Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Voice, Class, and the Inescapable Barthes

I swear to God, I'll rip out what's left of my hair if one more popular music scholar name-checks Roland Barthes and "The Grain of the Voice!"

Whew -- now I feel better.

Seriously, though, what is it about this (admittedly rich and piquant) little article from 1977 (reprinted in On Record) that leads everyone from grad students to senior music scholars to invoke it every time the singing voice is tabled for discussion? Is it really the most insightful thing written on the voice in more than 30 years?

I got to thinking about this recently while researching for my IASPM/CSTM Regina presentation, because it kept turning up in every other popular music studies article or book chapter I picked up. I've been noting this for some time, but when Barthes was cited three times in one day at the conference, I decided that I really needed to go back and re-read this article and think about it. I became really curious about why it seems so inexhaustibly relevant to so many, even thirty-some years after it first appeared.

What's particularly interesting is that no one seems to criticize Barthes's concept of the "grain" of the voice, at least in our discipline; it's always invoked, applied cursorily, and then left. It's probably beyond my limitations to criticize Barthes directly, but on re-reading the article, I'm left with a number of questions and reservations about its application in music scholarship.

Why, for example, is an article principally concerned with the voice in European classical music so influential on popular music studies?

The driving force behind Barthes's discussion of vocal "grain" is his preference for the opera singer Panzera over the more popular Fischer-Dieskau. Although Barthes insists his choice of singers (for illustrating vocals with grain vs. vocals without grain) is not important (they are just "ciphers," he says), it's hard not to read the article as a very sophisticated justification for personal preference. This seems more like "music criticism" than "cultural criticism," so what does it mean that his model is used principally for the latter in popular music scholarship?

Is "grain" the most accurate translation of what Barthes means?

Presumably, the term "grain of the voice" is meant to be roughly analogous with "grain in the wood" or "grain of the rock," a texture or internal pattern that is unique to a wooden plank or something. On its face, it's a striking analogy to think about, because an individual's voice is so unique and recognizable, and yet we lack a substantial language to describe it.

But Barthes has a more complicated notion in mind: vocal grain is "the body in the voice as it sings," it's the "materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue." It's more than timbre, he says. He clearly gets off on a voice that is relatively unruly, insofar as you hear the tongue itself, the wet snap of tissue in the mouth and throat, the click and scratch of teeth, and so on. Panzera made artful use of these qualities, for Barthes, while he heard nothing in Fischer-Dieskau except clean, clear vocal tone. Panzera is unbridled bodily sensuality, ambiguity, etc.; Fischer-Dieskau politely, clearly and cleanly serves the music. The former has grain, the latter doesn't.

It's hard for me not to hear where this is all going in a very "classed" sense: Panzera gives the upper-middle-class French intellectual lots of "bodily" stuff to dive into, to appreciate sensually (albeit in a very theoretical language) in a vaguely avant-garde way. Fischer-Dieskau, by being "clear," in Barthes's words, by singing in a way that makes sense with respect to the expressive context set up by the song, is being too utilitarian, obvious, etc. In other words, Fischer-Dieskau is almost middlebrow, acceptable to a lower-middle-class sensibility.

Maybe that's why I get a bit irked reading Barthes: he's a French upper-middle-class theorist-provocateur, while I'm a pragmatic North American Anglo petit-bourgeois, outfoxed again!

But this is the real question: what does the concept of "grain" (and its attendant concepts, scooped up from Kristeva, the pheno-song and geno-song) do for us?

I've seen people apply this very nearly by rote to pop singers, whereby notions of "grain" get applied to a certain kind of singer (Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Robert Plant, Tom Waits, etc.) while a lack of grain is more paradigmatic of a pop singer whose tone, style and training more closely aligns with crooning, Broadway style, or mainstream pop.

The problem for me is that "grain" is still being deployed with a sneaky undercurrent of value judgment, which doesn't generate new understanding, but buttresses the same old assumptions about why some singers are great, and others are run of the mill. It becomes another tool in maintaining the authentic/inauthentic dyad, or the artiste/entertainer dichotomy.

Really, just as no wood is without grain, I don't like the idea that some voices have no grain. Maybe some are smoother than others, maybe some have more texture than others -- that's fine. Maybe you can hear more "body" (in Barthes's sense) in one voice than another, but why is more body-in-the-voice always necessarily better?

