According to Bob Garfield, host of NPR’s On The Media, young people’s (especially young women’s) speech patterns are becoming “really annoying.” On a recent podcast, Garfield described the sound as “a door creaking or a hinge that needs oiling” and he begged for it to come to an end:
“I want the oil to stop frying. I want someone to wave a magic wand over a significant portion of the American public and have the frying come to an end.”
Unbeknownst to me, this speech pattern epidemic has a name. Vocal fry. I’ve included a video about it by YouTube user AbbynormalOne so you can get an audio sample. It’s kind of like the modern-day, more gravelly, Valley Girl lilt. And although she’s not solely responsible for it, you can thank people like Britney Spears for making vocal fry popular. Think: “It’s Britney, bitch!”
Slate’s Amanda Hess wrote an interesting response to Garfield’s plea, which explores the gender politics of women lowering the pitch of their voices to be on the “same wavelength” as men. Some research done on the vocal fry phenomenon found that “young students tend to use it when they get together,” using the speech pattern as a “social link between members of a group.”
I think the thing that both Bob Garfield and YouTube user AbbynormalOne aren’t really considering is that for young women in particular, using vocal fry is not an attempt to sound sophisticated or cultured or even purposefully irritating, it’s an attempt to fit in. Just like wearing whatever style of jeans is en trende. I say this as a former high school teacher at an all-girls school, identities like speaking voices and style choice are shaped by social and cultural influences. Young people, but especially young women, derive self-esteem from feeling a sense of relatedness.
At the high school I taught at, with a 98 percent Latina population, there was no such thing as vocal fry. Instead, there was what the girls referred to as “chola voice.” The vocal fry was reserved for when they were imitating “rich, white girls” on “My Super Sweet 16.” To fit in, all young people will mimic what they hear in pop culture and from their peers. And not just young people, all people start to pick up the speech patterns and behaviors of those they spend a lot of time with. Sure, vocal fry may be grating to the ear, and potentially dangerous to the vocal cords (which is irrelevant unless you are a professional singer), but something will come along and replace it soon. Especially now that Britney has left “X-Factor.”