Allison McCracken’s Real Men Don’t Sing: Crooning in American Culture (Duke 2015) outlines crooning’s history from its origins in minstrelsy through its development as the microphone sound most associated with white recording artists, band singers, and radio stars. She charts early crooners’ rise and fall between 1925 and 1934, contrasting Rudy Vallée with Bing Crosby to demonstrate how attempts to contain crooners created and dictated standards of white masculinity for male singers. The short-lived but massive popularity of crooners, as McCracken compellingly demonstrates, fundamentally changed American culture. Recently, Allison McCracken and I discussed over email the writing of the book, crooning history, and the status of gendered standards for pop singing today.
Victor Szabo: When and how did it become apparent to you that the history of crooning in the U.S. was a history that needed to be told?
Allison McCracken: It was a long time ago, when I was a graduate student in the late 1990s. I was working on a seminar paper on the changes in early microphone technologies, and I stumbled across a newspaper article from 1932 in which Cardinal O’Connell of Boston condemned crooners, saying they were “not men”: “whining and crying as the singer does, there is no man in America who would not feel disgusted.” I was easily able to find a few similar reports that indicated a large backlash against these singers from a wide range of cultural authorities during 1932–34. I was fascinated that these white middle-class men’s voices had provoked so much anxiety and had resulted in such direct attacks (the words used to attack them were the same ones used to attack jazz music). It seemed obvious to me that there was a story there, one that involved addressing the unprecedented popularity of radio’s crooning voices—which I had not heard of before—as well as the specifics of their regulation. My visit to Rudy Vallée’s vast personal archive at the American Radio Archives in Thousand Oaks California (an absolute gold mine of material from the era) convinced me that this project was a book—indeed, could be several books. At the time, the only scholarly or popular attention this story had received was from radio historian Thomas DeLong in the early ‘80s, who reported it objectively, and prominent cultural and music historians from the 1970s–90s who were entirely dismissive of crooners as reactionary social forces; the music historians, in particular, often employed homophobic and effemiphobic language that parroted the attacks against crooners from the 1930s. It was the persistence of this discourse in relation to male pop singers (and their audiences) over these many decades that made me realize how formative and foundational this era was, not only in American pop singing but in the gendered circulation of standards for white male vocals generally that have continued to mark certain kinds of male voices (high-pitched, wide-ranging, emotionally intense) as insufficiently masculine.
VS: How was the process of turning the dissertation into a book? Did this present any particular challenges?
AM: Ultimately, the focus of the book remained largely the same as the dissertation, but I did expand the playing ground. In both, I focus on the way in which the mass popularity of these early crooners, especially among women, working classes, and immigrant families, had provoked the need to codify, for the first time, gendered standards for white masculine vocalizing, standards which persist to this day. What was difficult, honestly, was choosing what to include, because there was so much material. The Vallée archive alone, as I’ve indicated, is a researcher’s dream. One could, for example, write an entire book about the newspapermen (and women) of the era based on what is in the archive.
There was also a lot of wonderful and relevant scholarly work on the 1920s that was published while I was writing the book (Karl Hagstrom Miller’s Segregating Sound, to cite one key text), as well as the release of many original feature films and shorts from the period that demanded attention. The advent of Youtube was both a godsend and a challenge, because so many old recordings (played on Victrolas!) were suddenly available. I could have focused only on crooners in film or radio or recording and still had more than enough material for a book, but I wanted to show the way in which crooning saturated all of mass media and live performance, so I tried to give adequate attention to all of these areas, although never as much as I would have liked.
In addition, there were so many related analytical frames through which I wanted to view the “crooning controversy,” many of which are explored in the book in short sections, but any one of which could have been expanded into a larger project. I had a wonderful early reader for Duke University Press who encouraged this expansion and made some great suggestions, which were very rewarding but forced me to make hard choices about what to include and made synthesizing material more challenging. For example, Cardinal O’Connell’s attack on crooners was part of the prominent role of the Catholic Church in regulating mass media; while the Church’s role in film censorship has been discussed at length, its role in the regulation of vocal performance has not received any attention and yet, in many ways, this kind of regulation is much more surprising from an institution that had long celebrated adolescent Irish tenors and countertenors. The Church’s condemnation of crooners represented a shift in the church itself towards an embrace of standards of middle class white masculinity that meant putting church leaders at odds with their largely working class, urban, Irish, Polish, German, and Italian constituents, many of whom resisted this regulation. This subject alone could be a book, and this is only one example. In fact, I ended up having to cut many specific examples from the final book (killing my darlings!) because of its length, but I am hoping that others will further develop some of these rich areas.
