The Nonsensical Truth of the Falsetto Voice:
Listening to Sigur Rós
Chair, Department of Media Culture, The College of Staten Island/City University of New York
For a long time Björk and the Sugar Cubes were the most famous musical force to emerge from Iceland. Distinctive in her phrasing and the howls, whimpers, and tweets of her voice, Björk celebrated her odd vocal qualities and distinctive visual appearance with no apology. In the last two years, another group from Iceland has gathered an international following, although they have been performing together since 1994. They also feature unique vocals and an unmistakable sound. Sigur Rós have cultivated a fan base that is devoted to the mystique of the band, and many writers on popular music have been provoked to new levels of interpretation (see http://www.sigur-ros.co.uk/media/articles.html to read a number of feature articles in major publications in Europe and the U.S.).
In some ways a traditional all-male guitar-based rock quartet, the band has come up with an ingenious form of visual promotion that has served to heighten the mysteriousness and opacity of their music. Their latest album is untitled and all songs are unnamed. Instead they are designated by empty parentheses, ( ). There are no photos of the band and no credits included with the CD. Lyrics are sung in what band singer, Jónsi, insists is a made-up language, named Hopelandish. Fans try their hand at translations on various web sites (e.g. http://www.sigur-ros.co.uk/interact), and upload images they feel represent the band's music at the official band web site (http://www.sigurros.com).
Sigur Rós's music is slow in tempo, a lush mix of ecstasy and melancholia that can build to thunderous symphonic crescendos complete with pounding drums, supplemented by a frantic string section. Guitars are often played by violin bows to stretch out notes tinged with feedback, and simple keyboard chord progressions are embellished by discordant blurbs and bleebs. The melodies are repetitive and folk-like and, in uncanny fashion, sound instantly familiar. And importantly, the vocals are mostly sung in Jónsi's falsetto range.
Many listeners attest that they are brought to convulsive tears by their songs, especially when played live. Indeed the songs are quite moving—and perhaps since most fans don't know exactly what the subject matter of the song is, they can add the mood of the song to their own sorrow or joy. Much of the fascination for the critics apart from the band's origin in exotic Iceland, has centered on the voice of the lead singer and his made up words. This essay uses these elements of Sigur Rós as a starting point to discuss the meanings and relevance of glossolalia (nonsense) and the falsetto voice in contemporary culture.
The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music describes the falsetto as
The falsetto voice then is a high voice with its origin in the head and not in the corpus. It is less "powerful" than the "real" voice of the male, which means that the falsetto can't usually reach the volume of a full voice. (Though Castrati had voices that were stronger than most men's, see, for example, http://www.medieval.org/emfaq/misc/farinelli.htm or http://www.cix.co.uk/~velluti). But what exactly is "false" about the falsetto?
What is missing from this definition is that when the male is using this range, he is confusing gender distinctions. He is entering into tonalities usually designated for women and mimicking a range attributed to women. But the falsettist is not authentically female. It is a form of drag: a vocal masquerade. In this way, the falsetto voice challenges the authenticity of gender-assigned voices. When voices are so strictly assigned to particular bodies, the falsetto becomes transgendered-it moves between binaries of male and female.
Even at is most expressive, the sound of the falsetto can be troubling. Even Wayne Koestenbaum, whose book The Queen's Throat (1993) is a thrilling evocation of homosexual desire and operatic voices, admits that he has
Although Koestenbaum is very much interested in challenging some key notions of gender, he notes that the falsetto is a troubling, almost spectral figure. For him, it seems as if such a figure is akin to a lisping limp-wristed effete that many gay men may wish to repress in their search for cultural acceptance. Normal men are baritones, young heroes are tenors, and evil or older guys are basses.
