Gimme Shelter: American fried


Have you noticed the strange way some girls and young women are talking these days?

It’s not what they’re saying, but the way they say it, a low tone that begins by including you in some kind of conspiracy (even if the subject is the artistry of Ryan Gosling) and then at the end of a sentence their voices trail off to an even lower register, going from whispery to gravelly, almost a whine.

I was beginning to worry about myself so was much relieved to find out someone else was picking up on the phenomenon. And not just some guy with poor social skills going on about how eerie females are sounding when he’s around.

Long Island University did a study recently of the speech patterns of 34 women aged 18 to 25 and found more than two-thirds were speaking in what has been termed “vocal fry.”

It seems the sound of a dungeon door creaking open in a horror movie is the result of aping certain celebrities, which includes a gaggle of Kardashians. But what’s more interesting is that it’s not only tween girls gone pop culture delirious, mixing in vocal fry with their normal speech pattern of North American Chipmunk. (This alarming sound seems to be the choice of all phone customer service representatives.) Many highly educated women’s sentences are trailing off down the gravel road. I was watching an editor at a popular news website on TV the other night who at times sounded like Kim K. discussing shoes, even when she was talking about John Boehner.

Guys aren’t immune from vocal impersonation. Listen to young white men greeting each other with, “Sup, dawg?”

Where are they from? Straight outta Smithtown.

When I was a teenager growing up in the Midwest, my buddies and I would never call cash “money.” It was “bread,” and there were guys and then there were “cats.” A job was, of course, a “gig,” which is now Standard English.
We didn’t listen to jazz but talked like wised-up sidemen, even though our most adventurous experiences were limited to playing half court basketball and drinking beer in the woods.

We spoke like Dizzy Gillespie by picking up the argot from an older generation of small town white guys we venerated. They actually listened to the music and admired the flair of the artist-vagabonds’ vocabulary, knowing at 20 that their own futures were life sentences of wife, family, home and paycheck.

Artists, musicians especially, have always had license to speak any way they wanted. Think of John Fogerty, the guiding spirit of Credence Clearwater Revival. John grew up in the back-of-beyond bayous of Berkeley, California. Or Bruce Springsteen’s border-state drawl, picked up busting sods in Long Branch, New Jersey. Or Robert Zimmerman who, when he left middle-class Minnesota and became Bod Dylan, sounded like a dust bowl hobo.

Politicians can lose their aural roots and find newer ones. Hillary Clinton has been known to get down home and drop the “g” from the end of words. But the good Methodist girl from the tony Chicago ‘burbs gets a pass after living for many years with the most persuasive Southern Baptist who ever lived.

Hillary’s polar political opposite, George W. Bush, did grow up in Texas, but was educated at an eastern prep school and Yale. Why then is his “gol dang hit but Ahm bout to turn yew ever witch way but loose” accent so tortured it sounds like he’s speaking with a broken jaw? Strange, but his siblings have the cultured Texas accent of privilege, with notes of Fifth Avenue tailoring and $1,000 cowboy boots, rather than W.’s Big Boy overalls and steel toe work boots.

A St. Louis friend of mine told me about his son coming home from his first day of fourth grade a couple of years ago. Asked how it had gone, the boy said his new teacher had a speech defect. Miss Maloney seemed like a good teacher and not everyone in the class privately made fun of her at recess. My friend told his son not making fun was the right thing to do. We all have to overlook someone’s flaws and see the whole person.

Curious — and not a little concerned — my friend was anxious before meeting the teacher at the first parent-teacher conference. Turns out Miss Maloney’s speech defect was because she was Long Island born and bred.
She didn’t say — “Not just big, it’s yooj, nome sayin? Like, I mean, y’know, we’re all yooman beans, right?” — but there was no mistaking she learned English at her mother’s knee in Yaphank.

It used to be if you had a thick accent and wanted some accelerated social mobility you’d change your way of speaking, afraid if you opened your mouth in front of influential people they’d immediately subtract 100 points from your IQ. But Mr. Bush showed it could help you get elected president and didn’t hurt Miss Maloney getting a job teaching school.

It’s a good sign now that an accent can add panache, since by many accounts regional accents are waning. This is due, some opinions have it, because of television, which has its own featureless accent, kind of Indiana flattened even more when spoken by someone who is all haircut and no brain.

Replacing that with vocal fry may not be the worst thing after all.