Reading the scholarly literature on dudes singing high notes
TO THE NAKED EYE, IT MAY APPEAR THAT: Adam Levine's sweet, sweet falsetto crooning has catapulted Maroon 5's "One More Night" to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for the second week in a row.
BUT ACCORDING TO AN EXPERT WHO THOUGHT VERY HARD ABOUT THIS: It turns out Levine's very, very high singing isn't just a hypnotic siren's call that fans can't get enough of (though specialists agree it's that, too). It's also a deliberate act of cultural defiance.
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In 1995, Anne-Lise François wrote "Fakin' It/Makin' It: Falsetto's Bid for Transcendence in 1970s Disco Highs," a delightful and educational Perspectives of New Music article examining "some of the multiple identities and hidden truths produced by this metaphorically overdetermined vocal technique so prominent in the soul and soul-influenced disco of the mid-to-late 1970s." François, now an associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California-Berkeley, set out to write about disco specifically, of course—but in the process she distilled some of the essentials about falsetto singing by male pop singers.
Even dictionary definitions of falsetto, she writes, suggest that it's "a forced voice of a range or register above the natural," and "an unnaturally or artificially high-pitched voice or register, especially in a man." "Its artifice is inseparable from a presumption to heights, a reaching beyond one's natural limits—call it transcendence." Falsetto, she then explains, can be used as a mechanism for transcending an audience or a listener's expectations of a man's voice, which then lends itself to other kinds of transcendence:
On one level, then, falsetto is merely an extreme and obvious case of what happens with all singing, all performance: you sing in a way you wouldn't talk; falsetto is the voice of exception, crisis, and interruption, if not intervention. But it is also a rhetorical deployment of difference, a staging of an otherness imposed form without by oppressive economic, racial, or gender-based structures.
Falsetto certainly doesn't sound male, but nor does it truly sound female, either. As François points out, falsetto verges on sounding disembodied: "Its alien and alienating effect is still heard at the most intimate level; the sense, when one hears it, is of being alone with it and not having to be anywhere else"—which is also, she says, why falsetto is so sexually powerful.
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AND... ANYTHING ELSE? Yup. "The possibility of ... achieving intimate knowledge in the absence of a visual body—of in effect shifting the epistemic locus from the eyes to the ears—has, of course, tremendous significance for rethinking race and gender in nonessentialist terms." Or, in other words, just like falsetto doesn't sound like one gender or another, it doesn't sound like a specific race, either.
François spotlights Curtis Mayfield, the funk musician best known for composing the score to the 1972 blaxploitation film Superfly, who used falsetto as a means of transcending expectations about race, as well as a whole set of notions about the world, in his song "Future Shock." It was a song, François writes, that warned of "the danger of thinking of the future as a far-off land of dreams and nightmares to come: in the ghetto-world, the future is ever-present and up for grabs on the streets if only as that which is being destroyed." Mayfield scaled the heights of his falsetto range as a way to rise above commonly accepted, prejudiced notions—according to François,
In a world where "the price of meat is higher than the dope on the street," there is no choice but to sing in the register of the other (world). Falsetto is the only way to make oneself heard in a world which is already a lie—the white-owned world which is also that of one's suffering community.
The Bee Gees, on the other hand, began singing in falsetto around the same time they reinvented themselves as "a black-influenced disco group singing in falsetto." For them, it was a way to transcend a notion that disco music couldn't be made by white musicians—which, according to François, then worked as a meta-example of just what was so false about falsetto. "Typically cited as a symptom of disco's 'commercialism' and decadent effacement of the music's 'original' blackness, the Bee Gees confirm, that is, the most obvious sense in which 'falsetto' might signify a false and borrowed voice."
THUS, WE CAN CONCLUDE THAT: Adam Levine is totally fed up with today's oppressive societal norms (true, actually)—so he's taking a stand by singing some really high notes. And he may be inadvertently collecting beautiful bedfellows as an unforeseen consequence.
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