paper presented at Feminist Theory and Music 5 conference, London 1999

Patricia Pisters and Hannah Bosma wrote the book Madonna: De vele gezichten van een popster. It is an interdisciplinary study of Madonna's work, sometimes relating it to broader cultural contexts, sometimes we discuss a piece or a fragment of Madonna's work in detail. Each chapter has a theme. The first chapter is about the issue of high and low culture in relation to Madonna's work, a chapter about feminist interpretations of Madonna, there is a chapter about Madonna's music, a chapter about Madonna and stardom, a chapter about Madonna's film Truth or Dare, a whole chapter consists of a close reading of the music, lyrics and video of "Justify My Love", and the last chapter is about Madonna's voice. Madonna's voice is also the subject of Hannah Bosma's paper here.


"A great deal of ink has been spilled in the debate over pop star Madonna's visual image and the narratives she has enacted for music video. [...] What most reactions to Madonna share, however, is an automatic dismissal of her music as irrelevant.", Susan McClary remarked in her book Feminine Endings, in 1991. I would like to add: Most reactions to Madonna also share a dislike of Madonna's voice. Is Madonna's voice therefor irrelevant? Unlikely, since her singing voice is a substantial, important element of the largest, most important and most succesfull part of her work: her songs, and therefor also her musicvideoclips. What is at stake in the dismissal of Madonna's voice?

off key

Surely , in some of her performances Madonna sometimes definitely sings off key, as we can witness in the videoregistration of her Who's That Girl show. As you can see on the video, Madonna is so busy with dancing and running and moving, that it seems to have been almost impossible to sing well. Clearly, the priority of this show is not to present really good singing or even really good dancing; it's priority seems to "tell", to convey meaning, to present a show instead of a singing or dancing performance, and the show also seems to convey a sense of energy in the first place.

And how important is Madonna singing off key in a few shows, compared to her thirteen albums and many singles and remixes in which her singing is of course well-produced? Does it matter how many rehearsals and production work was needed to get these clean results?

Girlie Voice

It is not this singing off key that causes the dismissal of Madonna's voice, I think. More often, her "thin voice" is criticized and she is called "Minnie Mouse on Helium". Thin and high - does Madonna have a "Girlie Voice"?

Instead of talking about Madonna's voice in terms of either good or bad, I would like to discuss her voice here in relation to stereotypical vocal gender patterns in Western culture. In this way, we will hear much more in her voice. We will also see that these ideas about a good or bad voice are in fact strongly related to ideas about gender.

To start with Madonna's "thin, high" voice first. In fact, from her earliest recordings on, her voice is not always thin and high. Mostly, her voice is in the pitch range of speech. Sometimes, we can hear her sing with a rather raw, rauceous voice. But obviously, in some of her most wellknown hitsongs her voice sounds rather high and "girlish"; for example: "Lucky Star", "Holiday", "Into The Groove". But what's wrong with a girlie voice? What's wrong with sounding like a virgin?

Humans have a large potential of possible pitches for their speaking voice. But due to different mean sizes of their vocal folds, vocal pitch is for women in general higher than for men. Of course, there are also cultural influences that make women speak higher than men - a difference that is perceived as "just natural". But several studies of speech behavior also show that in Western culture high speaking voices are in general taken less seriously than lower voices; thus: female speaking voices are taken less seriously than male speaking voices - regardless of what is being said. In conjunction with this is the tendency of Western career women to lower their voice, as research showed. Although there are of course certain biological restraints in vocal possibilites, fortunately women (and of course also men) still have a wide pitch range to choose from. However, by lowering their voices, these career women reinforce the stereotype that power and a low voice go together.

A similar stereotype can also be found in rock music. Women with low, raw, raucous voices are perceived as strong, sexy, wild and intense. Their voices seem to witness an intense, wild life with lots of sex, drugs and alcohol. They are one of the boys.

