).

Fembots, Gynoids and Cyborgs

Thus, Summer’s partial vocal appearance in ‘I Feel Love’ can be heard, on the one hand, in terms of a ‘sonic body without organs’ — radically deterritorialising itself by shedding the bodily ‘grain’ that gives her sonic body fleshy materiality (which I discuss in the previous chapter). On the other hand, it can be heard in terms of a fetishising reduction to a single organ — a feminised object — perhaps a disembodied mouth, or specifically the lips, tongue or throat.9 In either case, by leaving her body partially behind, and allowing herself to be manifested through synthesised, automated beats instead, Summer can be heard as an early pioneer of the trope of the musical ‘fembot’: the cyborg dance diva reincarnated in every assemblage of icy synths, seductive yet uncaring beats, and ‘cool’ female vocals. Indeed, central to the fembot as musical trope is its ‘dis-embodied’ vocal — either cold, affectless, half-spoken, or else (like Summer) hyper-feminised, pure distilled femininity without the more complex, rounded ‘humanness’ of a body. This too constitutes an ambivalent position at an awkward intersection between the ‘empowering’ Afro-Futurist assertion of radical modernity, and more regressive science-fiction tropes.10 In particular, the ‘gynoid’, or the tendency for robots to only be coded as ‘female’ when their role is specifically to pleasure men sexually. And by extension, this particularly misogynistic trope gets reflected back onto real women, as being like a kind of sex robot: unforgiving, unfeeling, infinitely desirous yet never satisfied (the fembot is as much an object of hatred and derision as an object of desire).

This is certainly a point that could be fortified by taking into account the ‘real’ relations of production of the track: the construction of Summer’s vocal-subject as the idealised, perfectly sexy and infinitely desiring female simulacrum within Giorgio Moroder’s synthetic machine, akin to the use of sexy female voices in electronic devices or idealised female bodies as peripheral characters in computer games. Susana Loza makes this point emphatically, with reference to another Moroder/Summer collaboration:
Sonically, the insatiable fembot is best symbolised by the sensual sighs and simulated cries of Donna Summer’s seventeen-minute disco orgasm in ‘Love to Love You Baby’. By artificially controlling and extending the pleasure of this sexy soul diva, dance music producer Giorgio Moroder electronically elicited a pornosonic confession that concomitantly testified to his mastery of nascent computer technologies and female sexuality. (Loza 2001: 351)
Indeed, Loza hears in the deterritorialisation of the diva voice in house — its cutting up, processing and looping — a simultaneous reterritorialisation on gender, race and sexuality, whereby ‘electronic dance music alleviates its techno-anxieties over the crumbling human-machine interface by regenerating gender in a diva loop’ (350). Rather than pushing beyond conventional sexuality towards an objectless jouissance, ‘the posthuman diva is afflicted with a terminal sexuality. Her sexed up samples lasciviously lampoon the hetero-natural but often remain defined by its dualistic deformations’ (352).

By codifying the ambiguous figure of the fembot — the not-quite-object, not-quite-woman, not-quite-machine — as ‘gynoid’, the radicalness of Summer’s desire can be contained, recuperated and consumed by patriarchy. However, clearly this is just a function of the present regime, and not a fundamental failing of such strategies (and moreover, it requires certain assumptions regarding the subject position of the listener).11 The state — through the mechanisms of patriarchy — will reterritorialise what it can. Rather than fight for inclusion within a ‘phallogocentric’ and already-invalidated notion of authentic subjecthood, the theorist Donna Haraway has argued for the radical feminist potential in the figure of the cyborg — what she calls ‘women in the integrated circuit’, after Rachel Grossman — which she identifies as the inescapable position of women (and particularly women of colour) within the new, post-Foucauldian ‘informatics of domination’ (Haraway 1991: 161). The cyborg is an identity that problematises simple dualisms (between human and animal, between organic and machinic, between physical and non-physical). It is always partial, never whole; it is opposed to any notion of ‘organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity’ (150). Most significantly, cyborgs are networked and ‘needy for connection’: ‘[Cyborgs] seem to have a natural feel for united front politics, but without the vanguard party’ (151). Recalling the promise of dancefloor jouissance accessible through the deconstruction of identity, Haraway advocates a programme of ‘cyborg politics’:
Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism. That is why cyborg politics insist on noise and advocate pollution, rejoicing in the illegitimate fusions of animal and machine. These are the couplings which make Man and Woman so problematic, subverting the structure of desire, the force imagined to generate language and gender, and so subverting the structure and modes of reproduction of 'Western' identity, of nature and culture, of mirror and eye, slave and master, body and mind. (176)12
Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ has become one of the most frequently cited texts in the exploration of the extensive use of vocal processing and manipulation by non-male musicians over the past few decades. The text also goes some way to explaining why this would be a key battleground; traditionally (and still now), women have been denied the position of pure musical ‘subjecthood’ which the Western composer is granted — to be the invisible source of musical expression. Within this listening culture, the totality of the musical sounds are attributed to the unseen, unheard expressive subject, along with complete power and agency; we trust that the composer knew exactly what he was doing, and that a ‘good’ (or ‘faithful’, ‘respectful’) interpretation should relay his expressive intentions. For women, more often than not, we will only attend to their musical subjectivity if they also appear, as quasi-objects, immanent within its presentation.13 The successful female composer (which means, overwhelmingly, the female pop singer-songwriter/performing artist) is rarely permitted full musical ‘subjecthood’ in the traditional (Western classical) sense, but must appear as both subject and object simultaneously: an artist whose background, process and motivation for expression is shown/performed along with the expression itself. The female voice must be heard to feel, compose and sing her own song as it is sung.