VS: Real Men Don’t Sing opens with a stirring quote by Susan McClary, who speaks of the “musical power of the disenfranchised” to “articulate different ways of construing the body, ways that bring along in their wake the potential for different experiential worlds.” Would you say this quote applies to Rudy Vallée? How did Vallée (or crooners more generally) articulate the male body in a new way in the mid-late ‘20s, and what experiential worlds did this open up?
AM: One of the gifts of the Vallée archive was that Vallée preserved his very first fan letters, written from his earliest months as a romantic crooner on New York radio. These letters make very clear that what he was doing was new for listeners, and that his singing provoked intense physical reactions from then that they were bewildered by. Journalist Gladys Oak referred to Vallée as “the mouth of the machine,” and I think that’s a great descriptor for the way Vallée was able to use technology to put his body in his voice and communicate his own romantic longing, passion, and arousal; he initiated an era in which the disembodied voice became the equivalent of a lover for many listeners, provoking not merely a sense of intimacy and companionship—which radio voices and recording artists had been doing since the early 1920s—but physical reactions that listeners described as romantic and erotic feeling. Vallée brought together particular aspects of popular singing in a very potent way over the radio, many of which we recognize today as characteristic of pop: the focus on melody over musical ornamentation, clear enunciation of lyrics and therefore romantic narrative, direct address, perceived sincerity, progressive key changes upward to intensify drama, the deployment of vibrato in specific ways to emphasize erotic and romantic feeling, elongated notes and words that feel as if they have been pulled, painfully from the singer (underlining his vulnerability and sensitivity), and concluding the song on an ascending note, keeping the audience hanging without closure and therefore still emotionally involved in the song. Listen, for example, to one of his most famous songs, “Deep Night” (1928), which Vallée co-wrote, and watch him sing “Believe Me I Love You” in his iconic romantic crooner pose of submission: eyes closed, mouth open, head back, neck bared.
Vallée allowed women to pleasure themselves, basically, at a time when companionate marriages and heterosexual identities were the new normal, and women’s affective relationships with other women (common in the Progressive Era) and their extended families were being actively discouraged. This competition for women’s attention within domestic space, especially from a man who was seen as particularly women-centered and feminine-coded, would prove increasingly disturbing to middle-class authorities and eventually helped provoke a backlash that resulted in substantial changes in crooning performance and gender presentation (as evinced most obviously by Bing Crosby). Thus, women’s and working-class audiences’ championing of Vallée provoked the regulation of these groups, which suggested just how much, politically, was at stake in their promotion of a more sensitive masculinity during this time of intense nationalization. I think it’s important to underline that this audience created Vallée, they ensured his success as a popular idol; one of my arguments is that we need to view Vallée’s rise—and the dominance of pop generally—as a product of this audience negotiating with a commercial media that increasingly dominated their lives. Women, especially, were doing what cultural authorities told them to do by drawing from commercial mass culture to fulfill their desires, and croonings’ popularity is a wonderful example of how devalued audiences use cultural commodities in new ways to serve their interests, ones which are often antithetical or threatening to social hierarchies.
VS: Your chapter on “falling in love” with Vallée’s voice is a fascinating case study in musical attachment. What was it like going through Vallée’s fan mail? Were you surprised at what you found?
AM: I was very fortunate to have these early letters, because the bulk of Vallée letters after this first year went to NBC and were not as carefully preserved. He did save some letters from the 1930s onward, however, including a correspondence with one of his biggest fans, Dorothy Yosnow, the President of the Vallée fan club The Rooters, which continued for several years. It is a fascinating example of a star-fan relationship, one that was remarkably candid and more like a friendship (they discuss movies, for example). There is a lot of discussion today about the way that fans and celebrities can be much closer because of social media such as Twitter and Facebook, but I think it’s important to recognize that these kinds of relationships are not new. They also provide evidence of why certain stars were valued by audiences above others. Vallée’s continual, thoughtful responses to fans in letters and on the air (singing songs they requested) were clearly a vital part of his popularity with them in these early years; they felt he was on their side and represented their interests, so they made him a star.
