The Creaky Voice is everywhere. At least half (my estimate) of all American women speak with a rasp, rattle or gargle, a groggy or gravelly voice. It might have already spread to your family. If not, you probably know someone who speaks with the Creaky Voice.
- How the Creaky Voice started
- Implications for our culture
What is the Creaky Voice?
This video shows you
"Creaky Voice" is an actual term created by linguists. (You can't make this stuff up.) You will find a Wikipedia link below. Here is a professional woman using the typical Creaky Voice.
The Cringe Factor
Am I the only one who doesn't get this voice?
It's hard to imagine anyone thinking Lindsay's voice is an asset. It sounds like she's sitting in a motorized lounger. Her creak is far from the worst example. Women afflicted with the Creaky Voice sound tentative and immature, while others sound unbearably harsh and grating. Lots of people must find it pleasing. Otherwise, the creak wouldn't be so popular.
The Creaky Voice could be the new standard. Maybe I'm just out of step. I find the voice so odd that it makes me wonder what's going on. Does it signal a retreat from feminism? A transition to a New Feminism? Why are women abandoning a clear, authoritative voice for a quavering rattle?
Can People Help How They Talk?
Am I taking unfair shots at people who can't help how they talk? I believe the Creaky Voice is an affectation. It's a fad similar to irresistible expressions that are all the rage: "At the end of the day," "Having said that," "LOL," and so on. It's mass mimicry, copycat contagion. People want to spend the common currency of everyday communication. If you move to Texas, you could find yourself talking with a twang just to fit in.
Linguists call the Creaky Voice "vocal fry" for a reason. You'll fry your vocal cords and the nerves of those who have to listen to you.
I know a voice-over artist with a beautiful voice. She can switch to the Creaky Voice any time she wants. She warns that women who persist in using the Creaky Voice can develop unhealthy nodules on their vocal cords. To achieve the creak, she has to force an unnatural "glottal" or throaty voice that causes and unwelcome strain. "Just to sound cute?" She says. "It's not worth it."
How Did This Start?
Or, Where have you gone, Sally Kellerman?
Your intrepid investigator traces the creak back to its source
I've been cringing a lot lately. The media are saturated with the Creaky Voice. Dreadful creaky marauders have apparently driven silken-voiced Sally Kellerman from the voice-over racket. So many women in the media use the Creaky Voice, I wondered where it started. There has to be an uber-cool alpha chick out there with such an infectious voice that everyone wants to copy it. Which cultural icon can we blame? Katie Couric? Hillary Clinton?
As a service to readers, I assigned myself a mission: Identify the transcendent trendsetter who started the craze. I listened to clips of Friends, Desperate Housewives, Sex and the City, and MTV. In the interest of observing social trends, I even suffered through an episode of America's Next Top Model. I audited countless clips of prominent women. My quest led to such icons as Madonna, Princess Di, J-Lo, the Olsen Twins, Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, and Margaret Thatcher.
The Early Years
Elmer Fudd started it all back in the 1940s. Blythe Danner (Gwyneth Paltrow's mom) and reporter Cokie Roberts are creaky pioneers. They were creaky before it was cool.
The Clinton Era
Comedians made careers giving impressions of Bill Clinton's famous creak. Bill brought the creak out of the vocal backwoods and gave it new respectability. Notable creakers like Eddie Murphy and John Travolta didn't sound so pretentious anymore.
My first thought was the movie Valley Girl. I rented a copy. Nope. The girls all sound pretty normal. In fact, they really don't sound much like the Valley Girl stereotype.
A better movie for sampling trendy voices and speech mannerisms is American Pie (1999). A box-office smash, the movie undoubtedly influenced millions of young women affect a Perky Chirp (see below).
Henry Kissinger's baritone rattle sounds like a disorder, as does Joan Rivers's daffy rasp. Disordered voices are difficult to copy, so I can't give credit to Henry or Joan for starting the craze. I think every kid tried to copy Froggy on The Little Rascals. Some of us learned a lesson: Just be yourself.
Trendy Voice Pioneers
Herve Villechaize (Fantasy Island) was a trendy-voice pioneer. The mimicry may not be intentional, but millions of women now vocalize like Villechaize. What's more, the name of his character (Tattoo) anticipated the body art craze.
Fran Drescher brilliantly affected a grating, cringe-inducing voice for her hit TV show The Nanny. Who knew so many women would take her example and run with it? Compared to today's typical female voice, the Nanny sounds angelic.
A woman's deep, raspy voice is thought to be "sultry." Kathleen Turner has one of Hollywood's most alluring sultry voices. The gravelly tones supposedly give men visions of sexual nirvana. Followed by a quick stab of terror that you've gone to bed with a MAN!