So, following Haraway, rather than fighting for full musical subjecthood — a dubious category that was rigged from the start by being constructed as ‘masculine’, and in turn helping to construct the modern category of masculinity — non-male musicians are exploring the ambiguous space between subjecthood and objecthood that is granted to the singing performer (as vocal-subject) within musical space.14 It already involves a rejection of the binary between composer and performer (the expressive composer subject and the expressed sonic object); the subsequent manipulation and disintegration of the singing voice only pushes this rejection further.

It should be clear by now that attempts to impose a subject-object binary on the relationship involved in listening to a singing voice will always fail. Even before we take into account the many critiques from feminist and black studies theorists regarding the exclusivity of such a binary, and its insufficiency in dealing with non-white, non-male and non-Western subjects, the vocal-subject itself (as a function of a hegemonic listening culture) doesn’t fit comfortably into any pre-existing category. Just hearing Summer’s vocal-subject in ‘I Feel Love’ — and hence entering into that circuit with her and desiring alongside her — would require a different understanding of sexual desire to one that merely derived pleasure from her as sonic object. While it is true that an ‘aural gaze’ under patriarchy will still tend to objectify (and thereby attempt to dominate), a resistant politics that departs from the ambiguity of the vocal-subject’s partial objecthood would complicate that structure of domination, rendering it necessarily partial, always incomplete.

Even then, more sceptical theorists have warned that ‘even if we join the dancers in their musical masquerade, we probably cannot lip-synch our way into a new sexual subjectivity’ (Loza 2001: 355). For Loza, the fact that ‘techno and house obsessively sample sexuality and unevenly mix gender politics into their computerised soundscapes’ reveals ‘the digital denizen’s inability to imagine an erotics that is truly disembodied’ (352, 355). She quotes Mark Dery:
Sex that is itself futuristic, as opposed to more of the same conducted against a futuristic backdrop, would require the revision of existing notions of human sexuality and embodied consciousness, perhaps even the engineering of radically modified bodies (Dery 1996: 198, cited in Loza 2001: 355–356)
Again, the vocal-subject, the sonic body, the gendering/racialising mechanism of vocal ‘faciality’ precludes the radical deconstruction of identity and emancipation of desire which might accompany a truly ‘futuristic’ sexuality. While we remain in the same bodies, such exercises in cyborg feminism can merely question and critique ‘the deformations that dualism has wrought on our flesh and our fantasies’ (Loza 2001: 356).15 Ultimately then, to resist objectification, or the reduction of cyborg to gynoid via the aural gaze, it may still be necessary to assert — with Robyn — that ‘fembots have feelings too’…

1 See Bradby 1993, for a critique of the gendered sampling of voices in early dance music.

2 For a recent take on a very similar issue — the ‘feminine appropriation’ by artists such as SOPHIE and A.G. Cook — see Kretowicz 2014.

3 Barthes himself compares two operatic deaths in ‘The Grain of the Voice’: that of Boris Godunov in Mussorgsky’s eponymous epic, and that of Mélisande in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (Barthes 1977: 186–187). However, Barthes’s concern is with the death itself, and its signification. In this way, the operation of the vocal ‘grain’ in relation to the signifier is judged on the level of the opera’s diegesis (the voice of the character) rather than that of the performance (the voice of the singer). The ontology of the vocal-subject in opera is, at any rate, very complicated, and cannot be fully explored here.

