AGAINST THE GRAIN: Thinking about the Voice in Pop

(originally published in Melody Maker,November 20, 1993)

Most rock-crit doesn’t have much to do with rock as music. Usually it’s amateur sociology, or Eng-Lit analysis of lyrics, or biography/gossip. But even those who do grapple with music-as-music seldom get much purchase on the Voice, beyond saying a particular voice is ‘great’ or ‘original’, or gushing superlatives.And that’s because the Voice is a mystery, defying analysis.It’s hard to say why one voice leaves you cold and another pierces the marrow of your soul, gets in your pants, fits you like a glove.

The few who have attempted to explain their preferences often fasten on Roland Barthes concept of the grain of the voice.The French critic argued that what got you about a much-loved voice wasn’t what the singer did expressively, it was the stuff of the voice itself: its texture, its carnal thickness. In instrumentation, the equivalent of ‘grain’ is timbre, i.e. not the way Hendrix bluesily bent his notes to express emotion, but the “colour” of his fuzz-tone and feedback.For Barthes, an accomplished vocalist who’s adept at manipulating the conventional mannerisms of ‘good singing’ in order to emote, can actually be less moving than a stiff, unwieldy singer. The proficient vocalist suppresses “the grain of the voice” by being too eloquent, too fluent in the language of singing.For “grain” is the body’s resistance to the singer’s breath, resulting in “language lined with flesh”: the listener is always reminded, blissfully, that this voice isn’t pure soul, but comes from deep inside a specific human body.

But critics often misconstrue ‘grain’ as synonomous with ‘grit’. Aretha Franklin is often acclaimed as a grain-rich singer, but to my ears she’s all bombastic virtuosity and pyrotechnic passion. Certainly, the octave-spanning acrobatics and mannered idiosyncracies of consummate singers like Tim Buckley can astound and enthrall, fill you with awe.But often, a weak or limited voice can be more heart-quaking: Barney Sumner, Alex Ayuli from A.R. Kane, even a one-note droner like Lawrence of Felt. Neil Young is a case in point, not just for his torn-and-frayed drawl-whine, but for his guitar ‘voice’ too: his wracked, wrenching one-chord solo on “Southern Man” communicates more grainy anguish than a century of Clapton’s addle-daddle nuances.

Barney Hoskyns’ book From A Whisper To A Scream is a rare attempt to elucidate the Mystery of The Voice. Hoskyns also cites Barthes’ ‘grain’, but he’s a bit biasedtowards technically superb and Black voices. If the greatest singers combine virtuosity and grain – Al Green, Van Morrison – I’d like to redress the balance and state the case for the deficient, unfluent singer.Like early Morrissey: what struck a deep, carnal chord with miserabilist youth like myself was the lachrymose, mucus-like quality of his voice, so vividly evocative of drowning in self-pity.There’s a similarly clotted, inconsolable but luscious, almost edible thickness in Stevie Nicks’ singing on Rumours and Tusk, and in Kristin Hersh’s voice on the first three Throwing Muses albums: again, it’s the viscosity of the voice, the way it resists the singer’s expressive range, that’s so blissful. But as Morrissey got “better” as a vocalist, he became merely plummy in his plaintiveness.

Iggy Pop’s voice also declined as it got more singerly.On the Bowie-fied solo albums, Iggy sounds like a cadaverous supperclub crooner, Jim Morrison’s corpse. For the real animal you have to turn to The Stooges first two albums: the Sinatra-on-barbiturates of “Ann” and “Dirt”, the feral, masticated vowels of “Loose”, and above all, the breath-sucking, beyond/beneath-human gasps at the climax of “TV Eye” (which get my vote for Greatest Vocal Moment of All Time). Johnny Rotten seldom gets his rightful acclaim as a vocalist, although Dave Laing has pinpointed the gratuitous way he rolled his “r’s” and over-emphasised his consonants: a grotesque, thrilling parody of rock aggression.But it’s on “Bodies” that Rotten truly reached Iggy-esque nether limits, gargling lines like “gurgling bloody mess” to bring home the abject horror of human biology. In recent years, only Kurt Cobain (who’s gotta lotta grain) has reached, or retched, such extremity.

Along with a critical language for the mystery of the individual voice, we also lack a history of vocal trends.Why, for instance, has the early 70’s blues rock voice resurged in the last couple of years? Why does it resonate with grunge youth?I’d also like to understand what happened to the black mainstream voice. As soul evolved into ‘urban contemporary’, rural grit got replaced by jazzily urbane, slimy smoothness. Swingbeat groups like SWV, Bell Biv Devoe, Jade etc have eerily futuristic production and kicking beats, but the singing’s putrid and pukey (aren’t Boys II Men the absolute pits?!).

While swingbeat singing is all elegance and over-expressiveness, rap is a haven for ‘grain’, in so far as it’s vocal but non-melodic. Rhyming finesse counts for a lot, but for me it’s the stuff of the voice that grabs. My current fave is Snoop Doggy Dogg, sidekick of Dr Dre and currently taking off as a solo mega-star despite being charged with murder.Like a lot of black people in Los Angeles, Dogg has a Southern accent, giving his voice a sidling, serpentile quality that’s seductive in its menace.Ragga’s rasping, patois insolence is also full of grain, harking back to the gruff-but-luscious ‘talk-over’ voices of early Seventies reggae (mainstream reggae singing has gone slick and oily like US R&B).