The other big surprise was a beautiful album of letters to Vallée from blind listeners, organized by his blind fan Margaret Long. All of these letters are written in braille with translation, and they indicate the importance of Vallée for populations such as the disabled that are generally ignored in histories of popular music. In music history, we still focus very much on people’s reactions to public musical performances and count the reactions of those groups—usually youthful, able-bodied people—more than we do the reactions of those in private or policed spaces such as the elderly, the disabled, the more introverted, the imprisoned, etc. Many of Vallée’s fans write of being ill or hospitalized or in institutions (such as his blind fans) and the particular importance he has for them. Vallée kept up correspondence with Margaret Long for several years until her early death; I have been unable to find more information about her but I think this is an important area for further study, so it’s great to have this album.
VS: For those who haven’t read the book, can you talk a little bit about crooning’s roots in popular song before the 1920s? How did the term crooning come about, and why did the term migrate from the minstrel “mammy” song to the romantic song in the first decades of the 20th century?
AM: The term “crooning” is derived from Scottish vernacular, most famously the poems of Robert Burns as a descriptor for a “low, murmuring sound,” one that could be made by a river, an animal, a witch, or a human being. An additional meaning, “to make murmuring lament or wail” was added in the 19th century, and both crossed the Atlantic at that time. Originally, U.S. minstrels popularized the term to describe the loving, protective murmurs of the black slave woman (the “mammy”) singing to her infant child. It was eventually broadened to include white women singing lullabies to their children as well.
In the early 1900s, Tin Pan Alley songwriters successfully broadened the term again to include the courtship singing of lovers to one another, especially men to women. This was part of a general shift away from popular songs that were more ethnically and racially specific to those that focused on more universal romantic feeling, both as part of the industry’s response to criticisms of racism and producers’ own strategies to broaden the popularity of a song beyond a single identity group. As ethnic, racial, class, and regional identities were erased, gender differences became more central to popular songs, and carried more cultural weight as a result. With the advent of broadcasting and microphone singing, this intimate sound of lovers to each other could be communicated from one singer to millions of people, and thus the modern “crooner” was born. Since the late 1920s, a crooner is primarily understood as someone (usually a man) who sings love songs into microphones, most popularly in recordings or over the radio. The current dictionary definition is, “to sing popular, sentimental songs in a low, smooth voice, especially into a closely-held microphone.”
VS: You introduce the term “vocal essentialism” as something that followed the ascendance of gender and race essentialism in the 1920s. What is vocal essentialism? What was its role in the development of a singing standard for white men in the early 1930s?
AM: I use this term to help readers think about the way vocal production has been socially constructed rather than being “natural” or “authentic.” Musicologists Ronald Radano and Karl Hagstrom Miller have provided detailed analyses of how a black/white binary was culturally and industrially constructed out of interracial American musical practices and histories. Before the 1920s, musical culture in the U.S. was diverse; as Miller notes, people in the south played and sang the music they grew up with, which included commercial pop as well as ragtime, blues, jazz, “old timey” (hillbilly), classical, religious, and many other types of music. This changed in the 1920s. I take my cue here specifically from Miller’s discussion of how the recording industry and a variety of cultural authorities established a “musical color line” in the south during the 1920s. Producers began associating raced and classed bodies with raced and classed market-created genres of music and promoting these genres as “authentic” cultural products of the musicians’ racial heritage and regional affiliations. Vocal divisions operated along the same lines. Where once anyone could sing anything and singers easily combined and crossed genres and styles and “characters,” industrial divisions narrowed and essentialized vocal production. Black female performers became primarily affiliated with what the industry labeled “blues” singing, for example, and white, working-class southerners with “hillbilly” (nascent country) music (although, as Miller notes, white singers remained more able to cross genres than black singers, which remains true today).
In my work, I am interested in the gendered as well as the racial aspects of vocal musical essentialism, arguing that we need to see them as intersecting. For example, terms such as “primitive,” degenerate,” and “sensuous” were used in the mid-1920s as objections to jazz music, which was coded as black. These same terms were applied to white male crooners—but only white male crooners—in the early 1930s to mean gender deviance, but the implication here was that gender deviance disqualified them from representing white normativity nationally as well. Cultural authorities needed to develop new codes of masculinity for white singers that would also serve to reify their whiteness, their difference from and superiority to other singers. The perception of men with high-pitched voices as gay (or unacceptably effeminate) that developed during this era is, therefore, an essentializing vocal discourse developed to preserve white middle class masculine normativity, and thus superiority.
