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Why Are There So Many Tough Guys Who Sound Like Ladies On The Radio?

The Weeknd —€” known for his falsetto range —€” performs in Las Vegas earlier this year.
Bryan Steffy
Getty Images
The Weeknd —€” known for his falsetto range —€” performs in Las Vegas earlier this year.

If you turn on the radio and hear a falsetto, chances are it's a guy. A really manly guy. Pop music is filled with male vocalists who present as hyper-masculine, muscled and tattooed, but who sing in really high registers. Think Usher, Jason Derulo, Justin Bieber, Trey Songz, Nick Jonas or The Weeknd, who's up for seven Grammys this year.

Men singing in high voices is nothing new, says Robin James, a philosophy professor who writes about popular music on her blog, It's Her Factory. "This goes all the way back to the oldest European sacred music," she says, referencing boy choirs and castrati. But she agrees that child sopranos and medieval male singers prevented from going through puberty are no one's idea of studs.

And it's hard to imagine earlier generations of popular male singers, such as Curtis Mayfield, Teddy Pendergrass or the Bee Gees, talking as matter-of-factly about their high voices as Adam Levine.

"First of all, you have a high voice and I have a high voice, so we're already best friends," the lead singer of Maroon 5 joked to a contestant on the NBC show The Voice. Fellow judge and bro-country superstar Blake Shelton took it even further.

"I think you sound like a very original, different sounding artist than anybody else I've ever heard before," he gushed. "Let me just tell you this about your voice: I freaking love it. ... I mean, I don't know how you get that high but then look that studly up there. I think you're a stud."

So what's up with all these manly men singing like girls? Perhaps it has something to do with a generation of vocalists growing up during the metrosexual era and worshipping Michael Jackson. Singing high was cool, and so was expanding the possibilities of masculine self-expression.

When professor Robin James looks at all the music videos of macho guys doing shirtless pushups and wooing ladies while showing off their uppermost registers, she sees a new centering of the gender spectrum.

"Kind of like the man bun," she says. "My masculinity is so secure, I can even wear a traditionally women's hairstyle and still be seen as masculine and macho."

The range of the male "normal" is getting bigger — and getting higher.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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