On Vocal Frying
by Thomas Brett
“It’s generally pretty well known that if you identify a sound change in progress, then young people will be leading old people, and women tend to be maybe half a generation ahead of males on average.” - Mark Liberman, linguist, University of Pennsylvania
The image is impossible for me to prevent in my mind’s eye: spoken and sung words and phrases immersed like Lego blocks into the boiling oil of a deep fryer, one letter at a time, melting and losing their form while crisping away. But the phenomenon known as vocal frying has nothing whatsoever to do with heat. Rather, it describes the low-frequency creaking (or frying) sound we make when we speak or sing in our lowest vocal register. In essence, frying is the sound of our vocal chords vibrating irregularly at a very slow rate of speed, producing a pitch that is low (on average about 36 Hertz or vibrations per second) and on the verge of breaking up.
Vocal frying has been around as long as we’ve been speaking and singing and the technique can found across musical cultures. Most often it’s used as a way to reach low notes otherwise unreachable and to communicate a particular kind of affect. But in recent years, vocal frying has floated to the surface popular awareness, partly thanks to American celebrities including pop singer Britney Spears and that famous-for-being-famous reality TV star, Kim Kardashian.
Back in 1999 Spears had a breakout hit song called “Baby One More Time” that launched her career. At the beginning of each line of the verses and especially when she sings the repeating “Oh baby, baby” hook you can pure vocal frying. Spears was never the strongest singer, but she has undoubtedly been helped by recording technology and the production techniques of her main producer/songwriter, Sweedish pop maestro Max Martin. Just as refinements in microphone technology paved the way for the laid back and close-up crooning of Frank Sinatra, so too has computer music production encouraged vocal frying to join pop’s lexicon of cool sounds.
Here is Spears:
Going beyond Britney, you can hear another kind of vocal frying in Louis Armstrong’s singing. Here the fry was part and parcel of Armstrong’s famously precise vocal phrasing and warm appeal:
There’s also audible frying at the beginning of phrases sung by male country singers where the fried twang signifies a heartfelt, good old, down-by-the-country-fair kind of feeling. Here is country star Brad Paisley frying the word “I” at the beginning of each line he sings:
In musical cultures further afield, frying characterizes the glorious sound of Tuvan, Mongolian and Tibetan overtone singing (singing in which both fundamental and overtone pitches can be heard simultaneously). In Tuva, for example, the low-pitched style of singing known as kargyraa has a heavily fried fundamental pitch rich with overtones. Here is the late Aldyn-Ool Sevek singing:
The vocal fry got a promotional boost outside of the music world when Kim Kardashian–she of Keeping Up with the Kardashians reality show–started talking and we, for some mysterious reason, started listening. Kardashian’s fry is in a way an update of the 1980s California “Valley Girl” way of speech. Valley Girls, incidentally, started the trend of “uptalking” or making statements sound like questions? and using the word “like” for like, emphasis. In this clip of Kardashian encouraging us all to be glamorous, you can hear the fry on the words “shoes”, “squad”, and “equinox”:
Valley Girl speak was a way of signifying a particular brand of harmlessly annoying girl privilege–in essence, the sound of a kind of ennui. Kardashian’s vocal fry similarly functions to signify ditziness and reassure Kardashian listeners that the star is a harmless (yet desirable and unattainable) bombshell, easy to dismiss yet nevertheless kind of fascinating too.
Reading about the widespread use of vocal frying among young women (there’s an informative article in the NYTimes here) I’ve learned that the sound plays two roles at once. On the one hand, notes linguist Ikuko Patricia Yuasa, the fry is a way for women to lower their voices to sound more authoritative and assume a more powerful sonic stance. This connects to findings about early use of frying as far back as the 1960s among British men wishing to indicate their “superior social standing.” So in a way, the vocal fry may be a kind of modern female way of speaking appropriated from an old male way of acting haughty. On the other hand, the fry is simultaneously used to create a sense of lightness and harmlessness–the exact opposite of what we think of as being authoritative. As linguist Mark Liberman notes, women use the vocal fry “when they’re relaxed and even bored, not especially aroused or invested in what they’re saying.” But again, this perhaps connects to those stodgy British men who use their voice to act like they’re above it all. These research findings not only help explain Spears’ and Kardashian’s use of the vocal fry, but also point towards the endlessly interesting ways all of us socially construct our identities through the sounds we make.