VS: The book also explains how the “masculinization” of the white male singing voice in the early 1930s was part of a larger project of nationalization. How did crooning, according to cultural authorities, threaten to undermine this nationalizing project?
AM: We see a lot of nationalizing discourses develop in the 1920s and early 1930s, much of which is a reaction to mass immigration and increasing xenophobia; the 1924 Johnson-Reed act greatly restricted immigration along racial lines (including from Southern and Eastern Europe), and white ethnics were encouraged to assimilate to established white, middle class standards of masculinity. The need to regulate voices, however, had not been anticipated. The 1920s was an audio decade, which saw the emergence and popularity not only of radio, but electrical recording, sound films, loudspeakers, public address systems, megaphones and many other kinds of sound makers. The recording industry reached its zenith, and national radio network hookups (including the formation of NBC in 1926 and CBS in 1929) meant that their stars could be heard live across large swaths of the country. Although male crooners had been popular for a number of years, romantic crooners beginning with Vallée dominated all vocal production (radio, records, films, stage) beginning in 1929 and throughout the early years of the Great Depression. Because these new idols were commercially profitable, producers continually employed them, and they thus threatened to define American white masculinity not only in the U.S., but in other countries as well.
My book begins with the frenzied declaration in a New York tabloid that “the voice of New York is effeminate!” and because New York represented and still largely defined the popular culture of the nation, the threat seemed genuine to many. Hence, cultural authorities initiated public attacks and called for regulation, and popular culture producers, fearing censorship and boycotts by the Catholic Church, made changes to the crooner persona in ways that undermined the erotic power of most romantic crooners (silencing most) while promoting a new masculine standard of crooning through Bing Crosby, who quickly became the national representative of a reconstructed crooning sound.
VS: I found it interesting how people’s perceptions of what counted as a “natural” voice seemed to change right alongside technological developments. You describe, for instance, how radio audiences in the mid-1920s found the light, intimate voices picked up by condenser microphones more “natural” than those of acoustic singers, which seemed relatively “mechanical.” Yet standards shifted later as dynamic and directional microphones were introduced. Can you talk about how these shifting standards of naturalness related to changes in technology? Were these microphones developed to meet new standards of vocal production, or did these standards follow from the technological change? A bit of a chicken or the egg paradox, it seems….
AM: The word “natural” is a ubiquitous one during the era; it’s almost always used as a positive term (like “authentic”), most prominently to buttress the moderns’ uneasiness with the increasing dominance of mass commercial culture, perceived as “artificial,” but its particular applications differ greatly according to context. In general, until the advent of the crooning controversy, audience response often shaped how new technologies were developed because commercial interests often trumped other interests at the time. Lisa Gitelman has written about the way in which consumers have also always been partly producers of new media technologies because of their impact on their development. And it’s certainly clear from Susan Horning’s work on the development of early recording that the listeners used as focus groups for electrical recording and condenser microphones perceived them as more “natural” than acoustic sounds, which led to their adaptation by the recording industry. No doubt, however, there would have been some conflicting ideas of what was “natural” among these listeners. For some, the lighter sound might have been seen as more natural within a domestic environment, or they might have appreciated as more natural that the sound permitted more understanding of lyrics and complexity of vocals, as one might hear from a stage performer; in addition, the condenser sound also better reflected the higher-pitched and lighter masculine voices that had been most valued in popular culture for a long time, as well as the gender fluidity of the 1920s, so that may have also seemed more “natural” to some listeners.
With the crooning attacks, however, “naturalness” became a point of contention, and cultural authorities—including religious figures, educators, “vocal” scientists, engineers, and many others—went to great lengths to demonstrate that crooning was “unnatural” and “inauthentic.” Although it is difficult to prove a direct link between the adaptation of the dynamic coil and directional microphones in 1931–32—which enhanced the production of lower voices (benefitting baritones Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo)—and the attacks on crooners, popular discourses of the time certainly promote lower male sounds as “more” masculine, and the word “natural” was very quickly applied to both Crosby and the particular sound of the directional microphone (which, ironically, relied on a vocal distortion, the “proximity effect,” to make voices sound warmer and nearer than they actually were). This directional microphone sound would become standard and still sounds “natural” to our ears in a way that condenser and carbon microphones don’t, and I certainly think the longevity of this perception is based in part on its intersection with the codification of masculine vocal norms.
