What “Vocal Fry” tells us about media science reporting

About a week ago, I first noticed stories about “Vocal Fry” appearing in the media. They all had much the same template: Vocal Fry, a new way of speaking that was described so poorly that I couldn’t actually understand what it was supposed to denote, is becoming trendy among college-age women because they’re emulating pop stars, no-one else speaks like this and those who do risk damaging their vocal chords. It all sounded pretty fishy to me, but today I followed another link about it in the hope of at least understanding what the speech style being discussed was.

What I learned from that article, and the Language Log post it linked to, was that about the only thing the previous reports got right was that there is a thing called Vocal Fry which some people use occasionally when speaking. There’s no evidence that it’s a new phenomenon (in fact there’s plenty that it’s not), or that it’s specific to women or a particular age group (c.f. Ira Glass using it extensively), or that it does any damage whatsoever. In fact, it’s usually a relatively subtle voice modulation which I think I unthinkingly use fairly frequently and have done since well before any of the singers blamed for starting this trend had any records out.

There’s really no discernable reason why we should be interested in this phenomenon, unless “we” is a fairly narrow group of experts on spoken language. But what is interesting, when a story as pointless as this gets any traction, is the meta game of trying to figure out why it was picked up at all. In this instance, I think the clue is the group supposedly uniquely party to the “new” “trend” – college-age women. The formulation of the story hits an incredible number of media tropes and targets at once:

  1. When I watched the video it seemed perfectly calibrated to make young women self-conscious about their speech; particularly the part where people are identifying relatively subtle vocal fry in recorded speech. So we have our first media trope: playing on the insecurities of a group of people to attract their attention and make them feel they must know more about a non-issue.
  2. Why women? Well the media loves to portray women as a homogeneous mass, led like sheep by the latest fad, who will hurt themselves terribly if we don’t ride to the rescue.
  3. Why this particular age group? Well, they’re old enough to be independent, but young enough to not be respected by anyone older. And they’re generally not understood by people more than a few years older than them, so it’s easy to write outrageous nonsense without most of the audience noticing.
  4. The invention of potential harm from something irrelevant, so we can scare people with that.
  5. The “fake trend” story. I’m more used to these taking the form of “we noticed two people doing this, so now it’s a trend”, but this seems like the direct complement: “Everyone does this, but if we pretend that it wasn’t so before we noticed it, we can call it a trend.”
  6. And finally, blaming popular culture. Clearly no-one in this has any agency, and it’s all Britney & Ke$ha’s fault.

This entry was posted in Meeja and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.