I remember it so clearly, as if it were yesterday, the number of times I would answer the phone at my parents’ place and the voice on the other end of the line would go, “Good evening, madam.” It would drive me crazy. I would yell back, “I’m not a madam!” I was just a kid, a pubescent lad whose voice hadn’t yet cracked. When it did, it wasn’t soon enough for me. I was thrilled to finally sound like a man. I imagine most boys go through that rite of passage, until the wellspring of testosterone finally gives, leading, among other masculine developments, to a growth in the larynx and a whole new voice. So what’s with all the men trying to sound like girls these days?
We’re a couple of hundred years past the trend of castrati, male singers in the European classical tradition who would lop off their sacks before they hit puberty in order to retain their angelic high-voiced pitch pipes (à la the flute-toned Vienna Boys’ Choir which, fortunately, was formed long after prepubescent castration was made illegal; its choristers’ careers last just a few years—from the age of 10 to 14).
But there seems to be a trend nowadays in the pop world for male singers to croon in registers usually occupied by their female counterparts. It’s called singing in falsetto, a technique that involves a combination of a ‘head voice’ and added breath in order to be able to hit notes significantly higher than the natural speaking voice.
A good example of this would be the British pop-and-soul romantic Sam Smith hitting the chorus of his Grammy-winning hit ‘Stay With Me’. He goes even further into the territory with ‘Lay Me Down’, his other hit from the same album, swooning his way up the register as he pleads, “Can I lay by your side / Next to you-oo-oo-oo”.
Ed Sheeran is another plaintive pop hitmaker who makes the ladies go nuts over a guy going girly-like. The twenty-something Brit singer/songwriter, whose talent was first noticed by Elton John and actor/singer Jamie Foxx, hoots his way up the refrains as he makes his way up the charts with his self-penned songs ‘Photograph’ and ‘One’.
Coldplay’s Chris Martin is no slouch with the high notes, gliding ably into the chorus of ‘What If’, exhorting his muse: “Ooh ooh-ooh, that’s right / Let’s take a breath, jump over the side”. Whereas in ‘Paradise’, from the album Mylo Xyloto, Martin switches deftly between falsetto and natural voicings. It’s a skill he deployed with great effect right from the band’s earliest days, as evidenced in ‘Spies’, from their 2000 breakthrough album Parachutes.
Radiohead’s Thom Yorke possesses one of modern rock’s most versatile voices, with a staggering ability to move from the low troughs of quiet emotion to wails that soar high above the peaks. Jónsi Birgisson, of the Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós, is equally deft in his ability to ride the crests of his band’s dynamic arrangements. The frontman and guitar player brilliantly employs his sharp, reedy falsetto to cut through and counterpoint the band’s wall of sound, featuring heavy guitars, large string arrangements and drums that work their way up to humongous crescendos.
(This story appears in the Mar-Apr 2016 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)