July 28, 2015

What is 'vocal fry,' and why doesn't anyone care when men talk like that?

We've noticed women using 'vocal fry' for a while now, but it's recently been recognized that dudes are getting in on the action, too!

  By Thom Dunn

"Vocal Fry" is a term for the glottal, creaking sound of lower-register speech oscillation.

You know, like that raspy Zooey-Deschanel-type thing where your voice has that little "GuUuUuUuUuUuUuUh" crackle, instead of the smooth, consistent "Guuuuuuuuuuuuuuh" and — that really didn't help at all, huh?

OK, it's this:


We've noticed women using "vocal fry" for a while now...

A scientific study was reported in a 2011 issue of Science magazine that's generally credited with adding the phrase "vocal fry" into the popular lexicon. Before this point, according to the magazine, apparently vocal fry did not exist, although Britney Spears anachronistically employed it in the first line of her debut single, "Baby One More Time" all the way back in 1998. And she wasn't the only pop star to do so.

GIF via "Baby One More Time" music video.

The study from Science purported that women are often different than men (groundbreaking!), and thus, women talked less good with their mouth-sounds. (I'm paraphrasing, but that was the gist.) (Please excuse my rolling eyes.)

Specifically, vocal fry was said to be a trend among college-aged women of a certain social standing. "Young students tend to use it when they get together. Maybe this is a social link between members of a group," noted one female researcher.

...but recently it's been recognized that us dudes have been getting in on the action for a while too.

All right, guys! We're finally getting closer to true gender parity! But the question remains: How come no one noticed that men have been using vocal fry for years?

"This American Life" host Ira Glass recently admitted that he uses vocal fry. But in a conversation with Chana Jaffe-Walt (who is not a dude), Glass also admitted that no one notices his vocal fry. And it's not that no one notices — women are criticized for using vocal fry while men have been getting away with it for years.

"I get criticized for a lot of things in the emails to the show," Glass said. "No one has ever pointed this out."

Ira Glass. GIF via Yoko Ono's Plastic Ono Band.

Noted academic and anarcho-syndicalist advocate Noam Chomsky has also been known to employ vocal fry (presumably as a means of dismantling capitalism). Chomsky certainly has his detractors, but none of them seem to take issue with his vocal quality either. And even The Hairpin noted last week that male vocal fry has become "a thing."

If you think those two dudes are just rare outliers, here's a fun little mashup/remix of male vocal fry put together by Ann Heppermann, producer of Culture Gabfest on Slate:


In reality, associating the vocal fry trend only with women — both in practice and in naming — is a really just another way of trying to define gender roles.

It's certainly interesting to observe the trends in human social interactions in the same way we observe a pack of wild capuchin monkeys. But the way that vocal fry gained traction in popular culture was, well, kind of weird.

After that Science magazine article came out, women were suddenly being judged for the supposedly abrasive way in which they spoke when they used vocal fry, even though both women and men had probably been talking that way since well before 2011.

There are many legitimate reasons — beyond gender — for why a person might develop vocal fry.

The simple truth is that vocal fry is just one way that people talk, regardless of their gender. Some people employ it as a means of being heard, as differentiating their voices from the rest of the masses. Other people really do just talk that way!

And it's another example of the way we treat women like Goldilocks ("This one's too sexy, and this one's too prude, and..."). If a woman uses a higher register to speak, then it's classified as ditzy, valley-girl uptalk. If a woman uses her lower register, it's vocal fry. If she speaks in the middle (modal range), her words often get lost entirely.

So maybe instead of listening to the sound of someone's voice, we should listen to the actual words they're saying.

The vocal fry drama has reached a point where Katie Mingle, producer of the 99% Invisible podcast, has had to set up this autoreply filter for the show:

And maybe, just maybe, we should all try to worry less about the way people speak (or dress or...) and instead try to actually listen to and hear what they're saying.

So vocal fry? Don't vocal fry? Do what you want! Because if our crappy earbud headphones have taught us anything, it's that content matters more than the quality of delivery.