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Sarah Dougher

Sarah Dougher is a writer, educator, and musician from Portland, Oregon. She is currently collaborating with Diane Pecknold on a book about American tween music criticism. She teaches American music cultures and gender studies at Portland State University and at high schools around the Portland area. Last year she had a Fulbright in Norway, and began work on her first volume of poetry. 

“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.

“Rock Authenticity and Tween Voices”
Using interviews with over 50 American tweens, I describe their ideas about rock authenticity, and the complexity of notions of voice in their music-making and listening practices. Narratives of girls’ empowerment occur in both pedagogical and popular culture contexts, and in both areas, the voice functions as a primary metaphor for girls’ efficacy in the public sphere. Girls are urged to “speak out” or “make their voices heard” as a mode of empowerment; alternatively, when girls are perceived as oppressed, they are “silenced.” The metaphoric voice also plays an important role in rock ideology where it conveys highly valued ideas of authentic self-expression and public persona. As the girls we interviewed explain their musical preferences and their visions for their own music, they rely on relatively conservative ideas about the rock-pop divide, including gendered connotations, but do not apply these ideas as limiting to their own creation. The punk, anti-consumerist roots of the rock camps for girls where these interviews took place, demonstrates a complex iteration of rock authenticity. Often, tweens perceive that artificial presentations allow female performers access to an industry that legitimizes them as public actors, and therefore gives them a voice. As young musicians, girls may respond to this contradiction by perceiving their performing selves as separate from their real selves.  As music consumers, they must grapple with the tension between their admiration for artists they perceive as strong women, and the limits the music industry nonetheless imposes on those artists’ self-expression. This paper foregrounds the voices of girls and explores their modes of critical observation and analysis as they work through ideas about their own voices of rock authenticity.

“Voicing the Uncontainable Feminine”
Beyond the notion that music can “give voice” to the “voiceless,” this panel asks how popular music amplifies the vocal power women, girls, and feminine or feminized people already possess. We examine how songwriting and song-voicing can work as a process of self-making and network-building. How have feminine voices been heard and interpreted in ways that dampen the richness of their politics and the fullness of their expression? What are the relationships between these restrictions and particular genres or modes of artistic production? Finally, how do transnational audiopolitics further complicate these relationships? Here, we engage the modes by which voice, irreducible to word, text, or performance, is a medium of self-writing that has a special relationship to the empowerment of women, girls, queer, and otherwise feminized bodies. The creative work of these people has often been reduced to merely direct reflections of their domestic realities, or perceived as narratives of (hetero)romance coerced by a sexist industry and consumed by a feminized/inauthentic public whose unarticulated vocalization comes in the form of screams. Songs and memoirs are particularly rich sites for investigating the tension between voicing the conditions of one’s life and creating/consuming imagined alternatives to those conditions. The voice registers authority as it builds new realities through its creative efforts. The texts these voices carry are only one mode of vocal possibility: here, we locate the work that unfolds in their sensory textures, hidden registers, and embodied meanings. 

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