VS: Real Men Don’t Sing also provides a unique perspective on the role of gender in the “aesthetic shift from imitation to authenticity” around this time. For instance, so often gender gets attached to a populist notion of authenticity. You explain how Rudy Vallée went from being praised for his ethic as a “hardworking businessman” to a seducer who “peddled” his vocal wares to vulnerable women. And while Vallée’s urban sophistication and cosmopolitanism made him broadly acceptable among middle-class audiences in the ‘20s, in the ‘30s these qualities made him suspicious, a “sissy.” Why do effemiphobia and the pathologization of femininity crop up so often in discourses of authenticity around this time?
AM: There are lot of discourses that converged in the late 1920s and early 1930s and resulted in the narrowing of gender roles and, consequently, the revised assessment of performers such as Vallée as insufficiently masculine. The most important of these was the general shift against the cultural feminine under modernity. Modern cultural production was largely perceived as a masculine repudiation of the sentimentality, mysticism, moralizing, and romanticism associated at the time with the “feminine” culture of the Victorian era. Although men as well as women in the Victorian era (especially the working classes) had appreciated and participated in this sentimental culture, the identification of women as the sole audiences for romantic material and sentiment in the late 1800s allowed for an ideological divide between the sexes in which men could retain the role of manly producers, intellectually and culturally superior—even while profiting from and participating in consumer culture—while women were viewed as “moronic” consumers of what had become marked as a feminized mass culture. Discourses surrounding popular music, films, novels, and other mass media products continually reinforced this divide in the modern era.
At the same time as these gendered divisions were taking place, aesthetic shifts from imitation to authenticity were happening as well, and these also became foundational to modernity. Moderns, coded as masculine, valued as art what could be considered “authentic,” in direct opposition with the commercial mass media, coded as feminine and associated with artifice. Karl Hagstrom Miller, cited above, discusses how discourses of authenticity were employed to reinforce essentialist divides of race and class in popular music. This shift also happened regarding gender and popular music. By the time of Vallée’s rise in the late 1920s, crooners had already introduced the idea of the predominantly “sincere” commercial singer, and in that way they initially profited from the turn toward “authenticity” in that crooners were perceived (by trade papers and audiences) as expressing genuine emotional feeling. Ultimately, however, authenticity and sincerity discourses would be romantic crooners’ undoing. By the end of the 1920s, in an era in which the cultural feminine was already devalued, the binary division of homosexual and heterosexual identity became more established and accepted among middle class moderns (buttressed in part by Freud, who was highly influential). Because the public still widely associated sexual identity with gender identity, crooners’ perceived feminine voices and personae increasingly became markers of their “authentic” homosexuality (“pansy”), making them susceptible to censorship, institutional regulation, and stigmatization. Parodoxically, the same cultural authorities who drew on authenticity discourses to mark Vallée’s deviance would deploy them a few years later to establish Bing Crosby’s white masculine normativity and, therefore, his acceptability as the Amercian crooner. Generally, those in power have employed authenticity discourses to bolster rather than upset social hierarchies.
VS: This question may be a bit abstract, but I’m curious: do you think there’s something inherently threatening about vulnerable or “frail” singing voices like Vallée’s? Or is the perceived threat entirely culturally relative?
AM: I certainly think these voices are threatening to normative standards of masculinity, particularly in the U.S. But, yes, I do think it’s culturally relative. U.S. culture is generally more masculinist than that of many other countries. In contrast, youthful male pop stars have been the most culturally valuable and iconic singers in many Asian countries for decades, defining commercial culture in ways that does not happen in the U.S. When I began this project, early U.S. crooners such as Vallée were far more known and accessible in Canada, the U.K., and Western Europe; there were several specialty labels in those countries devoted to them. Although that has changed somewhat, “frail” or high-pitched male voices still suggest a weakness or emasculation that many people in our masculinist culture, both gay and straight, find uncomfortable, if not downright repellant (early responses to the character Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer)’s feminine-coding and his high-tenor voice on Glee reflect this, and I discuss them in my conclusion). However, I think it’s important to point out that these are dominant discourses, and that appreciation of such voices varies greatly in the U.S. according to age, race, class, religion, gender, region, and ethnicity. The Smiths’ Morrissey, for example, has had a huge Latino/Chicano audience for years who adore his emotional vulnerability and are untroubled by his sexual ambiguity, although he has never been a huge star in the U.S. otherwise. Also, it’s important to note that these standards were meant only to apply to white male singers; this discourse is about the policing and enforcement of raced and gendered divides in vocal music through the establishment of acceptable standards for whites that regulate their vulnerability, use of high pitch or falsetto, vocal frailty, romantic content, perceived androgyny, etc. It has been more acceptable in U.S. culture for people of color to perform in this way (particularly in genres that are black-coded, such as gospel and soul), and therefore people of color have not necessarily internalized these standards for white masculine vocal performance to the same degree or in the same way, or at all.
