Arts, Contemporary

Janelle Monàe and Lana Del Rey: The Feminist Potential of Vocal ‘Inauthenticity’

By Emily Adams

“I actually used to sing much higher, but I felt people weren’t taking me very seriously, so I lowered my voice, believing that it would help me stand out. Now I sing quite low… well, for a female anyway.” —Lana Del Rey

In November 2011, American singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey admitted that she consciously lowers the pitch of her singing voice in order to be taken more seriously as a female pop artist. Classicist Anne Carson explains that the way our voices sound affects how we are perceived: “It is in large part according to the sounds people make that we judge them sane or insane, male or female, good, evil, trustworthy, depressive, marriageable”.

In everyday conversations a voice is generally attached to a person: it helps us recognize people we already know, but it is also subject to change. As sociomusicologist Simon Frith points out, it can be used to trick people; we use the voice not just to assess a person but also to assess that person’s sincerity. Rather than being considered another ‘airheaded female singer’ because of her consciously-constructed feminine aesthetic, Del Rey manipulates her voice to index a pitch range more readily associated with male performers, constructing a vocal identity located outside discrete gendered categories of vocal expectations. Her voice mediates and potentially challenges the gendered social category in which her appearance places her. If voices are so crucial to the ways we assess people, this is even more prevalent when we assess singers, and female singers in particular.

As an analytical category, voice is inherently multiplicitous. It exists as both a set of sonic, material, and literary practices molded by historically and culturally specific moments and as a category used in  discourse  about  personal  agency,  cultural authenticity,  and  political  power. There is a tension between its usefulness  as  an  analytical  category  and  the  various  naturalised  meanings  and assumptions the term carries in English. But the voice can also work against the body from which it emanates. By taking on  a vocal personality, a pop singer simultaneously performs several voices – the protagonist of the song ‘quoted’ character’, the person whom the song is about, the character of the singer as star, what we know about them through their packaging and publicity – and finally ‘an understanding of the singer as a person, what we like to imagine they are really life, what is revealed, in the end, by their voice’ (to use Frith’s definition). As a result, it is almost impossible to untangle vocal realism and vocal irony in pop music, and both of these have a complicated relationship with feminist readings. I argue that, in addition to lowering her pitch range, Del Rey challenges the notion of voice expressing self and identity—in this case, her gender—by cultivating an aesthetic of ambivalence through the simultaneous performance of various forms of voice in her live and recorded performances, and thus creating what could be considered an ‘inauthentic’ voice. Comparing Del Rey with American singer-songwriter Janelle Monáe, and her exploration of the inherent ambivalence of the ‘inauthentic’ technological mediation of her voice, we can see how Monàe moves towards a conscious creation of an androgynous aesthetic. As a result, both artists challenge entrenched ideas surrounding the presentation of the female voice, as well as traditional notions of ‘authenticity’, in Western societies and culture. 

Since the 1930s, when cultural theorists from the Frankfurt School, such as Theodore Adorno, questioned pop music’s ‘worth’ as art as a result of its use of technology and its increasing reproducibility and commercialisation, ‘inauthenticity’ has often been used as a derogatory term linked to pop music. However, acknowledging ‘inauthenticity’ as a critical category allows us to examine art forms the Western tradition has not historically recognised, as well as recognise the input of female artists. According to musicologist Elizabeth Eva Leach, ‘both Adorno himself and popular music, as it is understood today, are products of an era fuelled by romantic assumptions about the nature of art and the artist’, and critics like Charles Hamm are skeptical about the ability of this ‘modernist Marxist meta-narrative’ to make ‘sense of the postmodern world’. Traditional notions of the artist have centred around the male genius figure. As exemplified by the use of pitch correction in the popular music industry, women’s agency in the artistic process can still be largely restricted. According to musicologist Catherine Provenzano, pitch correction largely belongs to men, and simultaneously acts to discipline women and uphold notions of a ‘patriarchally perfected body and voice’. Auto-tuned male voices are afforded artistic, creative and emotional authenticity that auto-tuned female voices are rarely given. Provenzano has compared the use of Auto-Tune in Bon Iver’s ‘Woods’ and Lady Gaga’s ‘Starstruck’ to reveal that when women are combined with technology, it represent an alter-ego, ‘a challenge to the legibility of the self’, whereas when a male voice is combined with it, it represents an authentic and autonomous self. Acknowledging the usefulness of the notion of ‘inauthenticity’ enables discussions about female pop artists, liberated from the strict confines of the traditional Western discourses surrounding music and gender, as well as potentially empowering female artists through technological alienation, despite the entrenched derisory ideas surrounding the use of technology in music.

