By dissecting Rush Limbaugh's and Howard Stern's unfair but culturally salient descriptions of Hillary Clinton's and Beyonce's vocal sounds as "screeches," this essay offers a potential lens for scholarly and cultural description and analysis of the voice and its characterizations. This perspective, which I call the "genosonic lens," builds on Barthes's concept of "the grain of the voice" to argue that the voice is an extension of both body and language. I focus on the physical and affective connection forged between the speaking mouth and the hearing ear while acknowledging the power of language to shape and reshape this intimate relationship. The purpose of the genosonic lens is twofold. First, i aim to demystify the affective nature of the relationship between the speaking voice and the listening ear. By concretizing the affective nature of the voice, I work to demonstrate why vocal sound remains both illusive and powerful. Second, through my analysis, I demonstrate some possible methods for more objectively approaching the study of spoken vocal sound. In doing so, I hope to offer a possible intervention for the sexist and racially problematic adjectives used to discipline voices like Clinton's and Beyonce's through description.
IN 2006 RUSH LIMBAUGH FAMOUSLY REMARKED THAT HILLARY CLINTON "SOUNDS LIKE A SCREECHING ex-wife," indicating not only that he bristled at Clinton's gendered voice but also, through his follow-up comment "men will know what I mean," that this affective unpleasantness would be felt by his male listeners as well. (1) If Limbaugh's later commentary is to be believed, his prediction manifested in his listeners' "visceral reactions" to the secretary of state's speech during the now-infamous Benghazi hearing. (2) This example highlights the stubborn link between Clinton's voice and listeners' characterizations of her as "screeching." Clinton's 2003 comment about the importance of questioning government policies has been widely described as a "screech," as has her recent testimony in the Benghazi hearing. (3) Similarly, a 2009 hoax perpetuated by Limbaugh's inflammatory equal, Howard Stern, compared Beyonce's Today Show performance with a "screeching cat." (4) Though the track Stern referenced, in which the singer dramatically overshoots the song's correct pitches, was a digitally altered hoax, listeners latched on to the track, circulating the screeching Beyonce through cyberspace. (5) The widespread circulation of these commentaries through the culture speaks to the affective power of the voice while illustrating the imprecise and often highly ideological language our culture uses to describe the voice.
Limbaugh's and Stern's "visceral reactions" to these culturally powerful women's voices likely reflected a clash between the "shock jocks'" well-documented misogynist viewpoints and the women's messages. On a less obvious level, though, Clinton's and Beyonce's voices carry meaning values of their own, and these values are communicated through an affectively intimate relation ship between listener and speaker. (6) The space of listening, Jean-Luc Nancy argues, is always intimately constructed, since the voice moves from the body of a speaker to enter and envelop a listener's body. (7) By entering the body through the ear's cavities, sound becomes...