Abstract of Hannah Bosma's paper presented at the Feminist Theory and Music 5 conference in London, July 9 1999:


Many people dislike Madonna's voice. However, I will discuss Madonna's vocals in different terms, relating it to the stereotypical vocal gender patterns in Western culture as discussed by Kaja Silverman, Michel Poizat and Joke Dame, and to the theories of Julia Kristeva about the "symbolic" and the "semiotic". By analyzing the vocal delivery and the relation between text and melody, it will be shown how power, control and symbolic agency are important aspects of Madonna's vocals.

The relation between power and vocal performance is central in Simon Frith's criticism of Madonna's voice on her album Erotica. While he regrets that she sounds so "in control", I will argue that from a feminist point of view this control is understandable and perhaps desirable. I will lay bare the stereotypical heterosexual assumptions of Frith's "vocal erotics".

Madonna's voice is not "wild", "intense", "direct" and "immediate". She plays with many different voices and thereby keeps her distance, gaining power and authorial subjectivity. This is especially clear on Erotica. It is an interesting and appealing aspect of her vocal work that is neglected by Frith and others.

However, like Frith, I also often miss the emotional intensity in Madonna's voice that can be so heartbreaking and impressive in some female singing voices. This dilemma between "masculine" symbolic power on the one hand and the lure of "feminine" emotionality on the other hand is a vital dilemma for feminism.

With her latest album Ray of Light, Madonna has arrived in a new phase, combining control, power, release and vulnerability, in her lyrics as well as in her vocals.