4 Predictably, for a male reviewer in 1989, Robinson’s understanding of the gender politics expressed in the book appears superficial. An acknowledgement of the ‘threat of full equality’ mentions must be implicit in the plot if it is to cohere, i.e., if we are to understand the woman as the victims of ‘understandable’ social prejudices, laws and taboos rather than mere misogyny. At the same time, the ‘woman undone’ in opera is not just the character in the diegesis: she is the vocal-subject and the singer too.

5 It should be mentioned that Moten’s black radical aesthetic also involves a second element, an imperfect ‘suturing’ of these ‘divergent ruptures’: ‘what [poet] Nathaniel Mackey calls “‘broken’ claim(s) to connection” between Africa and African America […]—maternal estrangement and the thwarted romance of the sexes—that he refers to as “wounded kinship” and the “the sexual ‘cut’”’ (Moten 2003: 6).

6 This is something that James doesn’t really go into. Her book concentrates primarily on the objective instrumental forces, and the vocalists’ appearance in videos, than the vocal-subjects themselves. However, her observations concerning Rihanna’s ‘apathetic’ vocal performances on Unapologetic, which resists the demands of the neoliberal vocal-subject through a strategy of ‘melancholia’, are very pertinent, as are her developments on David Browne’s concept of the vocal ‘stutter’.

7 Admittedly Susan Boyle’s voice certainly differs from the standard ‘resilient’ EDM pop Voice, having more in common with more traditional ideals of femininity, and functioning to redeem her less conventionally ‘feminine’ physical traits.

8 Although, again, this very irony — the safety of distance — is not always something to which the women of colour, who initially inspired the drag performance, are allowed access to themselves.

9 Here, Žižek’s discussion of the voice as a part-object, or ‘organ without a body’ is invoked: see Žižek 2004, and its application to the recorded voice (in contradistinction to the Deleuzian body without organs) in Middleton 2006b. In terms of 'I Feel Love', Simon Reynolds acknowledged this ambiguity when he called the song ‘at once pornotopian and curiously unbodied’ (Reynolds 2008: 16).

10 For musical fembots, see James 2008, as well as Jaffe 2010, Rowe 2010, Rosenberg 2013, who all focus on Janelle Monáe and Robyn.

11 Moreover, although I have avoided such questions of ‘real relations of production’ by focusing on phenomenology of the autonomous vocal-subject and the songworld, I do still think that the particular combination of power dynamics, vocal machining and a lyric centring on objectless jouissance distinguishes ‘I Feel Love’ quite starkly from the earlier ‘Love to Love You Baby’.

12 Robin James herself discusses the ‘R&B robo-diva’ in an article that focuses on Rihanna and Beyoncé, but mentions both Donnas Summer and Haraway (James 2015: 2008). Since the subgroups of musical fembot have proliferated over recent years, race (and the racialised voice) has become more and more important in mediating the political potential of the trope. In particular, the Afrofuturist aesthetic and its relation to the social history of the Black Atlantic positions ‘R&B robo-divas’ rather differently to the fembots of certain white and East Asian musical styles. Here too there is arguably a recalibration of the racist black-as-‘nature’/white-as-‘culture’ binary, by which black fembots take on a more material, mechanical aspect, compared to the digital/mediatised/post-internet immateriality of certain white and Asian voices in new electronic music (in particular, the Orientalism involved in the use of female Asian voices/bodies in post-internet music). Indeed, Loza was already arguing back in 2001 that ‘the prototypical nympho-diva not only renaturalises the technological with her organic organism, she also biologically essentialises the mechanical with her sonic racial coding. In other words, the classic fembot is a black diva who simultaneously samples hetero-sexuality and resurrects race’ (Loza 2001: 353).

13 See Middleton 2006b, for a discussion of this distinction in relation to the evolution of phonographic technology.

14 Perhaps from Laurie Anderson onwards (see McClary 2006: 132–147). Steph Kretowicz has written extensively on recent examples of ‘gendered vocal production’ (e.g., Kretowicz 2012, 2013); see also Bevan, 2010.

15 Even though a decade and a half of gendered vocal experimentation and robo-diva performances separate Loza’s article (2001) from the present day, I’d argue that this is still the case, and it certainly applies to any hearing of ‘I Feel Love’.

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