Billy Mays is reviled in some quarters for trying to be the ultimate obnoxious TV pitchman. I have news for you. Billy Mays (RIP) was merely reflecting the media culture, not influencing it. Tabloid TV has forgotten more about being annoying and irritating than Billy Mays ever knew.
And the Winner Is--Marge Simpson!
It has to be Marge Simpson. She's the only cultural icon with enough pull to make women start using a rattle that sounds something like saws cutting through logs, tires going over raised lane markers, an outboard motor, or a spinning wheel of fortune.
This marks the first time in history that a cartoon character has influenced an entire generation of women to change their voice.
A New Feminism?
Since the early days of the Feminist Movement, women have experimented with components of the female image. Some of you may be too young to recall a period when large numbers of women refrained from shaving their legs or armpits. They shunned the use of bras, girdles, and pantyhose. For a while, makeup was verboten.
With a tip of the bonnet to feminism, today's woman assumes an imposing tripartite name when she marries. By tacking her husband's surname onto hers, she can be traditional and modern! I have to admit, a long tonguetwister name like "Eva Longoria Parker" has that perfect touch of gravitas today's woman needs.
Tattoos and body piercings are compulsory for the modern woman. Technology has empowered enhancement on every front: contact lenses in designer hues, liposuction, implants, botox, cosmetics, and plastic surgery. With every aspect of the female image optimized, there was little left to improve. Except the voice. Today's trendy voice is the Perky Chirp. It's a whiny warble with Valley Girl overtones on a creaky base.
Is the Creaky Voice the latest step in an evolving feminism? The voice is soft, non-threatening, acquiescent. It suggests easy familiarity and closeness. Women have decided a twerpy sound is better than a resonant womanly voice.
On the other hand, if the voice is raised for emphasis, the Creaky Voice's evil twin emerges: A brassy, strident utterance like the blood curdling caterwaul of financial adviser Suze Orman. You want to cover your ears. It's as if women have decided shouting equals persuasion. When a woman shouts it can be an ear-splitting shock wave, like the piercing prattle of Sarah Palin. In my professional life, I've encountered numerous women who raise their voice to assert themselves. As the volume increases, the pitch become shrill and dissonant. I would advise any professional woman to get voice training. It's possible to pump up the volume without assaulting listeners with "a voice that could strip the paint off the door."
Members of Northwestern University's national championship women's lacrosse team sparked a furor when they wore flip-flops to meet President Bush at the White House. One of the team members said she hadn't given it a second thought. The incident awakened the nation to the notion that Generation Y is now shaping society, for good or ill. They've developed a fresh take on the stodgy decorum of their elders. They have little regard for formality, including formal communication.
Everyday face-to-face communication is diminishing in value. The really meaningful exchanges are conducted on Facebook, Twitter or by texting. You can have a broad network of friends you have never seen much less met. There is less need for interpersonal skills. An unflattering voice is not a hindrance of any kind. Young women are now free to use the voice as a casual fashion accessory, like the flip-flop. If a pleasant voice is not important to them, who am I to complain?
Have I Unfairly Singled Out Women?
My research led me to watch a few minutes of the reality show The Bachelor. It's a creaky showcase. I was shocked to see that not only does the bachelor himself use an Elmer Fudd voice but so does his entire family! More and more men in the media are going creaky. It won't be long before those of us with an ordinary voice will be outnumbered.
If it isn't just a chick thing then my theories about feminism are a crock. It means that communication styles are merging. Men and women have stumbled upon a unisex creak that strikes just the right tone for the 21st Century: a bland monotone, a feeble, non-threatening rattle with every sentence trailing off like a Harley receding in the distance.
Combining a stylish creak with a voice that is already harsh, rasping, brassy, piercing, or grating sends the cringe quotient into the stratosphere. You can't watch TV or listen to the radio for more than a minute or two without hearing voices that make cicadas sound like meadowlarks. Pleasing voices like Kellerman's are out. The View is a great show for sampling trendy voices. You get Perky Chirp (Elisabeth) as well as gravelly and croaky (Whoopi and Joy), not to mention Barbara's droning yammer. Perky Chirp is a variant of the Adorable Warble many women have adopted. The Adorable Warble isn't for everyone, however. Some women who attempt it end up with the Grating Gargle, a harsh, throaty voice with a scrapey, metallic sound like the nightmarish industrial noise from Eraserhead.
The Worst Creak
You're probably wondering: In all my hours of research, did I find a voice I really couldn't stand? Even if you didn't wonder, I'll announce my choice anyway: Drew Barrymore! She talks like the Valley Girl stereotype. With the ahs, ums, butuhs, y'knows, likes, and the uptalk*, she's really tough to listen to.
* Uptalk: The practice of ending sentences with a rising inflection? As if asking a question? It's become very popular? Combined with the Creaky Voice, the cringe factor doubles? Do I sound like I know what I'm talking about?