Madonna's girlie voice can be considered as a statement against this stereotype. Like other humans, Madonna has a vast pitch area to choose from, and different songs of her witnesss this. (As some very old recordings of Madonna in the band Emmy suggest; and also in parts of other songs we hear that Madonna can also sing with other voices than her girlie voice, like for example in parts of "Burning Up", "Waiting", "Till Death Do Us Part". But often, Madonna chooses the kind of voice girls normally have, as in "Express Yourself", "I Know It", "Borderline", "Burning Up", "Think Of Me", "Everybody". But Madonna has the power girls normally don't have. Madonna is superpopstar, co-producer, co-composer, one of the richest women in the world and manager of her bussiness. Madonna decides what she does and with whom she wants to work. Also in her songs, videoclips and shows, Madonna conveys that she is in charge: that she knows what she does and does what she wants. In her songs, she commands her lovers as well as her public. Madonna shows that one can have both a girlie voice and power too.


Moreover, Madonna often seems to have chosen her girlie voice for particular reasons. Two of her songs in which her voice resembles Minnie Mouse on Helium the most, "Material Girl" and "Like a Virgin", are clearly very ironic and playful. In "Like a Virgin", the songtitle already says it all. In the musicvideoclip, we see Madonna dancing sexy, dressed in white as a bride as well as dressed in black as a streetgirl. In "Material Girl", Madonna sings that she only wants boys who have money; but in the video, she throws the expensive present away and chooses the man who gives her a few simple flowers. In this musicvideoclip, Madonna also performs as a Marilyn Monroe lookalike, making fun with and exerting power over a group of men by picking their jewelry and throwing it away. The irony and playfulness of these songs is not only conveyed by the musicvideoclips; it can also be heard in Madonna's vocal delivery. In general, irony is expressed by a voice through exaggerating the vocal delivery, by playing a role with the voice, and often by using an abnormal high (or sometimes low) voice. This is what she is doing when Madonna sings as Minnie Mouse on Helium.


Irony implies a distance between what is said and what is meant. Distance is also in many other songs essential for Madonna's vocal delivery. Her singing never seems an immediate emotional cry; it seems always selfconscious. She never seems to "let go", but always seems to stay in control. Or, as Simon Frith says: "she can only sing with a sense of caution", "because she must be in (musical) control".

In 1992, Madonna's album Erotica was released. This album is for the most part produced by Madonna and Shep Pettibone together. In his essay about Madonna's album Erotica, Simon Frith explains that for him, the quality of New York disco and dance music of Shep Pettibone and others, lies in the tension between singer and producer: in the way the producer seems to control the singing voice. Frith refers to: "the voice swelling demandingly around the beat, the singer pulling herself together again each time the producer broke her lines up into a tumble of urgent fragments." According to Frith, "The essence of the New York disco sound was the anonymity of its voices". Frith goes on: " These dance records were all ballads of sexual dependency, and their emotional effect was pointed up by the studio reality of the singers' dependency. The more powerful the disco diva, the more heart-stopping her vulnerability to producer trickery; New York disco meant assertion of control in situations - love, sex, and in the studio - in which singers had none." To state the obvious: there is a very traditional, stereotypical, heterosexual gender pattern in Frith's vocal erotics which I find difficult to celebrate.

Of course, Madonna's voice is not anonymous, and she always seems in control. Frith notes: "If the classic disco singer was held in by her producer, Madonna holds herself back and in doing so also holds back the rythm." Frith regrets this: for him, Erotica is problematic in this respect. For Frith, a male producer controlling an anonymous strong female voice is more sexy than Madonna controlling her self and her own songs. And as for me, I too love the big strong virtuoso voices. But I get sick and tired of all those cliché dance tracks in which female voices are expressing ecstacy and emotional intensity while male producers and dj's are in control of sound and technology. Madonna certainly is not a virtuoso singer in the traditional sense. But against the background of this stereotypical gender pattern of ecstatic feminine vocal virtuosity controled by masculine technological display, I perceive in Madonna's songs other vocal qualities that are inspiring and are worth listening to.

vocal masquerade

Frith states that: "Madonna's most obvious solution to her lack of vocal range is her constant shift of voice". Indeed, there are many different voices of Madonna in the song of Erotica. However, I don' want to consider this as "a solution to her lack of vocal range", as Frith says. [Even Frith says also that "technical failures of a voice needn't matter to a producer; it's not difficult to fake vocal feeling". And let's listen to Madonna's voice for its own sake, instead for what it is not.] Madonna's different voices are comparable to her play with different looks: a vocal masquerade. Madonna also uses her voice in an ironic way again, for example in "Bye Bye Baby". Instead of revealing her so-called "deepest inner self" in her voice, Madonna plays with her voice and manipulates it. Distance again, between "Madonna" and her "voice"; between the singing subject and the subject of singing. Madonna is not the same as her voice; Madonna is the one who manipulates her voices. In "Erotica", this is very clear, because we hear several different voices of hers in the same song. But "listening back", we can hear that she never had "one particular voice-sound" but that she delivered different voices in different songs. Compare for example the ironic "Material Girl" (or "like a Virgin") with "You abandoned me" on the same album Like a Virgin. Or: "Like a Prayer", "Express Yourself", "Promise to try", "Vogue", "Justify my love", "Rescue me", Human Nature", "Bedtime Story".