Today, many female pop artists embrace ‘inauthentic’ means of vocal production through the technological mediation of their voice, such as Monáe. In 1985, Donna Haraway described this merging of human and non-human voices as a ‘cyborg’. She called for a post-humanist feminist theory which critiques traditional notions of feminism that focus on identity politics. She argued that the twentieth century has produced three key boundary breakdowns that allow for her hybrid, cyborg paradigm:between human and animal, human-animal and machine, and physical and non-physical. These breakdowns create a fluidity that counteracts the essentialist dualisms, such as self/other, culture/nature, male/female and civilised/primitive, ordering Western discourse.

Haraway’s categories can help us to access Monàe’s pioneering dystopian science fiction universe, in which Monàe’s music celebrates her role as mediator between human/android and self/other, as well male/female, allowing her to compound vocal ambivalence with an embodied performance of it. This is achieved by embodying an androgynous cyborg aesthetic through her android alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather, in addition to technologically mediating her voice. In so doing, she combines two traditionally-conceived forms of ‘inauthenticity’: that of an aesthetic of ambivalence and the use of technology in vocal production. Monáe’s cyborg persona exists outside predetermined gender categories and their concomitant expectations, demonstrating one way female artists may feel empowered to abandon restrictive notions of gendered performance. Monáe’s vocal identity thus actively challenges traditional Western discourse’s rigid binaries and notions of ‘authentically’ created voices.

With her long hair, heavy eye make-up, manicured nails, tight dresses and heels, Del Rey cuts a consciously feminine figure. But her performances are not solely constructed as female. She curates an aesthetic of ambivalence through her vocal performance, and as a result also reinscribes and undermines restrictive notions of the female voice. One of the ways she achieves this is through dissolving the categories of ‘live’ and ‘recorded’. While her voice is not explicitly technologically manipulated by a synthesiser or vocoder, multi-tracking and multiple takes in the recording process mean her songs are difficult to replicate in live performance, especially with a lack of backing singers to fill out the original vocal style. For example, a 2013 live performance of Off to the Races contrasts greatly with the studio album version of the same song. Starting the same tempo as the record, Del Rey clearly struggles with achieving the many vocal pitch leaps, such as at 1:09 of the live version (compared with 1:05 of the recording), and even misses out words in order to keep up with the band members. The stark differences between the two versions of the song raises questions about which one is the ‘real’ version, and if it is possible to ascertain this.

Both artists consciously curate an embodied, while technologically mediated, aesthetic that actively disregards expectations surrounding how their voice ‘should’ sound. Monáe appears to have real activist ambitions, as she created her cyborg universe ‘for people who feel like they want to give up because they’re not accepted by society’, and her Wondaland Arts Society provides a space in which writers, musicians, producers, and visual artists are able to develop their ideas, as well as provide them exposure. However, a certain healthy skepticism should be maintained when considering the realistic feminist change these singers enact. In particular, Del Rey openly admits that she lowered her voice to help her ‘stand out’ in an already saturated market—manipulating her voice was likely a cleverly calculated career move. Monáe taps into commodity culture in her 2016 Pepsi Cola commercial, revealing what she terms the ‘deep connection’ between technology and commodification. Nevertheless, we should remember that real feminist change (especially within the music industry) is always restricted within a capitalist system that creates and reinforces systems of domination and exploitation, with different measures and restrictions placed on male and female artists respectively. However, Monáe’s clever participation in the commercial market while simultaneously exploiting it to further her own activist ambitions provides hope for real change within the current political and economic system. She ultimately dictates what she considers to be an ‘authentic’ image of herself—a traditionally considered form of ‘inauthenticity’, represented by her fluid and ambivalent of identity—and this enables her subversive ideas to reach a wide audience. 

Further Reading: 

Anne Carson, Glass, Irony, God (1995)

Catherine Provanzano, ‘Making Voices: The Gendering of Pitch Correction and the Auto-Tune Effect in Contemporary Pop Music’, Journal of Popular Music Studies (2019) 

Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1991) 

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