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Why We Love "Bad" Voices

Smoky voice blues singer

The lighting is kinda dim in a hazy, smoke filled bar with leather-clad booths and polished wood tables. The floor is permanently sticky with bits of glass still scattered from gallons of cocktails and hundreds of beer bottles swilled and spilled in passion or desperation over the years. This is the kind of place you want to be to face a hard truth you've come up against in your life. Or to drink away the memory of a love gone wrong. With luck there will be a gravelly-voiced blues singer on stage scratching out a story of similar woe, and you'll think "Now that's it. That's what it feels like to be alive". There's just something about the broken, rawness of a croaky growl that sounds more truthful to us. It comes out of a sense of real experience. You imagine all the whisky and cigarettes that went into making it sound like that and the hard life that necessitated such an appetite in the first place. "Yeah, I might feel bad, but that guy/girl really must have had it rough." It's both comforting and reassuring to hear those leathery tones evoke a kind of raw sensuality mixed with vulnerability. Like they're hanging on for dear life, just about to crack, but they're giving the last of what they have in this performance, in this song.

Such is the mystique and the allure of the raspy voice. It's not pretty, nor does it try to be. And that's why we like it. How can you get a voice like that? If you really want a raspy, broken, beat-up, narrow range, rough kind of voice, then traditional (or even beneficial) voice training is not likely what you're going to look for. You want depth and soul, so you are likely to follow in the footsteps of those who have these qualities themselves. Some of the most idolized people in the world are known for their iconic, rough and tumble voices. But are they famous because of their voice or IN SPITE of it?

Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Bono, Joe Cocker, Melissa Etheridge, Iggy Pop, Bryan Adams, Serena Ryder and even the late Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash are all iconic singers with easily recognizable voices that are known for their rough or raspy voices. It's hard to find fault with their artistry. Especially considering an artist like Waits. His voice simply reflects the same rough experience he sings about. And indeed he has always sounded like that. Which adds to his credibility. He's the misanthropic, drunk uncle that really gets us for the misfits and outsiders that we all feel we really are. But we can't all sound like Tom Waits, in fact nobody really can, or should. Few of these artists were ever lauded for their beautiful voices early in their career, but they achieved fame through commitment, good storytelling and honest performances. (Bono's original nickname was Bonovox, taken from the name of a hearing aid store). We have nevertheless come to love these voices and young musicians are inspired to emulate them. But what can we attribute their raspy sound to? Common culprits include smoking, drinking, drug abuse, and the rock'n' roll lifestyle. Such habits are a great way to damage the vocal folds which then makes modulation and tone control more difficult. It also makes speaking a touch more painful, so the speaker tends to be economical with their words. Perhaps there's less energy for bluster so we perceive them to be honest and that sense of truth is what resonates. There are more than a few actors who have also developed their own version of a wrecked voice to make them stand out from the crowd. Think of the voices of Clint Eastwood, Nick Nolte, Harvey Fierstein, Joe Pesci, Joan Rivers, Kristie Alley and wonder how they might have influenced Lindsay Lohan, Scarlet Johansson and Vin Diesel. If we want that kind of sexy toughness, one tool we have to signal this to the world is through the sound of our voices. The edgier our voice, the more we are perceived for having earned it, which is artistic gold.

Of course there's more to the appeal of this sound than the shallow desire to seem deeper. There's also appears to be a biological impulse that encourages men to sound huskier and women to sound breathier because it's sexy! I guess this makes sense. If women are attracted to men with authority and experience, then biologically men are driven do whatever they can to signal those qualities to a potential mate. And if men are attracted to women who are nurturing, then women might be motivated to sound breathier and more soothing. That only really works in a heteronormative, binary environment so it's hardly universal but it gives us a clue about where these ideas come from.

A raspy or hoarse voice is often experienced in times of recovery or fatigue. When we're bleary and tired after an epic night out, or just getting over a cold our voice takes on a deep quality all on it's own. The vocal folds swell up to protect themselves from further damage, limiting our range of vocal expression. Because we feel disconnected from our voice when this happens, we no longer feel capable of putting on a "public voice" because our threshold for strain is so limited. So we don't really try. In some ways "not trying" is comparable to being relaxed, and when we are relaxed the stress naturally goes out of our voice. This is also sometimes called morning voice. Our ears can easily mistake this raspy voice for a relaxed voice which seems cooler, more appealing and more honest.

Taken together, the appeal of sounding sexier, more authentic and more experienced is pretty powerful motivation to get a raspier voice. Even if we know it's unhealthy. Because it's better to be popular than healthy (at least that's how I approached life as a teenager) many of us actively try to develop raspy, broken voices. But there are consequences. For one, vocal nodules are extremely painful. While sounding sexy, it can hurt to swallow anything larger than a pea. Other side effects to damaged vocal folds include excess buildups of fluids and coughing. If your original intention was to sound cool, the incessant coughing and throat clearing might actually reduce your popularity significantly (just ask anyone who has ever sat through a meeting, been on an airplane, or gone to a movie theatre).

Vocal nodules are like sore pimples on your vocal folds. (trust me you don't want to look at a picture of the real thing)

Is there a way around this? Can you have a sexy, authentic and authoritative voice without the bad side effects of vocal damage? Yes. But it might help to invest in some voice or speech training. It's less expensive than years of drug and alcohol abuse (and almost as fun!) The main reason we want to create a voice for effect is that we don't like our 'normal' voice. But what we perceive as our normal voice is not a good benchmark since it's affected by our daily stresses and anxieties. The appeal of the raspy voice is primarily in it's perceived authenticity: a relaxed quality that sounds confident and unaffected. These are the primary benefits of working with a professional on your voice as well. Developing your natural, authentic voice by learning how to relax internally and reduce the effect of stress or habitual strain on your voice will enable you to find a relaxed, authentic quality without causing damage. You can also get more range, better resonance and flexibility. Even though these are not hallmarks of the raspy voice, they may be useful when you need to speak up in public (or to order a drink at the bar).

shouting your drink order in a bar

Maybe you can make good on this "bad" voice after all. Of course what I really mean by "bad" is a voice that sounds truthful and unforced. Does that mean a "good" voice is false and strained? Of course not. Perhaps it's better to think in less in terms of "bad" and "good" but more in terms of degrees of authenticity. If you really want a raspier, edgy voice and you'd rather avoid the vocal tract surgery or throat cancer down the road, then working on vocal authenticity might actually be your best answer. Find a coach who can help you relax your internal throat muscles, re-tune your natural breathing and speaking habits, and find ways your voice can vibrate through all the resonating areas of your body. As Tom Waits has done over the many years of his career, find your own truth and develop your voice from that.

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