Finally, how has the idea that Barthes came up with been elaborated for our purposes in musicology or popular music studies? Obviously, it still speaks to a lot of people, but are we getting anywhere with it? For something cited so frequently, it seems like very little has been added to build up the theory.

Maybe I'm missing something: I'm open to hearing from those who think Barthes's theory deserves the attention it receives, at least in our discipline.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Class Without A Culture?

I've returned from the IASPM/CSTM conference in Regina, which was entitled Spaces of Violence, Sites of Resistance: Music, Media, and Performance. The quality of presentations was quite high, and I enjoyed lots of stimulating papers and discussions.

My presentation on the problems and potentials of studying the middle class and popular music was well-received, and lots of people have followed up with suggestions for other sources and papers.

One strand from the paper which bears further elaboration concerns the (white) middle class's cultural obsession with alterity and the other. I argued that the perception of the middle class as an invisible "norm," and also as something prosaic or lame, has led middle-class cultural consumers to be looking continuously outside themselves for something more real, authentic, vivid, etc., than what traditionally middle class popular culture has provided. This process accelerated during and after the big cultural and political changes of the 1960s, altering middle-class tastes, both in content and range, beyond recognition.

In a discussion with my colleague, Norm Stanfield of UBC, we talked about how the white, American middle-class culture which has been all but rejected by its inheritors (think here about orchestral pop, Tin Pan Alley crooning, etc.), has been enthusiastically picked up by other middle classes emerging around the world (China's emerging middle class and Chinese-American immigrants provide good examples). Crooners are popular, as are lush orchestral (or synthesized) textures, ballad-type songs and a relaxed, sophisticated atmosphere. Yet, in most white, middle-class circles, few such pop sounds could be more unhip. It's like a mirror on what white, middle-class music used to be like, and for some reason, it makes a lot of people like me recoil.

Why is this?

Norm recommended an article in The Atlantic, entitled "The End of White America," by Hua Hsu. It's largely about the coming demographic shift when, in the 2040s, white people cease to be the majority ethnicity in the US. What kind of multi-ethnic or multi-racial country will the US (or Canada) be by then?

More urgently, how will white people respond to this demographic shift, and given that ethnic identity is always changing and evolving, what will it mean to be white then?

In discussing this question, Hsu talks about the state of white culture, although I think he's talking more specifically about white middle class culture. It's not simply that it's so ubiquitous that it's invisible, or considered just "normal," but that it has pretty much been abandoned.

Much like I argued in my own paper, Hsu discusses how the baby-boomers (and later generations) ceased looking towards the genteel culture to which the middle class has traditionally been heir, and has instead embraced a fluid, eclectic cultural field focussed principally on people unlike themselves.

The consequence of this is double-edged: perhaps white middle-class North Americans have become more open-minded and tolerant of the culture of others, but at the expense of having any substantive culture of their own. They have become, more literally than before, cultureless.

Hsu quotes sociologist Matt Wray, who notes of his own white, middle-class students:

They don't care about socioeconomics; they care about culture. And to be white is to be culturally broke. The classic thing white students say when you ask them to talk about who they are is, "I don't have a culture." They might be privileged, they might be loaded socioeconomically, but they feel bankrupt when it comes to culture … They feel disadvantaged, and they feel marginalized. They don’t have a culture that's cool or oppositional.

Hsu holds up William "Upski" Wimsatt's book Bomb the Suburbs (1994) as a symptomatic text documenting the move towards a white, middle-class culture that is focussed almost exclusively on alterity. Wimsatt valorizes the white middle-class hip hop fan for adopting black American culture as fully as possible, much as Norman Mailer did 50 years ago in The White Negro. The very implication of Wimsatt's book title -- destroy where we live, erase what we are -- is evocative of the kind of self-loathing that marks modern, hip attitudes towards middle-class identity.

In a future where there is no majority, Hsu surmises, a cultureless whiteness may be a problem indeed.

The reason I see Hsu's cultureless whiteness as being more of a middle-class issue than a working-class one is that I don't think the white working class has been nearly as quick to abandon its culture. They're far less embarrassed about their country music proclivities, for example, than we've been about our mainstream pop.