A Cavalcade of Cringe
Those with day jobs are lucky enough to steer clear of the financial news channels (Fox Business, CNBC, and Bloomberg). These outlets are setting the standard for infotainment, so expect more programs that make Billy Mays sound like Fred Rogers. Here's the concept: financial news is so boring, we'll package it like a WWE smackdown. A winning formula, apparently. Booya!
It's no accident that Brian Williams, a veteran of CNBC's stable of shouters, took over the NBC Nightly News. The classy, low-key delivery of Huntley & Brinkley was so 20th Century. There are so many offenders, both male and female, it's hard to name the most wretched. For starters, if you're a glutton for punishment, see how long you can listen to CNBC's Melissa Lee before you start gnawing the buttons off your TV remote. Her grating voice makes Suzanne Pleshette sound like Emma Watson. A Billy Mays commercial only lasts a few excruciating seconds. Who can stand a full hour of Larry Kudlow bellowing like a wildebeest?
My Favorite Celebrity Voice
Vanessa Williams's speaking voice really appeals to me. I have never watched the show Ugly Betty, so I'm not sure if she's joined the creaky crowd. I sure hope not. She has a beautiful voice. I was a fan of newscaster Lara Logan's dispatches from Afghanistan. Then she went creaky. Diane Sawyer is going creaky. It can't be stopped!
Vanessa Williams has a beautiful speaking voice. This video is highly worthwhile even if you don't care about voice trends. Gloria Steinem's voice is pretty creaky. Maybe she started it.
Tina Fey Mocks The Creak
In Date Night she lampoons the annoying speech affectation now used by at least 80% of all American women under 30.
Disappointment of the Year
When I heard Hailee Stienfeld, the 13-year-old actress in the movie True Grit I had high hopes that she might represent a turning point for trendy voices. In the movie, she speaks with a sublime feminine voice. Perhaps she would be the new trendsetter who would reverse the dismal trend toward vocal mediocrity. My hopes were dashed when I looked up her Jimmy Fallon interview on YouTube. She uses the same adorable warble affected by so many teenage girls. It isn't the dreadful creak so many of us have grown to loathe, but my admiration for the girl took a nosedive. That beautiful voice was just for the movie.
Find Out More...
Contained herein are links to Creaky Voice articles and information. Thank you.
Awful Creak on NPR - I picked on poor Drew Barrymore. If you want to hear a truly hideous creak, listen to this report from NPR's Alix Spiegel. How does someone with a voice like this get a job in broadcasting?
Executive Speech Training Coach Sims Wyeth - I'm just a goofy blogger. Sims Wyeth is a respected speech coach. See what Sims has to say about the Creaky Voice.
The Pacific Northwest's Distinctive Dialect - Many locals, especially women, speak in what experts call "creaky voice."
More wretched voices at momversation.com - A cringefest extraordinaire! Some of these women have synthesized the worst vocal styles out there. I like Asha Dornfest, however.
Listening for the Voices of Women - In the book's preface, Ms. Gilligan described women who censored their thoughts and feelings, who spoke in "false feminine voices" that came from "high in the head," or else in "guarded or impersonal" registers.
"a voice that could strip the paint off the door of No.10"Wish I'd said that.
Voice coaching--a cure for irritable vowel syndrome - Margaret Thatcher's aides send for a voice coach. The Conservative leader ditches a voice that could strip the paint off the door of No.10 for something deeper and more resonant.
I read it on Wikipedia - Just to show you I didn't make up "Creaky Voice," here's the official lowdown from Wikipedia.
Chicken Scratches and Creaky Voice - Like your intrepid investigator, NPR hosts Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett are on the cutting edge of voice trends with their creak report.
Conversational Grunts in English - There are serious people out there studying voice characteristics including Creaky Voice. Here's an example complete with voice analysis prints.
Fix Your Voice
What if you can't get rid of the creak?
When a fad becomes a mania, there are always a few contrarians who rebel. Enough, they say, it's time to erase the tramp stamp, go back to an ordinary voice. Some may find, to their horror, that the creak has become a habit, like biting the fingernails. Not to worry. Amazon has a good selection of books that teach you how to fix your voice. Here's one by Roger Love, voice coach to the stars. Think how horrible Suze Orman and Dr. Laura must have sounded before they worked with Roger!
Are You A Fan of the Creaky Voice?
Please share your thoughts
Perky Chirp, Adorable Warble, or Grating Gargle--which voice do you notice the most? Will you be glad when the Craze is over? Do you have a new style to add?
If your voice creaks, I hope you don't feel ridiculed. It's just my take on a fascinating new trend. I'm sure your husband, boyfriend, boss, or co-workers would not want you to change.
Please let readers know why you like the Creaky Voice.