We're Gonna Have a Conversation About Vocal Fry, Dammit.
I might piss some people off by writing this, but you know what? Good. Because I'M pissed, and I have been for quite some time now. See, there is this stupid non-issue that people in my immediate circle keep making an issue, and each day that I hear the term “vocal fry” with its accompanying complaints, I want to run around in the streets screaming and pulling my hair out in the most annoying creaky voice I can muster.
Now, I realize that there are bigger problems in the world: dying children, climate change, rampant racism that still violently claims the lives of innocent people on the reg….all of those things are horrible, so why am I whining about how someone talks for frack’s sake? How does that matter AT ALL in the grand scheme of things? Well four people who read my blog, that is the point of this post: to explain why something so seemingly insignificant is indicative of a larger problem.
A little back story. Very little, I promise. First, I am a woman. Second, I use my voice for a living. End of back story. Now, those two things are seemingly inoffensive, yes? But put them together and suddenly, people become hyper-critical of really stupid things like vocal fry. Why? Well, maybe people want women to sound a certain way, to fit into yet another arbitrary gender norm. Or maybe some people really just don’t like to hear women speak at all. Maybe both! Who knows?? Let’s discuss, and hey! Let’s keep it fun by organizing the arguments in listicle form, eh? Hopefully that will keep the interest of my three blog readers (I’m sure I lost one with “I am a woman”).
1. WHAT IS VOCAL FRY?
Don’t try to skip this section thinking that you already know the answer to this question, because some people THINK they understand the concept when they really do not. Vocal fry (also referred to as creak or glottal fry) is a term used to explain the vibrating noises emitted when speaking or singing, usually when using a lower register. (more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vocal_fry_register)
More often than not, when people complain about vocal fry, what they are actually complaining about is a speaking trend that is most common among young women that is a combination of forced vocal fry, stretching out words (especially at the end of phrases), and upspeak. Sometimes a little bit of a California accent is thrown in there as well. Most people use Kim Kardashian as their main example for this type of speaking. Kinda sounds like this: "She definitelyyyyyyyyy? talks like thiiiiiiiiiiiissss?" Add lots of glottal noises in those multiple y’s and i’s and you’ve got it, but just do an internet search for “Kim Kardashian vocal fry” if you want to hear exactly what I am referring to. People complain about this type of speech because they say it makes women sound dumb (more on that later). However, vocal fry is something separate from that combo of things (again, more on that later), and that is the specific type of speech I want to discuss.
2. IT'S A WOMAN PROBLEM.
THIS...is what makes me MAD. Very few people are complaining about the way MEN speak, and guess who are the biggest group of vocal fry perpetrators on the planet?? You guessed it! MEN!!!
Okay. Here is where I use an actual human man to make my point, and that human man happens to be someone I respect and love greatly: my father. Luckily, we’re family so he still has to love me. (Right…? RIGHT?!?)
My father, like me, is a voice actor. He has had a long, prosperous, well-regarded (even won some awards!) career. Dad is one of those male voice actors that can do that big, booming, announcer voice. He does other things too, but that is sort of his claim to fame. When he uses that big, booming, highly sellable voice, he uses a lot of, you guessed it, VOCAL. FRY. You can hear it in almost every recording he does. Want an example? Go here and listen to my very talented father kill these reads with his amazing but vocal fry-filled voice: http://www.patduke.com/m/narration.html
Wasn’t that a fun listen? But, ahem, back to ME, the woman in the family. When I use vocal fry, I get criticized for it. Now, to be fair, I rarely get this criticism from Dad, probably because the type of speech he actually dislikes is the Kim K combo style, which I do not do. I do not use upspeak, I do not stretch out my words, and I do not have a California accent. However, I HAVE ABSOLUTELY gotten a note from him before that a certain read contained “too much vocal fry”. That read happened to be for a show promo about murder, so yeah, I reached down into my lower register, unknowingly producing more vocal fry, in order to achieve a darker quality to my voice that I felt fit the script. Had a man given that read, no one would have even bothered to notice the vocal fry. So, in this particular case, yes, I affected my voice to have more fry, but my regular, everyday speaking voice does contain a hearty amount of natural vocal fry. As does Dad’s. However, when I brought this up (just this morning!), Dad claimed that his voice was just naturally that way. He referred to it as “whisky voice”. Eh….cute, but….no. His claim is that a certain type of lower raspy voice is different from vocal fry, which he says is an affectation. Which leads me to my next point….
3. IT'S AN AFFECTATION.
Sure, it can be. Just like speaking in a certain register can be an affectation, or NOT speaking creakily can be an affectation. I’m not unfamiliar with affectations, since obviously I have to affect my voice in all sorts of ways in my line of work. But just like a higher or lower register or an accent can be put on, some of those things are just the way people talk. Let me be more clear: the way PEOPLE talk. Not. Just. Men. Some women have natural vocal fry in their regular, everyday speaking voices (myself included). Some men do as well (my father included). Some men exaggerate it on occasion (my father included). Some women exaggerate it on occasion (myself included). Moving on.
