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The apathy and the ecstasy

Ueli Bernays traces falsetto's high-pitched pop-musical passage from expression to gimmick and back again.

When pop musicians sing, they often express euphoria in the same, high pitched voice that they use to express pain. Think of soul singer Al Green, rocker Robert Plant, disco star Barry Gibb or Pop king Michael Jackson. They might evoke very different moods in their music, but if you concentrate on their voices, abstracting them from accompaniment and arrangement, they all have one thing in common: they all regularly return to the highest vocal registers in order to signalise neuralgic values of sensibility or emotionality. This feminine or puerile-sounding singing can be off-putting. It disrupts the accepted norms of human behaviour or manliness at least. And it makes the singers sound like mediums to some superhuman, transsexual force, which is making itself heard in the lambent flames of falsetto.

In pop and rock traditions, singers tend to switch to falsetto when they want their voice to rise into alto or soprano registers: as soon as the vocal chords vibrate only halfway, the voice rushes up to the next octave, into falsetto. Falsetto singing is nothing new in pop music. But it is particularly popular at the moment. In recent years more and more rock and pop singers are using these honeyed tones. The list is not restricted to any one genre: think of Pharrell Williams, Justin Timberlake, Cee-Lo Green, Mayer Hawthorne in soul and r'n'b Thom Yourke (Radiohead), Chris Martin (Coldplay), Matthew Bellamy (Muse) in Brit pop and stadium rock and Mika, Antony Hegarty, Scissor Sisters, MGMT, Passion Pit in Indie.

In classical music, by contrast, falsetto has long been frowned upon. For centuries now, it has been thought of as the "false" voice, in line with its etymology. In the early days of European opera, falsetto might have been permitted to allow men to slip into women's roles. But as soon as female singers were allowed onto the stage, vocal registers were divided strictly along gender lines, and it was deemed lewd, effete, and downright "unnatural" for male singers to insist on using falsetto for alto or soprano melodies. As to whether or not it is natural, on the one hand, male and female voices overlap much more than commonly believed; and on the other, the falsetto voice is a product of physical disposition. The falsetto "ban" was less about nature than socio-cultural sexual determination.

Indeed there are a number of musical traditions that actually cultivate it. Alpine yodelling, for example. In West African cultures, falsetto was even believed to be a sign of heightened potency. African slaves brought their falsetto culture to the USA and their high-pitched field hollering influenced not only the early forms of African-American music but also folk and country. And yodelling immigrants from Europe also left traces of falsetto in the American musical landscape. So it is thanks to all of these influences that falsetto has always been accepted in American popular music.

Falsetto has different meanings and functions that vary according to singer and style. Misfits like Smokey Robinson, Frankie Valli, Jimmy Somerville (Bronski Beat) and Jeff Buckley, who simply felt most at home in the falsetto voice, inspired clusters of imitators. But the quickest route to the male falsetto takes us to singing boy groups: in the harmony arrangements of Doo Wop or the multi-layered vocals of bands like the Beach Boys or the Bee Gees, the highest registers are all intoned in falsetto. The distribution of falsetto is different in every genre. Interestingly the style in which it features most heavily is hardrock and heavy metal. It might seem anomalous that strutting rockers like Robert Plant are so partial to expressing themselves in such seemingly feminine registers. There are two reasons why this might be: in music it is generally the higher-pitched instruments and higher voices that take on the melody – and therefore in rock and pop too, singers – and especially male singers with high voices - are over represented; but it is among the thundering of metal guitars that the high voice, the falsetto, really comes into its acoustic own. The falsetto speaks volumes about the emotional culture of rock: the singers work themselves into ecstasy. The composure needed for verbal communication gets lost in an excess of emotional information and the voice transforms into a non-verbal medium, somewhere between primal scream and guitar solo.

In all genres, the falsetto indicates a build-up of sensuousness and feelings. Although the semantics certainly oscillate. The aggressive metal falsetto contrasts dramatically with its folk counterpart where, with singer/songwriters like Jeff Buckley, it shows vulnerability. The implications of falsetto in soul are different again. In this genre, which translates the religious passion of Gospel into the secular drama of love, falsetto singing, sighing and shrieking are used, particularly in expressive caesuras, to express moments of extreme joy or grief (brought on for example by the dominants of blues cadence particularly at the end of a verse, before an instrumental solo or at the end of a song.) At the end of the Sixties and beginning of the Seventies, the soul falsetto was all the rage. This is exemplified in the career of Marvin Gaye. Initially he only climbed into falsetto for expressive accents but by the end of the decade, the whimpering falsetto had become a ubiquitous means to express his grievances and demands.

At the same time falsetto virtuosos like Al Green and Curtis Mayfield were producing the last artistic high points in soul music. In Mayfield's case, falsetto was already starting to free itself from the narrative logic of the song and becoming something like a continual expressive high pressure over the driving rhythms. The soul song was being usurpted by the more open, rhythmically-driven forms of the funk track. Funk falsetto was not about dramatic climax. It emerged as the sound of fleshly lust, the sign of hedonistic euphoria. And disco's hour had arrived too. When the Bee Gees, who years beforehad had modelled themselves on the Beatles, re-formed in the mid-Seventies, they decided to go the funk route, propelled by electricity of Barry Gibb's vibrating falsetto. And so they put their stamp on an epoch that was already filled with falsetto in all number of funk and disco formations – the Ohio Players, for example, Earth, Wind & Fire; even Mick Jagger was suddenly singing in a high-pitched disco voice for "Emotional Rescue".

