According to both detractors and fans, Justin Bieber sings like a girl. The Canadian moppet is the latest in a line of chart-topping boy sopranos going back to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, who hit number one in the US with ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love?’ in 1956. Lymon was 13 when he wrote the song.
The boy soprano is a transitory being, his voice poignant evidence of that fraught pubescent passage between childhood and adulthood. He possesses a voice that cannot last, which makes it a valuable resource. Bieber’s shrewd mother got her son noticed by record label scouts via YouTube, much as families in times past would offer up their boys to castrato singing schools, in the hope of future operatic riches. The boy soprano with his girlish tone is the castrato who could have been, were 18th-century vocal fashions still approved of. He inhabits a brief and fascinating space, hardly sexy but certainly queer, between gender binaries. His is the voice not yet in need of the grown man’s falsetto, that ‘clear feigned sound’, as Wayne Kostenbaum once described it, which reaches high into a woman’s soprano register but is not womanly.
The falsetto is, by definition, a false voice, touched with degeneracy, sparking anxiety and ambivalence alongside intrigue and rapture. Where the boy soprano is charmingly innocent, the male falsetto is transgressive. His voice can go to places that his body cannot, or rather, his body produces a voice that makes ‘his’ a slippery assignation.
A history of falsetto is one way to trace the continuing evolution of popular music. It’s been there from the start. Listen to The Ink Spots, one of the first doo-wop groups, and to Bill Kenny’s extraordinarily fluid falsetto on ‘If I Didn’t Care’, moving up and up the register as the song goes on, until he sounds like a theremin. ‘If I Didn’t Care’ sold 19 million copies on Decca Records in 1939, still a smash hit by any measure.
Doo-wop itself drew upon blues and gospel, where the counter tenor and falsetto voice were common. Homer Quincy Smith can be heard on a Paramount recording from 1926, backed only by an organ as he sings the gospel tune ‘I Want Jesus To Talk With Me’. His falsetto is harrowing, a bare spiritual plea; it’s a performance as singular as Skip James’ ‘Devil Got My Woman’, recorded five years after Smith in 1931, also for Paramount.
By reputation the falsetto voice is both angelic and diabolical, depending on who is singing, and to what purpose. Jónsi Birgisson, vocalist with Sigur Rós, is revered for his keening falsetto, the most ethereal element inside a great wash of sound. Birgisson is openly gay; on the other hand I still remember, at age 13, hearing Robert Plant singing Led Zeppelin’s ‘Black Dog’ (1971) for the first time, and how its devilish heterosexual lust scared me to bits. Plant is a truly outrageous singer, possessing a voice so alight with desire that he sounds in imminent danger of burning up. He is predatory but vulnerable, a bare-chested rock god who sings from a place of sexual rapture that cancels out the boundaries of his own body. He got there through intensive study of the blues: as with most tropes in popular music, the falsetto is in continual transit between black and white performers and their audiences.
Plant is the original metal vocalist – it’s a curious thing that the falsetto reigns supreme in the most hyper-masculine genres: metal and reggae. Junior Murvin, Horace Andy and The Congos’ Cedric Myton are, to my ears, the most glorious of reggae falsettists, their voices floating canopies over a vast dub space. ‘Police and Thieves’, Murvin’s 1976 single, is as much reverie as battle cry; The Clash couldn’t come close with their cover of the track, though Mick Jones, always the sweeter-voiced of the Strummer/Jones combo, did his best on backing vocals.
Punk never admitted of much falsetto; it sounded suspiciously like technical prowess. A voice like Pere Ubu’s David Thomas was a true oddity: utterly untrained, the sound of high-strung, post-industrial paranoia. A few years before punk, however, the apex of paranoid falsetto was reached by Marvin Gaye, on ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’ the icy closing track to his acclaimed 1971 album What’s Going On. Where the rest of the record hovers in an ecstatic dream state, even on songs about war and ecology, ‘Inner City Blues’ is sharp-edged. Gaye’s double-tracked vocal harmonizes his tenor and falsetto voice, the rhythm twitching, each word carefully enunciated. Gaye’s song is the atmospheric shadow to Curtis Mayfield’s celebratory 1970 soul cry ‘Move on up!’. Mayfield’s voice showed just how to do it.
‘Inner City Blues’ would find its echo in Massive Attack, who used Horace Andy as a guest vocalist on some of their best work in the early 1990s, and in Michael Jackson’s unsurpassable ‘Billie Jean’ (1983), a song as cold and gleaming as an industrial refrigerator. It was a long way from Jackson’s enamoured boy soprano in 1969, on The Jackson Five’s ‘I Want You Back’. Jackson, in turn, has his stamp all over contemporary R&B vocalists, from Ginuwine to Justin Timberlake – and Justin Bieber.
Quincy Jones’ flawless production on Jackson’s Thriller (1982) drew from disco, the playground of divas, and the supreme disco diva was Sylvester, whose falsetto is not entirely unlike that of Robert Plant: strong and loud, occasionally veering close to an orgasmic scream. But Sylvester’s virility is defiantly queer. His 1982 Hi-NRG classic was titled ‘Do You Wanna Funk?’. You need only swap out one letter to hear the real question.
Disco, however, would reach the heights of multi-platinum success only with the Bee Gees who, on ‘More Than A Woman’ in 1977, came the closest that human singers ever have to replicating Alvin and the Chipmunks. Sylvester is expansive where the Bee Gees are airless; the Gibb brothers’ soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever (1977) eclipsed black drag queens with straight suburbia. And yet that song title! ‘More Than a Woman’ encapsulates falsetto: triumphantly excessive, claiming territory in the region of the female voice but escaping the perceived limits of femininity.
Drag has always been the privilege of the male rock star, transgressing gender boundaries onstage while safe in the knowledge that his swaggering heterosexuality will provide insurance against any doubters. Freddie Mercury was a rare exception: ‘gay as a daffodil’, in his own words, his spectacular four-octave voice still rules over heavy metal, at once the most heterosexual and homoerotic of rock genres.
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (1975) would get a sly rewrite during the 1990s, in Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’ (1997). Thom Yorke’s was arguably the most influential falsetto of that decade, though one could also credit Jeff Buckley, whose intense live performances inspired Yorke to take greater vocal risks – Jeff’s own father, Tim, was also a brilliant vocal experimenter. Yorke’s falsetto is skilled and supple, its wracked anxiety learned from Morrissey. Unfortunately, Yorke’s influence would manifest in the stylized melancholia of a million indie bands, and most of all in Coldplay, who can’t go a song without Chris Martin politely sliding up the scale.
For a textbook demonstration of falsetto, look no further than a-ha’s 1984 synth-pop hit, ‘Take On Me’. Singer Morton Harket moves from one end of his register to the other through the chorus, beginning deep in the chest and ending on a note so high you can practically hear the top of his head flipping open, like the lid on a chimney. But in the end there’s no beating Prince, the most shape-shifting of pop artists, sleek yet filthy, slave and royalty, masculine but feminine; cerebral, sexy, fragile, aggressive. From the classic ‘Kiss’ (1986) to an aftershow bootleg of The Temptations’ 1971 track ‘Just My Imagination’, Prince’s falsetto goes with him, beyond classification, weird and wild and gorgeous.
First published in Issue 133