Of course there are many falsetto voices in pop music that may not provoke such castration anxieties and certainly are not as freakish as Tiny Tim. Influenced by gospel traditions, soul/funk singers such as Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and Curtis Mayfield sang in falsetto and expressed emotions of love, longing, sexual desire, and political discontent. The listeners to Gaye's "What's Going On" (1973) or Mayfield's "Freddie's Dead" (1972) do not necessarily make assumptions about the sexual identity or personae of the singer—singing style is not ipso facto a way to confess to a wayward or freakish masculinity. The use of the falsetto in the recordings of male soul/r 'n' b performers does not reveal identity. Rather it expresses longing; the falsetto displays a dramatic tenderness that was appealing to fans of all genders for a variety of reasons.
Pop singer and impresario Prince also uses his falsetto, and he does so tenderly. He reserves this voice to show emotion and desire in love songs, such as "If I Was Your Girlfriend" (1987), in which he imagines becoming as emotionally close with his lover as her best friend. In so doing, he is picking up on soul traditions and transforming them. His use of the voice fits in with his pansexual personae and adventuresome musicality in which he plays in many genres, tempos, and vocal styles. Using all aspects of his voice matches Prince's publicized personality.
Rock singers, even those as virile as Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones or Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, force their voices into falsetto ranges at moments of great passion too. Think of the great crescendo in the anthem, "Stairway to Heaven" (1971) where Plant moves excitedly into his "false" range. Or imagine Jagger's attempt at sexy soul cooing in "Emotional Rescue." (1980). Neil Young sings so often in his distinctive falsetto that most listeners would not recognize his "real" voice. (The same could be said of Todd Rudgren.) Through this voice, Neil Young is allowed to express a sensitive world-weariness that might not be so easy to accomplish in lower, more "powerful" tones. Yet it never renders him "freakish" or fake. There are a number of recent rock singers who use a falsetto, most notably Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Chris Martin of Coldplay (who jokingly, experiments with inhaling helium during some live performances).
In dance music, openly gay singer Sylvester in the 70s, and later Jimmy Somerville, used the falsetto voice to express not only passion but also political freedom. Their voices exhibited a way of moving beyond restraints, and traditional definitions of masculinity. But make no mistake, their voices expressed lust and had nothing to do with tiptoeing through tulips. Instead their falsetto iterated a kind of affirming cruising on the dance floor. Sylvester sounded "mighty real" in his falsetto, and Somerville articulated a pride in his identity through his vocal choices.
In moving to the higher register, men do not necessarily sound female (some singers who are "naturally" tenors are trained as male sopranists such as Aris Cristofellis, but he too has a manliness to his voice, even it is a nontraditional one). Transposing one's voice to the head from the chest, does not remove the body from the voice. The voice retains, to use Roland Barthes' term, a "physique." Its sound suggests a shape and this shape is neither necessarily hermaphroditic nor pregendered. The contours and muscularity of such voices can be quite sexually enthralling rather than freakish.
In most cultural understandings of the voice, high notes signify passion and evoke drama and excitement for the listener. The falsetto voice does not mimic the female one, but it grants an expressivity to male singers, allowing them to articulate and communicate a frenzy of precise emotions to the auditor. If this is confusing to gender normatives, it is because the male is taught restraint. Thus he must move beyond his "real" voice to his "false" one to express real emotion.
Jón þor (Jónsi) Birgisson in Sigur Rós, who is gay, has a soaring falsetto that harks back to the sound of a boy soprano. His voice has the wistfulness of a child's voice. It is electronically treated at times, and sounds almost otherworldly in its amplified whisper and high nasal tones that can stretch to a plaintive near wail. For all its strangeness and originality, it has what the best of falsetto voices has—the ability to emote, to sound desirous of its listener's response.
Jónsi sings in a made-up language that I think many English-speaking listeners could easily assume is Icelandic. The babble the lyricist makes up is a form of what psycholinguists could deem glossolalia. Many instances of glossolalia are found in religious contexts, such as in the rantings of charismatic Christians (speaking in tongues). Other instances of glossolalia are the utterances or writings of schizophrenics (or in the work of avant-garde poets). Glossolalia, or "semantically and syntactically unintelligible and meaningless vocal utterances" (see the Skeptic's Dictionary at http://skepdic.com), though, can seem like a language because the speaker believes it to be so. Although glossolalia has no grammar and lacks the logic of a "proper" language, it is expressive. This ability to communicate is not located in the meaning of its utterances, but in sound itself. Sound signifies. Sound reveals that all words when sung, descend and extend into onomatopeia, when sound matches meaning.