Similar lines of development from expressive falsetto to falsetto mannerism and cliche can be traced through other genres. With his slightly thin, but electrifying voice, the singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley set new standards in expressive form – and the falsetto became an organ of pain. His singing spawned countless imitators over numerous musical generations, like Buckley fan Thom Yorke, the singer of the avantgarde Brit-pop band Radiohead. Once upon a time Tom Yorke used falsetto in moderation – as a technique for expressive limits: in Radiohead's hit "Creep", for example, where after two verses of self-humiliation, the voice suddenly flips into the angst-laden frenzy of falsetto. Later the falsetto became the trademark sign of Yorke's vocal expressiveness: notoriously highly strung and hysterical. And in his turn, Yorke inspired countless musicians from Coldplay to Keane and James Blunt to sing high.

"Tracing back" the use of falsetto to bygone idols is symptomatic of pop music today. There is very little pop music being made in any genre that does not rely on revival, quotation, exaggeration or parody. But this does necessary means an absence of creativity, as Prince demonstrated in the Eighties. He instrumentalised the falsetto as expressive cliche, on a par with the Hendrix guitar. With breathtaking vocal virtuosity, he combined moaning and screaming with quivering falsetto sighs to orchestrate an orgiastic, parodic, even grotesque sex sound ("Do Me, Baby", "Sexuality", "Kiss").

But in other songs Prince made innovative use of the falsetto. In "Sometimes It Snows In April", for example, at the beginning he expresses his grief over the death of a friend in falsetto. He then collects himself sufficiently to return to verbal expression, and intones the next verses in a well-tended chest voice. Ten years ago, the American neo-Soul star D'Angelo was similarly creative. His combination of falsetto soul with funk and hip-hop beats on his album "Voodoo", brought new highlights to the art of falsetto.

In the retro cult of contemporary pop culture, falsetto mostly crops up in quotations of earlier styles and idols. But with such frequency that you wonder whether this isn't saying something else about today. If you concentrate on individual singers, it's like the wood with the trees. Someone like Antony Hegarty has made a name for himself as a solitary artist who uses falsetto to stride across gender lines with considerable virtuosity; and Cee-Lo Green or Jamie Lidell are, in terms of the falsetto soul they sing, highly original traditionalists. Seen and heard from a distance, however, even these individualists are part of the contemporary falsetto choir, which is setting a trend most typical of our time..

The falsetto mode can be read as a symptom of a dilemma: on the one hand, there is so much pressure in pop culture to produce expressiveness and desire. On the other hand, it's not clear what this desire and strength of expression is meant to motivate any more. Sensibility and emotionality seem to be at such an all-time low that they are unable to find expression in new musical styles; and there is also insufficient musical pioneering going on to trigger artistic fervour. This is why the falsetto is often little more than a gimmick or fake used over and over to simulate hedonistic intensity. The falsetto of big name r'n'b singers like Pharrell Williams, Justin Timberlake and Cee-Lo might always generate a certain warmth, but it is basically just emotional theatre. A donning of aesthetic prosthetics. You could compare falsetto with a candle which you light in the temple of lust, whether or not you still believe in the religion of love, sex and liberation.

In "Falsetto" by r'n'b star The Dream, the falsetto is only used to parody the girlfriend's lust. "As soon as I hit, I got her talkin' like this . . . / In a falsetto, She's like 'Ooh, ooh! Baby! Ahh, ahh, ahh! Ohh!', in a falsetto." With acts like Mika, Scissor Sisters, MGMT and Passion Pit, which are closer to glam rock, disco and electro pop in style, the expressiveness of the forced falsetto swings between parody and hysteria. The notoriously highly strung in this case stands for parasitical copy cats, who are desperately clawing at the roots of expressive traditions. This is not to say that the above musicians are not eager pop musicians, who are just making the most of the last expressive energies.

So today's falsetto, true to its name, has indeed become a "false" rather than true voice, in which simulation replaces expression. Ironically, this excess of emotional forgery has itself advanced the use of an artistic instrument which, though not new, is strongly characteristic of the present day: the auto-tune. This is actually nothing more than a technical effect that is used to correct intonation errors during recording. But if you correct an entire song line using auto-tune, it sounds like a robotic voice and, with its empty, honeyed timbre, like falsetto. Many hits that use the auto tuning effect are also sung in falsetto - "Got Money", for example, by Lil' Wayne and T-Pain or "Heartless" by Kanye West. Also typical is "I Wanna Love You" by Akon. This r'n'b singer is cultivating the coolness of the disenchanted, the cynicism of the post-naive: "Love" is shown to be nothing but an act, an act of purchasing. And the auto-tune falsetto exudes false, robotic passion. Here the expressive falsetto, once a sign of ecstasy and euphoria, tips over into its expressive opposite: it becomes a sign of apathetic distance and melancholy.


This article originally appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 8 January, 2010.

Ueli Bernays has worked as a jazz bassist and journalist. In 2000 his novel "August" won the Robert Walser Prize. Since 1999 he has been writing about pop and jazz for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

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