Daisy Alioto with a unified theory of vocal fry.
Slate has been on the vocal fry beat for a very long time. In 2013 they were calling it creaky voice, 2015 brought a full-throated defense, and in 2020 they rolled this analysis into a podcast episode on how women drive vocal trends. Among other women, wrote Caroline Zola, patterns like vocal fry foster intra-group prestige: “a way of talking that suggests a woman with social and economic mobility, femininity, youth, and vigor.”
On TikTok in 2021, where the message is very often the delivery, leftist female creators like glamdemon2004 (aka Serena Shahidi) and raynecorp have been lumped together by their manner of speaking. Raynecorp addressed this directly in a May video, “Every bitch on this app with a big vocabulary and proclivity for vocal fry cannot post a single video without being accused of copying glamdemon.” Shahidi responded, “Cosigned *checkmark emoji* it’s not a specific accent or way of speaking, we’re just condescending!”
As an occasionally condescending bitch with a large vocabulary, I am intimately familiar with my own vocal fry (transcribing your own interviews will do that to you). Vocal fry is the product of multitasking, and I am always multitasking. Maybe it’s the “right” I growl while scrolling my phone to indicate to my friend that I am still listening. Or the (admittedly amateurish) slip mid-interview into asking a question while thinking about the next one. More often the multitasking is talking while thinking about how I am being perceived. Whether delivering to Zoom or my phone camera, it’s hard to think about your tone of voice and face at the same time.
When I was in college, I interned at NPR. One of the sessions they led for interns was how to deliver a radio script in the cadence that NPR is famous for, with an evenness at odds with the sensational warbles of Tucker Carlson or Nancy Grace. By virtue of being NPR, these voices are trustworthy in their minimalism. The information will never be overshadowed by the delivery.
So why doesn’t vocal fry have the same credibility? It’s the sound of thinking hard and trying to talk at the same time, communication with no aspiration toward persuasion. Vocal fry is the epitome of information divorced from delivery, the tonal equivalent of mispronouncing a word you’ve only ever read. Like typing “lol” with a straight face.
And because it is coded feminine, because it lacks the peppy American verve of a cable news anchor modulating disaster, or betrays some of the nihilism of contemporary life, it becomes another distraction for people that want to be distracted.