There is always an element of the glossolaliac's uttererance when one is singing. Singing violates the integrity of words, and slurs and alters speech. Think of all the pop songs that listeners "mishear" and imagine new lyrics. For example, as a child I long thought that when Creedence Clearwater Revival sang "There's a bad moon on the rise" they were singing "Bathroom on the Right." It is hard to make out words in songs. The distance between printed lyrics and sung sounds is great.
In discussing the "grain" of singing voices, Roland Barthes realizes that the voice is in "a double posture, a double production: of language and of music" (269). Singing is an encounter-or a clash-between two systems, and the voice navigates this encounter. One result of this contact is that words become harder to understand and sounds become more evocative. When one is singing, it is easier to indulge in vowel sounds. Consonants are harder to pop out. Hence, vowels become elongated, and the temptation to sing in a melisma (when a syllable is sung using a succession of notes, as in a Gregorian Chant-or a Whitney Houston version of a pop standard!) is great.
In music there are particular evocative moments of pure glossolalia. For example, jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald were known for their scat singing. When she sang in this style, Ella banished words completely and used a self-generated language of sounds. Another example occurs in opera. Coloratura is usually sung in such a high birdsong-like register that it would be difficult to properly enunciate words, and indeed words are eschewed. In these moments, the singer in sound and vocal production. Phonemes (the smallest unit of sound) become morpheme (the smallest unit of meaning). These moments, in which the performer is liberated from the expectation of singing words, are often the most exhilarating and the most communicative.
Meredith Monk, an experimental performer, with a distinctive way of using her voice, also sings in phonemes. She understands that sounds themselves communicate and hence she does not rely on words in her compositions. Monk reminds us that there is a time before the grammar of words. For in the beginning, there was sound not word. Glossolalia instructs us about an aspect of language that all babies using the gibberish of baby-talk intrinsically know (and rely upon)—tone and timbre creates meaning and message. A sound of a word rivals its definition. The noise of expression doesn't always complement the connotation of the word.
Thus Sigur Rós is doubly posed to create and convey sentiment because the singer uses his falsetto and sings glossolalia. The falsetto voice extends a male's voice, moving beyond restraints, harking back to a boy's voice, and reaching forward to a woman's range, without ever sound female. It is a nostalgic, improbable voice, seeped in sentiment. Glossolalia reveals the tension between voice and signification, and exposes the communicativeness of sound itself. The casual listener to Sigur Rós easily becomes an involved one. S/he is listening to made up words and in accepting the meaning of their arrangement in a melody, imagines what the lyrics might mean. This dual dynamic creates a strong emotional correspondence between the band and its listener. This connection is built upon the potential of astute nonsense and verifiable falseness.
That voices are gender-marked at all may be the greater fallacy. Perhaps there should be only ranges of the voice that have no relation to cultural categories of masculinity and femininity or the head and the chest. Such voices could abandon the expectations of speech altogether. But nevertheless these patrolled borders inspire some singers with the impulse to transgress. These trangressions, however odd or "unnatural" sounding they may be, embody an erotic prophesy. This prophesy alerts listeners to the allure of being heard as androgynous, when the "truth" of gender becomes less important than enjoyment of a singer's desirous expression.
 One is duty bound from the get-go to acknowledge Michael Jackson. He uses his falsetto range expertly in often a hiccupping fashion, and yes he does appear to be quite bizarre-of course for complicated reasons, mainstream media searches for ways to display his racial/sexual weirdness and to ensure that his status is as monstrous as his role in the video Thriller (1983).
Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard, "The Grain of the Voice" , in The Responsibility of Forms (Berkley: University of California Press, 1985).
Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queens Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire (New York: Poseidon Press, 1993).
Don Michael Randel, Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978).