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Clare O’Connor

Clare O’Connor is a doctoral student in Communication at the University of Southern California. She studies the latent liberatory content of popular music and its implications for contemporary social movements. Her publications include Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late Capitalist Struggle (AK Press, 2016). Between 2008 and 2012 she served on the Editorial Committee of Upping The Anti: A Journal of Theory and Action. Her first album, Work Songs (2015), asks what we can salvage from personal loss and political despair.

“‘Not Particularly Human At All’: Listening to Tanya Tagaq”
In 2014, Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq won Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize, beating tough pop competitors Owen Pallet, Timber Timbre, Basia Bulat, Arcade Fire, and Drake. From Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, Tagaq is the first Aboriginal artist to win the award and is at the “vanguard of the Indigenous music renaissance” (MicKiver 2014).

Tagaq’s voice defies conventional categories of evaluation. “Tanya uses her voice in odd ways,” one journalist writes, “twisting and bending it into shapes not so easy to describe” (Gallanter 2011). According to The Walrus, “she bends and stretches her voice to the very limits of what the human larynx can do; in fact, she sounds not particularly human at all” (Nelles 2015). Macleans writer Michael Barclay calls her voice “equally orgasmic, demonic, and cathartic,” and describes her as “one woman embodying our relationship with the natural world” (2008; 2014). Musicologist Paula Conlan describes Tagaq’s singing as “elusive… the sounds emitting from Tagaq’s throat have been characterized in a multitude of ways—‘animalistic,’ ‘raw,’ ‘unbridled,’ ‘erotic,’ ‘witchlike,’ ‘sort of exorcist,’ ‘crying little girl / scary old woman,’ and ‘language of friendly alien’” (2013).

With the title of her winning album, Tagaq deliberately invites listeners into embodied contemplation of animism: the attribution of spiritual being to all interpenetrated elements in the natural world. When asked about her relationship to animals and the land of the Arctic, Tagaq replies: “We ARE animals. We ARE the land” (Dial-Kay 2013). However, her voice itself transcends this explicit affirmation of embodied, spiritual interconnection; it signals a lack in the dominant culture. Her elusive, “not particularly human” voice tests not only the limits of language, but also stokes feelings of general non-resolution. How might this latent lack be made manifest? Is this a worthwhile aim? Can voice alone induce focus on the present’s inadequacy—or even induce a bifurcation of consciousness?

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