What has changed since the 1920s in this regard is that white male singers have increasingly drawn on the perceived hypermasculinity of largely African-American-associated musical forms —beginning with the growing cultural valuation of jazz music in 1930s and extending to rock, soul, R&B, and hip hop—to buttress the masculine bona fides of their own cultural production and therefore be more likely to be perceived as a “cool” by largely still white male music critics (it seems important to note here, again, that white men have always had more ability to cross genres than people of color; such privilege is, of course, intrinsic to cultural appropriation). Bing Crosby has been a recipient of this association retroactively, as his biographers have gone to great lengths to try and prove his connections with jazz music and black musicians such as Louis Armstrong, while largely marginalizing his star-making period as a romantic crooner. The fact that all the other early crooners, including Vallée, were part of an interracial musical culture and were all influenced by ragtime and jazz sounds, is routinely erased.
VS: Your conclusion is cautiously optimistic about what seems to be a growing acceptance of the “feminine” white male voice in the 2010s. This seems accurate to me. Last semester, my first-year students overwhelmingly expressed admiration for the new album by Justin Bieber, whom most said they previously hated. His voice, though, still sounds to me as sensitive, vulnerable, and boyish as ever (even if it’s now post-pubescent). What would you say has contributed to this growing acceptance?
AM: I do believe change is happening, although not necessarily because of Bieber, who is following in the footsteps of Bing Crosby and Sinatra and many other pop idols who have ascended to critical acceptability by shedding their romantic pop-idol image through “bad boy” behavior and the release of a “serious” album, one that is far less femme-friendly than their previous work. In his new album, Purpose (see! He’s serious now!), Bieber highlights his mistreatment of some women, disparages others, proclaims his annoyance with his press coverage, and, in “What Do You Mean?,” he expresses his newfound bewilderment regarding women’s desires (including the rules of consent). As with Crosby, Sinatra, and Justin Timberlake, the reviews of this recording point to the new “mature message” of this album, employing the Freudian language of heteronormative maturation in the same tired way to suggest that maturity involves no longer singing romantic love songs to girls, as well as a shift from pop music to the more masculine-coded R&B (he also plays acoustic guitar in concert, leading one reviewer to note, “He’s more than a teen idol. He’s got the soul of an artist too”). Even though, as you suggest, Bieber’s voice sounds remarkably the same, the packaging of him has changed to fit the romantic crooner maturation narrative. What would have happened, do you think, if Bieber had instead embraced the sound and look of k-pop instead of hip-hop? That would have been truly gender-transgressive!
Generally, I do think there is a broadening of representation regarding heretofore queer voices, the result of the mainstreaming of lesbian and gay rights and representation, the diversity of voices now available on social media, and, perhaps surprisingly to some, the ascendance of singing talent programs and musicals on network television. I write at more length in the conclusion about the impacts of queerly-marked Adam Lambert on American idol and Chris Colfer (and Darren Criss) on Glee in 2009–10 (see also my online discussions of Colfer and Criss here and here). In many ways, these stars resemble Vallée in that they are coming out of the (inauthentic!) commercial mass media (with Idol, a reality show, the lowest of the low in terms of cultural capital) and they became stars because of their mass popularity with the public rather than network machinations. It’s remarkable, actually: women of all ages, queer youth, people of color, working and middle-class people made gender-transgressive young male singers into national, indeed international stars. I have been on social media since the beginning of Glee—particularly on Tumblr—and the intensity of adoration for such singers specifically because of their gender-transgression suggests how much of a desire there is for the kind of alternative masculinity they represent. I think we have not yet begun to understand the long-term cultural significance of figures such as Lambert and Colfer, and certainly they made possible programs such as The Voice that are continuing—however unevenly—to be more queer-inclusive. The show’s resident falsetto singer, Adam Levine, is particularly supportive of young men with high voices, and The Voice’s recent winner, Jordan Smith, has the range of a countertenor, which was his primary appeal for fans. So yes, especially compared to ten years ago, the shift in inclusion seems palpable (which doesn’t mean that it can’t change, of course, and Colfer’s success did not suddenly spawn a legion of imitators on network television, although the production and popularity of live musicals is a good sign).
