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.


  1. Hi Chris, this is Gillian Turnbull. I like your blog, and particularly this entry.

    I'm thinking that you're right in terms of how scholars generally use Barthes's theory to support their beliefs about the inherent value of the music/singers they discuss. And I agree that every voice has an individual grain and merely discussing timbral qualities does not get at the role of the body in vocal production or the intersections between timbre, bodily noises, poetry, and melody.

    I have a whole (long) chapter on this issue in my dissertation, since it seems like alt-country fans frequently point to the voice as the most distinguishing marker of the genre. That is, mainstream country features smooth, crooning, pitch-perfect singing, whereas alt-country allows for rough timbres, 'wrong' notes, yodels, hiccups, and the sounds of the effort required to sing to be audible in recordings.

    But I think it's not just an issue of vocal performance. There are differences in the levels/styles of production chosen and in recording practices that allow for more discernible 'grains' to come out, and those practices are more common to roots music genres and independent artists. So no question the value judgments are there, from scholars, fans, and the musicians themselves, but I think they are tied to a lot more than just vocal performance. Barthes's theory is probably the most convenient and widely known one to date, so everyone keeps using it.

    You might want to look at Aaron Fox's book Real Country, or Olivia Carter Mather's essay on Gram Parsons in the Old Roots New Routes reader (ed. Pamela Fox and Barbara Ching)--they examine how timbre intersects with notions of feeling/emotion (Fox), audience perceptions of the performer's biography (Carter), and melodic 'mistakes' (Carter). So hopefully the more people get into this area, the more we'll get away from (or expand on) Barthes.

    Great post!

  2. Thanks Gillian -- that's the kind of feedback I was hoping for.

    Looking forward to reading your diss, and thanks for the references.

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