Pop It, Lock It: What is all the whispering about?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017 - 6:22pm

I’m sort of obsessed with this one thing pop singers do with their voices. I mean, I’m sort of obsessed with most things most pop singers do, but I especially love when they sing in their head voice — a little too high and slightly out of their comfortable belting range, but putting a certain amount of tension into the performance regardless, like a high pressure whisper. My friend Jane brilliantly dubbed it a “vocal italic.” It’s such a cunning and calculated sonic move — an affectation that sounds light and girly, but hides a cutting honesty just underneath its surface.

Selena Gomez is, in general, very good at this technique, so good that she’s crafted a career out of these carefully curated, delicate little moments of startling intimacy. There’s “Good For You,” a song about wanting desperately to please someone that’s also an exercise in restraint, where she never lets her voice veer from that high pressure whisper. “I just wanna look good for you, good for you, uh huh” could have been such a melodramatic, embarrassing thing to say, but in Selena’s hands it’s a quiet, simple confession. Nothing more, nothing less. Her voice wavers on the line between full strength and cracking, between singing and speaking, and it’s exactly right for the song.

“Good For You” is just the warm-up, though. The shining moment of Selena’s vocal italic (and maybe her discography, and maybe even the year 2015) is very obviously “I mean I could, but why would I want to?” from “Hands to Myself.”

“Hands to Myself” is, in general, about the quick little heartbeats that pulse an infatuation up through your body, out through your fingertips. It’s about keeping a tense, tight control while you’re bursting at the seams, about trying trying trying, about the hypnotic rhythm of a phrase repeated into infinity. But it’s mostly about Selena Gomez singing directly into your ear, quiet and deliberate.

You’re scared that at any minute her whisper might break, that she’ll lose control. And she does, for a moment — “all of the doubts and the outbursts” is belted out in a long, falling slide of her voice, like she can’t take it anymore. But she takes control again almost immediately. And the song goes on like that, ebbing and flowing, always careful, always deadly precise. That is, right up until the very end. She loses control again, but this time not in a shout. Her voice is light, full of air. It rises up, up and up, on, “I mean, I could, but why would I want to?” It’s such a delicate, deadly little question that isn’t really a question at all. A tiny and quiet power play whose winner couldn’t be any clearer. Her voice is focused, high and clear, about to burst under the pressure. She’s looking straight into your eyes, daring you to try her.

The vocal italic is more than just a power play, though — it’s also about vulnerability. Because really, the admission is what gives the whisper its weight. That’s where Carly Rae Jepsen comes in. She sings in italics throughout her Emotion album — think the “we can turn the world to gold” in the bridge of “Run Away With Me,” or the way her voice hiccups over the phrase “everything you say is a sweet reva-la-ay-shun” in “I Really Like You,” or the six other examples I’m leaving out as a kindness to any weirdos who are still reading this (hi, Dad). Anyway, the point is that “Gimmie Love” is the culminating moment of Carly’s high pressure whisper.

It’s kind of hard to talk about Carly because seriously, guys, she’s so good. I mean, she’s good in a million different ways, but she’s particularly skilled at reconciling the strange construction of intimacy the whisper holds with the wild emotional confessions of a pop song. I think it’s because she recognizes that vulnerability can come because of, not in spite of catharsis, that the two might be deeply intertwined.  She sings: “Fall into me and then / Gimmie love, gimmie, love, gimmie love, gimmie touch.” In anyone else’s voice, that would have been a deeply weird, slightly aggressive, and sort of scary thing to say (and not the delicate, kind of awesome Selena Gomez scary) because she’s outright demanding love and touch. But her voice tells a different story, betraying a terrible fear within. These lines barely register above a whisper because she’s restraining herself, like she’s too scared to admit to even herself just how much she wants this feeling. Her vocal italics let the vulnerability of this moment shine through above all else, shifting the focus from her explicit demand to the implicit desire behind it.

She asks, “do you think that I want too much?” and trails off at the end of the line, her voice fading into silence. She seems to be asking herself, quietly, under her breath: is this really what I want? What do you think? Too much? Is this who I am? Should I stop? But she won’t stop until she’s done, and we all know it. Because in the end, even with all the fear and the restraint, there’s a courage — however tentative it may be — inherent to staking a claim over what you want. She’s terrified, sure, but she also knows that she’s just brave enough to ask for what she wants anyway. There’s an undeniable power there, to a simultaneous wanting and fear so sharply realized.

I see an honest power in all these whispers, in these young women manipulating the language of secrets and confessions to force the listener exactly where they want us. When I say pop singers are evil geniuses, I mean it with all my heart, and I mean it as a genuine compliment. These gentle, midtempo songs about infatuation carry with them a crystalline emotional precision. Don’t be fooled by the glittery synthesizers or the pretty, uber-feminine voices. Don’t be fooled by any of it. They know exactly what they’re doing.