4. VOCAL FRY GETS LUMPED IN WITH UPSPEAK.
The vocal fry debate is usually lumped in with another speaking phenomenon called upspeak. So much so that some people confuse the two. Upspeak is when people (again, read: not just women) end their sentences with an upward inflection as if they are asking a question when they are actually making a statement. Vocal fry and upspeak are two entirely different things, but they get lumped in together because they are two different vocal affectations that women (usually young women) get complaints about. Upspeak IS an affectation. It’s an affectation that can become a habit, and then it becomes just “how people speak”. The big difference between upspeak and vocal fry is that while men are the bigger perpetrators of vocal fry, women tend to be the ones using upspeak more often. The biggest complaint about the overuse of upspeak (and in turn, vocal fry, since they get lumped together) is….
5. IT MAKES YOU SOUND STUPID.
or unsure of yourself, which some people translate to mean you are dumb. Sigh…..but since upspeak and vocal fry get lumped in together (even though really, when you think about it, they are actually kind of the complete opposites of each other), the big complaint is that women sound stupid when they speak this way. So now, even self-proclaimed feminists are complaining about this. They’re saying, “Hey, women! You’re not dumb! Don’t talk like you are! Death to vocal fry!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Okay. Nice thought. But did you ever think that maybe some women feel like they need to speak this way? That there are so many women out there that are taught that they shouldn’t worry about what’s in their brains as much as what’s in their bras? I know that I have definitely received the message that men are the ones to be heard, while women should keep their mouths shut and make babies and clean kitchens. Of course, I have rebelled against this for decades and choose to only surround myself with men (and women) who respect that I have a brain in my head and that goddammit, I’m gonna use it. So how about we change this convo to something more like….Hey, partriarchy! Maybe stop trying to convince women that their brains don’t matter and women won’t try to sound unintelligent!!
6. VOCAL FRY WILL HURT YOUR CHANCES OF GETTING WORK.
Doesn’t being a woman already hurt your chances of getting work? (HA! Too bitter?) Maybe it’s true that when women use the famous Kim K combo, some people may take them to be less capable, but I doubt that vocal fry alone has that much of an impact, and in my case, I would argue that it actually HELPS my career. This may be getting too far into my niche audience of female voice actors (am I down to 2 readers yet?), but hey, talented ladies, how many times have we seen “a little rasp” in our script specs lately? I see it all the time, and I don’t think it means “We really want someone who sounds like they’ve been smoking for 50 years.” It means they might like to hear a bit of vocal fry. I think the natural creak to my voice actually wins me jobs. Case in point, my most recent booking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQV-LJGEmqE
Hear that fry on the ends of my sentences? Well, guess what? Those weren’t the only reads I gave. I gave a variety of interpretations of that script, some with far less vocal fry than the reads they ended up choosing. The client WANTED that fry. They LIKED the fry. They put that fry on the air and paid me for it. Don't like it? Well then, I'm sorry it offends you. Oh wait, no I'm not. Not at all.
7. THE YOUNG VS OLD DEBATE.
I’ve read a lot of theories about how people over 40 are the ones annoyed by vocal fry, and that people under 40 find it inoffensive. I’d like to address this just because it is something I have seen used as an explanation for why the vocal fry debate exists, and I think it is skirting the real issue. It may be true that older people have a bigger problem with it than younger people do. Honestly, I have heard far more people over 40 than under 40 complain about it, and I am certain there is some validity to it. Of course, people get old and become out of touch with trends and love the good ole days and all that….right? No, not necessarily. That just generalizes another group. It turns a sexist issue into an ageist one. Some people over 40 will like younger speech patterns, most won’t notice, and some will complain. People under 40 will do the same. This is an irrelevant observation. (You’re welcome, Dad.)
8. IT'S HARD ON YOUR VOICE.
Eh. Nah, not really, yo. There is SOME evidence to suggest this but not that much. Really, it only hurts your voice if you do it for like, hours on end, and you're forcing it. If you have natural vocal fry in your voice, it's probably not doing much damage. If you force your voice into a lower register for an extended period of time, you can hurt it, sure. You can also hurt your voice by talking too loudly and/or whispering. But if you do those things too much, usually all you need is a little rest and TLC to get your voice back to normal. Obviously, I have dealt with this in my career, especially in audio books. If I have to do a male voice, I tend to use much more vocal fry, since I am pushing my voice down into the low end of my register. If I am reading a male part for hours, of course my voice will get tired, and I have to take a break. So if it starts to feel weird, I stop. Most non-voice actor peeps who use vocal fry in every day speak are not doing it NEARLY enough to cause any real damage. So get over it.
You know what? There are lots of other things I could say about this, since it literally comes up every single day. But I'm tired of writing. Chalk it up to the laziness of youth, along with my lazy speech patterns. Nah, just kiddin! I'm almost 35, guys! That's not so young, is it?? Seriously, though, my eyes hurt, so I'm gonna wrap this up. Any questions? Comments? Throw 'em at me. PHEW! It feels so good to finally get all that out....