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Gayle Wald

Gayle Wald teaches at George Washington University. Her most recent book is It's Been Beautiful: Soul! And Black Power TV. With Oliver Wang, she co-edits The Journal of Popular Music Studies. 

“Roundtable: Voicing Girlhood in Popular Music”
Popular music discourse surrounding the voices of girls and girlishness is profoundly contradictory. While girls’ voices are more prominent than ever in popular music culture, the specific sonic character of the young female voice is routinely denied authority. Decades-old clichés of girls as frivolous, silly, and deserving of contempt prevail in mainstream popular image and sound. The speech patterns and vocal timbre that constructed the narcissistic, immature femininity of “Valley Girl” in 1982 are still audibly relevant in the 2014 Chainsmokers song “#Selfie.” Popular criticism of girlish singers from Britney Spears to Ke$ha depicts their voices as annoying or grating, a particularly unwelcome intrusion into the sonic (and social) landscape. At the same time, popular music is widely understood as a particularly important vehicle for allowing girls and women to “speak out” or “make their voices heard.” All-woman bands from Pussy Riot to Beyoncé’s Sugar Mamas use the imagery of the girl group to enact political solidarity and model a feminist sensibility, while the pedagogical discourses of the girls’ rock camp movement, rooted in riot grrrl ideology, encourage girls to use music as a medium for publicly articulating an authentic personal identity.

This 120-minute roundtable will explore the relationship between girlhood and voice—in both its material and metaphorical senses—in popular music. Drawing on their contributions to a new anthology of essays titled Voicing Girlhood in Popular Music: Music, Performance, and Activism, the participants will address a series of themes and organizing questions that unite their work across contexts as diverse as golden-age Hollywood musicals, early 21st century tween pop, and contemporary hip-hop twerking videos. Among the organizing themes, we will interrogate the role of girlishness as a performative resource for adult women, asking what women accomplish through ventriloquizing the girl voice, how aging artists who begin as youthful ingénues modify their singing voices to claim adult authority, and what women’s performances of girlishness might mean for girl audiences. We will also explore the relationship between voice and silence as it pertains to musical girlhoods. How do ideologies such as the notion of rock authenticity and institutional structures such as the monetization of YouTube videos affect marginalized girls’ ability to be heard or to choose to remain silent? Finally, we will examine the co-construction of the literal and the metaphorical voice in popular music, asking how the dominant ways of understanding or producing the sound of the girl shape the social and political identities she can inhabit and make available to her listeners.

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