speaking instead of singing

Madonna is not a virtuosic singer in the traditional sense. She never seems to deliver the stylized "cries", the non-verbal high notes, long tones or coloratura, that fill male listeners with jouissance, as Michel Poizat described in his study of opera. Madonna's vocal lines are very close to speech: every word is carefully articulated, the words are clearly understandable, and the pitches resemble the speech melody of the sentences. Frith describes this as: "any sense of passion is flattened by the nervous care Madonna devotes to the articulation of the words." However, I would like to say that in this way, Madonna breaks with the western vocal tradition in which female non-verbal utterances have a special role and in which male voices are more speaking and have more to tell, as described by Michel Poizat, Kaja Silverman, Joke Dame and Barbara Bradby. (This vocal gender pattern can be heard in 19th century opera, in Hollywood films, in contemporary house / dance music and in avantgarde electronic music.) House-dance music originally was purely electronic, without any vocals. But when it became more popular, female singing voices and sometimes male speaking voices were added. Often the female voices deliver cries, short sentences and wordless melodic lines. But when Madonna's music is in the style of house-dancemusic (on the album Erotica), Madonna has a lot to tell, each song has many stanza's in a speechlike style. And these texts are certainly worth attention (but that would be a topic for another paper). Madonna's tales are not about female abandonment. Even on an album called Erotica, unexpectedly Madonna mostly sings about rejecting lovers, about selflove and about being in control.

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.

symbolic order

Madonna's songs are far more on the side of the symbolic than on the side of the semiotic, more fenotext than genotext (I use the terms "symbolic" and "semiotic" of Julia Kristeva and "fenotext" and "genotext" of Roland Barthes here, following Joke Dame.) Clearly articulated text, one note per syllable, no glissando's, no gliding and smearing, no cries, no sighs, no sounds "between the notes", no sounds "between the words", all language, all signs. (In a chapter of our book, I also argue that Madonna's music is also more on the side of the symbolic order than on the side of the semiotic.) Against the historical background in which women are outside societal power positions and are not fully associated with the symbolic order, this kind of female control seems to be a "condition féministe". In this way, the sense of control, power and distantiation that Madonna evokes with her voice, with her music and with her lyrics, becomes understandable and perhaps also desirable.


But Madonna's control also seems to hold back her voice. For a voice to get a full sound, the singer needs to have a good balance between energy and relaxation, between control and letting it go. And the same is true for rythm, for swing. Too much control in the form of tension paradoxically results in singing out of tune, in rigidity, in stiffness and in a small voice. 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.

Is the assertion of power and control enough? Being out of control is not only the essence of victimization - it is an essential aspect of life too. Music, like life, consists of the interplay of control and abandonment, of the symbolic and the semiotic, of order and indeterminacy, of discipline and noise. Male artists often are at the same time concerned with systems and order as well as with freedom, madness, noise, indeterminacy and the subversion of systems - which they often, but not always, project on women and the feminine. Moreover: one needs a good psycho-social position to feel the security and freedom to be able to be relaxed, flexibel, free and vulnerable. Why can't women have it both ways? Is it desirable to be tense and rigid instead of out of control? Is female abandonment possible without hysteria? Can women "let go" without being powerless? Other, younger female composer-vocalists like Björk and Alanis Morissette indeed show that that is possible. And with her 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. On Ray of Light, Madonna's voice sounds more relaxed, singing glissando's and melisma's, oh's and mmm's as well as texts about control and about deliberately losing control, changing, traveling, running, swimming to the ocean floor, crashing to the other shore, walking on a thin line, flying quicker than a ray of light. But Madonna is not losing power and control, Madonna is singing ànd speaking and has a lot to tell, again; on the last track Madonna is speaking, telling a story about live and death.