VS: At the same time, it seems clear that aesthetic effemiphobia and fear of the vocal “in between” is far from over, especially when it comes to hegemonic standards of what’s commercially viable for white singers. I’m thinking, for example, of how trans woman singer and Academy Award nominee Anohni wasn’t invited to this year’s ceremonies, while openly gay belter Sam Smith both performed and won in the very same category. Although mass-recognition was probably a factor there, Anohni’s voice also seems to me a lot closer to Rudy Vallée’s than Sam Smith’s does. Do you have a take on this scenario? Or more broadly, thoughts on the ways gender- and sexuality-based discrimination continues to be reinforced through hegemonic standards of aesthetic appeal?
AM: I LOVED Antony and the Johnsons (I’m sure that’s not surprising), so I was also hoping Anohni would be able to perform. And yes, I agree that for his time, Anohni is much closer to a kind of Vallée-style cultural intervention than Sam Smith has been. I don’t discount the importance of Sam Smith, however; as an openly gay romantic singer with a tenor voice, he represents progress, but he is also riding a wave of gay-mainstreaming in a culture much more prepared to accept gay men than transwomen (or gender-fluid, non-binary persons more generally). Smith is also not American, and not particularly feminine-marked (as Kurt Hummel on Glee was); as I argue in the book, as gay men have become more mainstream, continued cultural effemiphobia and sexism have been put into relief. I do think there’s more attention to these gendered/sexual hierarchies than there used to be, but obviously a long way to go.
VS: What are you working on now?
AM: I have many projects, but the one most pertinent would be an article on The Voice that I have been working on for a long time. Too long, since the show has gone through many shifts that it is becoming hard to address them all! But I do think the show’s exposure of vocal essentialism, its inclusivity, and its foregrounding of voices generally not accessible in the mainstream has been very important, even as, ultimately, those contestants who win are singers who fit into industrial boxes. And, as has historically been the case, white men are able to cross over into black-associated categories such as soul and hip hop a lot more easily than singers of color are able to cross genres as the show progresses (as one commentator noted, “The Voice just doesn’t know what to do with a black woman with a guitar!”). Nevertheless, The Voice has given national exposure to many marginalized and non-traditional singers, including queer people and people of color, so I’m invested in it.
Otherwise, I am working on histories of broadcasting fandom and am analyzing Tumblr as fan site as a source of identity construction for queer youth.
VS: I’m eager to read this forthcoming work! And thank you, Allison, for discussing your book, which was a treat to read and reflect upon.
Allison McCracken is Associate Professor of American Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, where she teaches classes in American popular culture and mass media, social media, gender and sexuality studies, and American Studies methods. In addition to the book, Real Men Don’t Sing: Crooning in American Culture (Duke University Press, 2015), her writing has appeared in the edited volumes Undead TV: Essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Duke, 2007) and The Radio Reader (Routledge, 2002). She has also written numerous articles for the online journals Flow and Antenna, including a series about Glee’s gay male characters and their voices, “The Countertenor and the Crooner” (May, 2011). She is currently doing work on feminine-gendered fan communities at conventions and on Tumblr. Dr. McCracken received her PhD in American Studies from The University of Iowa, with a focus in media studies and 20th century US cultural history.
Victor Szabo is a Postdoctoral Teaching Resident at the University of Virginia’s Department of Music and College of Arts & Sciences. His PhD dissertation, “Ambient Music as Popular Genre: Historiography, Interpretation, Critique” (2015), investigates Ambient music through cultural histories and analyses of key recordings from the genre’s formative years. He is also the Web Editor of IASPM-US, and his work on “sounding stigma” and the vocal performance of abjection appears in the Journal of Popular Music Studies.