But ultimately you can’t legislate about the voice: one person’s ‘grain’ may be another’s bland white bread of the soul. When it comes to the voice, preferences are idiosyncratic and unjustifiable. Something in the singer’s body resonates inside your body, reopens wounds and triggers pleasure-centres, and who can really say why?


Crunk Juice (TVT)
(originally published in Blender, January/February 2005)

‘Crunk’ is one of those words that sounds like what it is. The word is probably a contraction of
crazy drunk, but even if you don’t care about etymology, you can instantly understand it as a call to unleash your inner beast. Crunk evokes the instinctive or involuntary things in life that make you go unngh. No songs about shitting yet (surely it’s just a matter of time), but plenty of sex and violence, with the borders between the two blurred: in crunk, the nookie is rough and TLC-free, and the violence is almost voluptuous.


Although he didn’t coin the term “crunk”, Atlanta crunk mogul Lil Jon has trademarked it and turned it into a transmedia empire encompassing everything from CRUNK!!! energy drinks to porno movies to pimp cups sold online. And it’s his productions for Ying Yang Twins, Petey Pablo and Usher that have propelled this regional underground sound into the mainstream. One couplet in “Throw It Up” from Lil Jon’s previous album, 2002’s double-platinum Kings of Crunk, distils the genre’s rapacious worldview into four words: “fuck him/fuck her.”  But “Get Low,” that album’s monstersingle, was the true Crunk manifesto. Linking base desires and bass frequencies, it featured the immortal couplet “til the sweat drips down my balls/’til all these bitches crawl.” We’re talking caveman dragging-the-wife-by-her-hair stuff here, reptile-brain bizniz, life reduced to appetite and aggression, testosterone and adrenalin.

In “Get Lower,” a skit on Lil Jon’s new album, comedian Chris Rock offers a hysterical parody of crunk’s abasement shtick: “get under under, get lower than a pregnant ant’s belly.” Which does introduce the question: how can music with such bass-ic premises as crunk actually progress?

Crunk Juice doesn’t break much with Lil Jon’s winning formula. Rather, staying true to the genre’s binge approach to pleasures, it offers an intensified version of the same old same old. So the beats hit harder, the bass is gnarlier, the lyrics surpass previous peaks of lewd-icrousness, and the rowdy choruses are even more blearily belligerent. Along with synth riffs modeled on house and techno (music Lil Jon first encountered at strip clubs, not raves!), these growly baritone chants are the producer’s hallmark. Layering a single voice to sound like a mob, the effect is in-your-face like a barking blast of bad breath.

“In This Club” is the best example of the standard Lil Jon sound, featuring one of those signature whistling synth refrains as heard on Usher’s “Yeah.” Crunk Juice’s two other killers are less typical. On “Aww Skeet Skeet,” girlish voices chant the X-rated chorus (“skeet” is crunk-speak for ejaculate) over rumbling go-go percussion, like some porno version of the Tom Tom Club. Slow and stealthy, “Da Blow” is a stoner’s anthem: the icy sharpness of the synth melody and the heart-palpitating drum rolls evoke the paranoia zone you enter after one toke too many.

The most strikingly novel aspect is Lil Jon’s newfound Superproducer clout, manifested by the multitude of famous guests: Snoop Dog, Nas, Ice Cube, Pharrell Williams, Ludacris, and Usher (on the inevitable cloying ballad “Lovers & Friends,” a transparent and–in this context–somewhat incongruous attempt to make nice to the ladeez). There are even guest producers on a couple of tracks. The Neptunes offer the nothing-special “Stick That Thang Out”, while Rick Rubin builds on his recent Jay-Z/”99 Problems” comeback with “Don’t Fuck Wit Me”, pivoting around a thrillingly jagged metal riff in classic Def Jam circa 1986 style.

Crunk seems to favor brawn over brains. But it’s not so much stupid music (there’s smarts and even a kind of refinement involved in constructing these brawling rampages) as music whose purpose is to stupefy. The bass, for instance, is a rolling cloud of concussive low-end, a doom-boom sound that’s literally stunning.

What’s slightly eerie about Lil Jon’s music is how, for all the party-up intent, the actual feel of the tracks is dirge-like. It’s a vibe we’ve encountered in rap before, with 50 Cent’s oddly joyless “In Da Club” and the bleak nightlife treadmill grind depicted on Jay-Z’s “Do It Again.” Tilt your ears just a little, and the voices on this album can start to sound like agony, rather than people in the throes of pleasure. For just a moment, Crunk Juice summons to mind a Dirty South update of Dante’s Inferno: sinners tormented according to their vices, gorging on chicken and beer, lap dancers and weed, until gluttony becomes its own kind of punishment. Even though the hallucination passes quickly, and the record becomes “fun” again, this much is clear: Crunkonia might be a great place to visit, but it’s not somewhere you’d really want to live.

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SIMON REYNOLDS is a pop culture critic and author. His books include Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-84 (2005) and Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture (originally 1998; expanded/updated US version due late 2011). His seventh book Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past is published in July by Faber & Faber. Born in London, resident in New York for most of the nineties and all of the 2000s, he now lives in South Pasadena, California, with his wife and two children.

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