The Ways in Which White People Talk Over Music

by Johannah King-Slutzky

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If you want to scream whiteness, almost nothing beats rap-talk-singing — that half-monotone half-melodic vocal technique you may recognize from the likes of Beck’s “Loser” or many recent commercials. These days, rap-talk-singing is typically parody in the vein of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s famous “Baby Got Back” intro. (You know: “Becky, look at her butt. It is sooooo big. She looks like one of those rap guys’ girlfriends.”) It is not always clear when white people rap-talk-sing self-deprecatingly. Perhaps this is what happened to Taylor Swift, whose most recent single, “Shake It Off,” is somewhere between a great Gap ad and a bad pop song.

Although “Shake It Off” is aesthetically bad, even T-Swift knows that in most cases, if you are white, you must address your bad rap through irony, calling yourself out for your failure to achieve authentic blackness. Around 2:30, Taylor does just that by dressing up, first in a snapback with an oversized boombox (her black persona intro), then as a bouncy-haired cheerleader, icon of whiteness. She is going to rap-talk-sing her way to the Billboard Top 40: “My ex-man brought his new girlfriend, she’s like oh my god…” You can hear the echoes of Sir Mix-A-Lot. This is different from her attempts at rap, which are also parodic, but have never jumped directly from thug-persona irony to the exaggerated strutting and lilt of a white cheerleader.

Rap-talk-singing is as white as it gets, but it doesn’t have to ironize or foil blackness. White people rap-talk-singing pre-dates hip hop by seventy years, with roots in German opera and melodrama. The proper name for rap-talk-singing is sprechstimme, sometimes used interchangeably with sprechgesang, the latter of which is a little more melodic. Encyclopedia Brittanica defines sprechstimme as “a cross between speaking and singing in which the tone quality of speech is heightened and lowered in pitch along melodic contours indicated in the musical notation.” As a vocal technique, sprechstimme was popularized by Arnold Schönberg in his 1912 melodrama, Pierrot Lunaire. Although today “melodrama” applies to anything from Douglas Sirk films to pulp fiction, it originally referred more specifically to quasi-operas whose texts were spoken rather than sung, which is exactly what Pierrot Lunaire does. The notation for sprechstimme resembles that of singing, with precise pitch and duration, but the end effect should resemble speech first, song second. Or at least, so Schönberg said — apparently, the performance of his melodrama by its original singer, Albertine Zehme, did not match his expectations, and Schönberg repeatedly revised descriptions of his technique over the course of thirty years. Regardless, the end-product sounds something like this, starting at around the 1:11 mark:

This is still a far cry from the rap-talk-singing of today. Sprechstimme took its next step forward with another German drama, Kurt Weilland Bertolt Brecht’s Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, which (if Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, and Lotte Lenya are not enough for you), The Doors made famous as “Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar).” As you can see, early performances were quite flat (go to around 9:04).

This flatness, the source of the song’s appeal, was quite deliberate. Brecht actually devised “Alabama Song” as a full-bodied melody, but Weill altered it by shifting some of the emphases and razing the pitch to a sprechstimme. (Weill’s teacher at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, Engelbert Humperdinck, contends that he is the inventor of sprechstimme, which he employed in his 1897 opera Königskinder.) Although using a different notation system, Weill’s opera, like Schönberg’s, specifies spoken intonation down to the sharps and flats.

Skipping ahead a half century, sprechstimme continued to be unrelentingly white without being faux- or anti-hip hop in Paul Simon’s under appreciated classic, “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves.” The name alone! It may not be a classic as measured in prestige, but it is certainly vintage Paul Simon, who spends just under four minutes chuckling in sing-song about picaresque barnyard animals just as, elsewhere, he rhapsodizes on Puerto Rican immigrants and college bound killers. Although Simon’s aesthetic is pre-hip hop (and thus pre-hip-hop irony), “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves” is just about the whitest song I’ve ever heard.

Paul Simon’s sprechstimme shares a few things with Taylor Swift’s: It is silly, it is parodic. Perhaps this is just what sprechstimme is — recursion from melody to flat sing-song as a kind of indirect speech act. Although the contexts of the vocal technique have changed significantly in the last century, using sprechstimme to denote a strange speaker is nothing new. Michael Von der Linn’s article on sprechstimme for Columbia University’s Sonic Glossary notes that in the early twentieth century, “The unique sound of Sprechstimme was often used to represent emotional duress, the macabre, even madness.” Today, we don’t use sprechstimme to signal madness, but to parody strange speakers. And there is still the madness of depression, for which, for example, Beck employed sprechstimme in the 1993 alt rock hit, “Loser.”

As in “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves,” you see the same kind of indirect quotation in yet another popular example of rap-talk-singing, Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl,” whose first lines are written in parodic indirect speech before they give way to the unabashed, sincere position of the more melodic song proper: “That girl, thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood. She’s got the hottest trike in town…” Without being named explicitly, sprechstimme has become a hallmark of riot girrrl — it is even in Russian punk — and of Kathleen Hanna’s bands in particular. “Rebel Girl”’s gurlesque intro is particularly interesting because it fills one of the gaps between something like “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves,” which is white and parodic but not a foil to hip hop’s blackness or masculinity, and Taylor Swift’s anti-hip hop rap-talk-singing.

In a post-hip hop world, sprechstimme tends to take the form of the anti-hip hop, white girls with bad agendas. Parody, unseriousness, and quotation are rampant. But rap-talk-singing needn’t exclusively be a foil to authentic hip hop, although it is unsurprising it has taken this form in the last twenty years.

Johannah King-Slutzky is a blogger and essayist from New York City.