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avatar for Deirdre Loughridge

Deirdre Loughridge

Deirdre Loughridge is Assistant Professor of Music, and affiliate faculty in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, at Northeastern University. Her first book, Haydn’s Sunrise, Beethoven’s Shadow: Audiovisual Culture and the Emergence of Musical Romanticism (University of Chicago Press, 2016), won the 2017 Kenshur prize for outstanding monograph in eighteenth-century studies. Her current book project, “Sounding Human,” explores how music has been used to define the nature of, and relationships between humans and machines from the eighteenth century to today.

“On Sounding (Not) Like a Person in 2016”
“A lot of people don’t want to sound like people anymore,” Washington Post music critic Chris Richards observed of pop radio in summer 2016. The three songs he chose to exemplify this phenomenon - Rihanna/Calvin Harris’s “This is What You Came For,” Kiiara’s “Gold,” and Zara Larsson/MNEK’s “Never Forget You” – all feature a female singer whose voice is digitally sliced and processed to defy the possibilities of an organic body. Richards’s take on these vocals seems decidedly rearguard: for well over a decade, scholars and critics such as Kay Dickinson, Joseph Auner and Ann Powers have used feminist theories of the cyborg to make sense of the cultural work done by highly processed pop vocals; at the same time, increasingly mainstream arguments that we are “natural-born cyborgs” (Andy Clark) or “all cyborgs now” (Amber Case) suggest hearing processed vocals as in fact expressive of what it is to be a person. That Richards instead hears “varying degrees of dehumanization” points to ways in which musical hybridizations of human and machine are falling short of the cyborg’s feminist promise. Though Richards glosses over gender difference, the “people” he refers to are in fact female singers collaborating with male producers, and it is not so straightforward who among these parties is getting to sound the way they want. Kiiara’s “Gold” producer Felix Snow, for instance, calls making vocals sound like a computer and vice versa integral to all his current music, but looks forward to “the computer doing all of the singing” (2016 interview at Kick Kick Snare) – a desire that transmutes boundary troubling into eagerness to render the people who wield female voices obsolete. It thus remains essential to listen critically not only for what sounds like a person, but also for the different statuses and relationships that gender makes.