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Emily Baker

Emily Baker is a second-year PhD student, working on the function, properties, and impact of the aesthetic of age in the voice in contemporary pop music. Conceiving of age in the voice as a site of resistance to normative assumptions of sex, gender and sexuality, her work is underpinned by phenomenological, feminist, and queer perspectives on identity; discourse on age/aging processes; and studies on the voice. In other words, she spends a lot of time listening to Dolly Parton, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, and Grace Jones.

“Age in the Age of Autotune: the (Re)construction of Aretha Franklin”
Aretha Franklin’s cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” in late 2014 met a baffled hum. On the one hand, Executive Producer Clive Davis defiantly declared Franklin had proved that “…all contemporary music needs right now is the voice. What a voice! (Davis in Billboard 2014) while the music press asked why such an important voice should be subject to such flagrant use of the controversial practice of autotune (Washington Post, Time Magazine).

Age is problematic when heard in the recorded voice. I am interested in the technologies of power that are at work in the painstaking construction and mediation of the voice. I examine these via strands of discourse in cultural studies in aging (Gannon 1985; Gergen & Gergen 2000; Gott & Hinchcliff 2003); discourse on the grain of the voice (Barthes, 1977); and what Steven Connor terms the ‘vocalic body’(2000). As such, I argue that aging singing voices hold potential to transgress the culturally ascribed boundaries of gender, sexuality, and biological sex (Ahmed, 2006; Butler, 1999). 

Increasingly, music producers are less facilitators of musical expression and more cosmetic surgeons of vocal flaw. Evoking notions of Foucault’s panopticon (1977), post-production processes rely on producers responding to standardized market strategies to meet perceived expectations of what constitutes the perfect artist. A surgical intervention of sorts, the aging voice is subject to a different kind of nip and tuck when autotune is applied; an operation which is ostensibly more reconstructive than cosmetic. Consequently, these calibrated voices evoke posthuman discourse, which posits the singer-as-cyborg, the eternal other-worldly diva (Dickinson, 2001; Haraway 1991; Middleton, 2006).

Ultimately, patriarchal music industry practices actively punish voices; disciplining those timbres which embody and express age. I argue that unstitching the practices which audibly frame Aretha Franklin’s tuned voice reveals that the ‘correction’ is a specifically gendered sequence of processes. In this case, Franklin’s iconic melisma not only highlights that the flaw is in the shame of aging but also opens up discourse in how aging voices are potentially transgressive.

“Voice, Age, Gender”
This panel explores relationships between voice, age, and gender in popular music and its attendant discourse. Subjects covered include sound recording, Auto-Tune, slow history, and youthful, angelic, and aging vocal grains. Musical subjects covered include Aretha Franklin, Pastora Pavón, Bing Crosby, Grace Jones, Taylor Swift, and choirboys singing Christmas songs. 

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