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Pop Vocals

Johanna Devaney (The Graduate Center, CUNY; Brooklyn College), Chair

Voice as Trauma Recovery: Vocal Timbre in Kesha’s “Praying”

Emily Milius (University of Oregon)


The voice holds psychological power. It can be an expression of inner feelings and a helpful tool in processing trauma. In discussing the singing voice, timbre provides an aural expression of these feelings performed outwardly. To show how vocal timbre expresses the journey through trauma and rehabilitation, I show how it provides a post-traumatic recovery narrative in Kesha’s very first ballad, “Praying.” More specifically, my analysis demonstrates how Kesha’s voice—through use of various registers, laryngeal positions, timbral effects, and positions within the musical environment—portrays symptoms of trauma and recovery, including improving thought patterns, an increasing ability to connect with others, and a growing sense of emotional strength and control.

Kesha wrote her album Rainbow (2017) as self-therapy responding to traumatic abuse from her producer, Dr. Luke. In her compelling power ballad, “Praying,” she discusses her experience through trauma and recovery, and I argue that her voice reinforces this story. I engage with scholarship in trauma studies and music theory (van der Kolk 2014; Herman 1997; Malawey 2020; Heidemann 2016; Moore 2012) to show how her voice demonstrates her journey through abuse and rehabilitation in therapy. I also discuss the impact “Praying” has had on listeners, especially trauma survivors, and the ways that the voice can showcase emotional expression. In examining the ways that Kesha’s voice portrays her journey in “Praying,” my analysis provides a deeper understanding of vocal expression in popular songs and insight into trauma’s effects, including how they can be embodied in the voice.

Alanis Morissette’s Voices

Drew Nobile (University of Oregon)


Combining the slick production of post-grunge rock with raw, feminist lyrics reminiscent of Riot Grrrl punk, Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album Jagged Little Pill introduced a new rock femininity that rippled throughout the late 1990s. As Karen Fournier describes, Morissette’s pop-critical reception as a quintessential “angry young woman” overlooks the broad range of social and emotional content presented throughout the album (Fournier 2015; Schilt 2003; Whiteley 2000). This expressive range comes not only from Morissette’s lyrics but also—perhaps especially—from her versatile and idiosyncratic vocal delivery. While some analysts have discussed her strategic combination of head and chest voice (Fournier 2015; Lacasse 2010), Morissette’s vocal expression is significantly more nuanced than that single parameter. In this paper, I demonstrate that throughout Jagged Little Pill, Morissette uses a specific set of vocal styles to project certain expressive effects, synchronizing with not only her songs’ lyrical content but also their formal structures.

I begin by identifying Morissette’s primary palette of six vocal styles, which I term “speech-song,” “strong voice,” “belt,” “soft voice,” “sweet voice,” and “squeal,” plus three vocal effects, including her hallmark “yodel break” as well as “snarky whine” and the production effects of double tracking/flange. I show that throughout the album, Morissette strategically deploys her vocal palette to achieve specific expressive effects. More broadly, my analysis shows how voice can serve a fundamentally structural role, one at least as powerful as harmony or melody in shaping a song’s identity and expressive meaning.

Supplementary Material(s)

That’s the Way I Am, Heaven Help Me: The Role of Pronunciation in Billy Bragg’s Recordings

Mary Blake Rose (Western University)

bio for Mary Blake Rose

Mary Blake Rose is a PhD Candidate in Music Theory at Western University in London, Ontario. Mary Blake also holds an MA from Western, as well as a BMus from Université de Moncton in New Brunswick. She has been active in community organizing in London as well as in Toronto, where she currently resides. Projects have included serving two terms as President of the Society of Graduate Students at Western University and founding a chapter of grassroots advocacy organization Citizens’ Climate Lobby in London. Her current research focuses on pronunciation and its role in musical understanding.


This presentation discusses the role of pronunciation in the recordings of British protest singer Billy Bragg. Sociolinguists in recent decades have taken a keen interest in the idea of the singing accent: the pronunciation patterns that musicians use in their singing and how these may differ from the patterns used in their speech. Peter Trudgill’s (1983) seminal work in this area focuses on American-inspired pronunciation in British pop and rock music from the late 1950s and early 1960s, exploring the motivations, often conflicting ones, that can influence singers’ intentional and unintentional pronunciation tendencies. The approach taken by Trudgill and other sociolinguists is relevant to the musical output of Billy Bragg because pronunciation is a particularly salient feature of this music. Bragg’s singing accent not only puts his working-class origins in Barking, Essex on display, but it does so prominently and unapologetically. Throughout his career, socialism and his own brand of English left-wing patriotism have been the defining features of Bragg’s public persona. Sung pronunciation has been a key tool for Bragg in creating this persona and in communicating its authenticity. In other words, pronunciation has served the purpose of identity creation. Pronunciation has also served to amplify the effects of other musical features, including timbre, melody, and lyrical content. Analysis of several selections from Bragg’s recordings will showcase how identity, authenticity, and musical sound coalesce in these recordings and how pronunciation binds them together.

Supplementary Material(s)