Shifting the Queerable Pitch

One of my favorite kiss-offs is Positive K’s 1992 hit “I Got a Man.” It’s up there with Carla Thomas and Otis Redding’s “Tramp“. Backed by a dense collage of samples that includes A Taste of Honey’s “Rescue Me,” K lends his “natural” speaking voice to a Lothario type whose got eyes for a woman (well, in the video, many women). He alternately woos and bullies her into reciprocating his affections. But the woman he objectifies will have none of it. Part of her motive for rejection is stated in the song’s title. But it’s also clear that she knows she deserves better than his boilerplate pick-up lines. In Mad Men‘s season two episode, “Flight One,” copywriter Peggy Olson shoots down a romantic prospect at a colleague’s party by saying, “I’m in the persuasion business and, frankly, I’m disappointed by your presentation.” That’s an elegant burn, Ms. Olson. But I’ve always been partial to the girl’s slangy, direct put-down in “I Got a Man”: “Are you a chef? ‘Cuz you keep feeding me soup.”

I bring up “I Got a Man” for three reasons. First, it’s a stone classic that’s sure to get any dance floor moving. Just ask Hot Chip, who made room for it on their great DJ-Kicks compilation. Second, I love when male rappers reveal themselves to be neurotic, insecure messes (see also: Skee-Lo, Kanye West). I wish the music industry eased its pressure off female rappers so they wouldn’t have to be invincible all the time. Maybe more of them would enter or stay in the game. Nicki Minaj might actually be one of the few mainstream female rappers who gives us access to the cracks behind the masks and voices she puts on. That said, I’d love it if Nicki sampled Monica’s “Don’t Take it Personal (Just One of Dem Days)” for a song where she waits out menstrual cramps in her sweats. Third, one of my favorite pieces of musical trivia is that Positive K raps both parts for “I Got a Man.” Upon occasion, I like to imagine K in the recording booth, dissing himself: “Are you talking—pshhh—whatever!”

Positive K talked to himself with the aid of pitch shifting, a recording technique that raises or lowers the pitch of a musical note. I grew up outside of Houston in the mid- to late 1990s. As a result, I heard a lot of pitch-shifting in much of the city’s underground hip-hop. With the support of a thriving scene, originators like DJ Screw developed a new sound by spinning records at decelerated speeds and lowering rappers’ vocal pitches to approximate the feeling of being high on muscle relaxer. This sensation was reinforced by pervasive references to “purple” and “lean” from rappers like Mike Jones and Lil Flip. Screw might have produced an aesthetic that some found menacing and discordant, in part because it forced listeners to confront the distinct sonic elements of black, southern, male aurality. But it was also a cavernous, luxurious sound; Houston’s version of dub.

You’re probably familiar with pitch-shifting too. It’s everywhere in pop music. Just compare the production aesthetic and video for “Still Tippin'” to Beyoncé’s “No Angel.” Kanye West made a name for himself as a producer by speeding up old soul records. Mike WiLL Made It’s aural watermark, voiced by the many artists who collaborate with him (Miley! Ciara!), is the result of pitch-shifting. I’m particularly fond of his work on Kelly Rowland’s “Kisses Down Low,” last year’s best ode to cunnilingus and proof that pop music is better at dodging an NC-17 rating than film. The chorus features Rowland owning her pleasure and then receiving positive reinforcement from a screwed, implicitly male voice.

We could argue that Positive K used shifting to essentialize the aurality of women’s speaking voices. But to do so might risk ignoring that he also essentializes masculinity to the point of near-parody and makes the joke at his own expense. Furthermore, there’s something delightfully queer about pitch-shifting that’s worth exploration.

In one chapter of In A Queer Time and Place, Jack Halberstam analyzes The Full Monty and Austin Powers in relation to drag king culture. They categorize such films as king comedies because of their “attempts to exploit not the power but the frailty of the male body for the purpose of generating laughs that come at the hero’s expense. King comedies also capitalize on the humor that comes from revealing the derivative nature of dominant masculinities, and so it trades heavily in tropes of doubling, disguise, and impersonation” (127-128). Halberstam deploys the term “kinging” as an action that exceeds the boundaries of queer subcultures and drag king acts.

Recording techniques like shifting expose similar frailties of gender and race. Shifting also relies on doubling, disguise, and impersonation. In 2010, DJ Drobitussin turned Sade, an arbiter of quiet storm femininity, into a sexily ambiguous figure by shifting songs like “Smooth Operator.” That same year, Veronica Ortuño shifted Aaliyah’s assured whisper in an episode of her podcast, Cease to Exist, where she included her own remixes alongside work from folks like DJ Screw and others.

Deejay John Twatters shifted 80s synth pop for a Chances Dances podcast mix. Shifting destabilizes even the most familiar music. Samantha Fox and Madonna become lovesick gladiators. Neil Tennant sounds a bit like Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon. That transformation has its own beautiful logic. Both musicians are talented singers who inventively downplay emotions, thus enduring dismissal that they “just” talk over a beat. Robert Christgau comes to Tennant’s defense in his Consumer Guide review of the Pet Shop Boys’ Very, arguing that detractors aren’t listening closely enough to his falsetto. On Twatters’ remix of “West End Girls,” Tennant’s falsetto struggles against the pitch. It’s human nature.

I’ll conclude with two tracks by female artists who enacted forms of shifting in their music last year. First up is Annie, who recorded “Invisible” for her A&R EP. Much like Positive K, Annie casts herself as both a man and a woman. She uses her “female” voice to play a woman who exorcises the angst of a failing relationship on the dance floor. Part-way through the track, Annie shifts into a masculine register—even using the king-like moniker, Mannie—to give voice to the clueless, passive-aggressive guy who broke her heart.

Following Katherine St. Asaph’s lead, I’ll put “Invisible” in dialogue with Ciara’s “Super Turnt Up.” What’s notable here is that Ciara diverges from Positive K and Annie in her act of shifting. She uses it is as a tool for erotic potential rather than argumentation. Here, Ciara’s voice engages with technology to demonstrate the thrill of self-love, as well as the queer possibilities of individuals’ sexualities encompassing both masculine and feminine aural registers and modes of expression. She uses “you” as a directive toward the person who is turning her on, but it’s unclear whether that “you” refers to “him,” “her,” or “me.”

What’s especially exciting about the instances of shifting on “Invisible,” “Super Turnt Up,” and the other songs and remixes that utilize this recording technique is that the final product’s processed vocals don’t sound entirely masculine or feminine. They’re something else. They’re recombinants, hybrids. As a result, these voices occupy an exciting third space simultaneously between and outside identity’s rigid binaries.

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