Vocal fry: It creaks up on you

Michelle Peace Photos

By Nikolas Williams

Vocal fry.

It was always with us, it just needed some recognition.  It answered its calling (most likely with a creaky ‘yeeessss?’) on December 15, 2011, when researchers at Long Island University published their discovery in The Journal of Voice.

The study recorded speech patterns of 34 women between the ages of 18 and 24.  They found that two-thirds of them had a “vocal fry” pattern, thus birthing every speech therapist’s worst nightmare.

So what does vocal fry sound like?  It’s been compared to a creaky door that could use a good oiling, a woman with a pack-a-day smoking habit, or most clearly, the average Zooey Deschanel interview.

“I think it’s extremely irritating,” says WPU Admissions Counselor Anna Burrelli,  “Kim Kardashian. Any time she opens her mouth she’s doing it,” she adds providing her own raspy impression. Burrelli isn’t alone in her opinion either.

Ke$ha fries her way through the lyrics “Going to the party feeling like P. Diddy,” which is comparatively light when up against the deep-fried “Oh baby baby” from Britney Spears’s 1999 debut “Baby One More Time.”

It’s not just singers who use it, however. Socialites like Paris Hilton, and as Burrelli mentioned, Kim Kardashian, are also guilty of using it during the conversation.

In the case of musical performers vocal fry is a conscious choice, but what about in daily talk?  WPU senior Katerina Dema says, “I think it starts with being conscious, like it’s a choice that you make to have a persona or a style of being sexy.”  She uses her own accent as an example, “If I really want to I could have more of a Greek accent but I can mellow it down so that people can understand me.”

Vocal fry, or glottalization for the more scientifically minded, is here to stay.  The creaky voice trend despite seeming new is reminiscent of the seductive, smoky-voiced femme fatale of the 1930s (think Mae West.)  But why does it occur more frequently in women and what causes the fry to spread?

Teenage girls are often credited as being vocal trendsetters.

Recall the Valley Girls in the 90s and their up talk, the high-pitched tonality that could make a statement sound more like a question. However, it has been hypothesized that female vocal fry came from a more powerful place, women on Wall Street.  In theory, they and others in similar executive positions, speak in a lower vocal register to be equals with the men who surround them.  A current example is a YouTube video titled: “A Conversation with Women in Investment,” in which we witness female employees of Deutsche Bank frying to various degrees.  One exception goes to an analyst named Suzanne who uptalks through the video (how passé!)

Still, it seems unlikely.  If vocal fry were an imitation of men, it would be a poor one.

“To me it’s so distinctively different,” says anthropology professor Dr. Laura Vick, comparing vocal fry to a male’s deep voice. “And it’s not the whole thing.  It’s typically the way they end words.  I think more than anything it might be a way to make yourself more distinctive.  If you have that same high-pitched voice that all these men have tuned out, then by having this gravely voice you make yourself distinctive from the other women, rather than trying to sound like the men.”

Vick sees the spread of vocal fry from a more primitive perspective. Like apes, we still have our pack alphas who we look upon for leadership, and are even willing to mimic. Conversational vocal fry being produced by women of power or high status may be the key.

“That’s one of the reasons it’s being listened to,” Vick says. “It’s because when things are being imitated the structure of attention for all primates, including humans, is you look toward the dominant animal. If I’m a little lowly monkey I always know where the big guy is.”

And thanks to reality television, we always know where Kim Kardashian is.

All hail the vocal alpha, Kim Kardashian.

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