Theses Doctoral

Hearing Women's Voices in Popular Song: Analyzing Sound and Identity in Country and Soul

Heidemann, Kathryn

In this study I combine music analysis with critical theory to investigate how different conceptions of feminine identity--intersecting with race and class--are materialized through recorded sound. I present interpretive analyses of four popular songs recorded and released between 1967 and 1974: "Baby, I Love You" by Aretha Franklin, "Fist City" by Loretta Lynn, "If I Were Your Woman" by Gladys Knight and the Pips, and "Jolene" by Dolly Parton. My analyses focus on vocal performance, and vocal quality (or timbre) in particular, as I investigate the means by which the sounds of these recordings participate in cultural discourse on gender, sexuality, race, and class. These songs narrate moments in sexual love relationships (the hope of new love or the threat of infidelity), while the performances of each vocalist, the studio musicians, and the work of engineers and producers combine to create representations of black and working-class femininity that express varying degrees of assertiveness and vulnerability in the face of unequal gender power relations. I compare and contextualize these sonic expressions of identity with the personas these vocalists presented in their professional and public lives, illustrating how these recordings participate in the construction of a multi-faceted and always-emergent history of American womanhood.
In order to accurately describe the relationship between musical sound and intersectional gender identity, I develop a phenomenological analytic methodology sensitive to how embodied responses (the types of physical engagements invited by sound), associative (or connotative, semiotic) responses, and social and historical context of both the recording and listener all contribute to the process of interpretation. I take my own situated listening experience as the object of study, recognizing how my listening practices and reactions, and overlapping identities--as a white, upper-middle-class woman and music scholar--impact my interpretations of these songs. My focus on the physical engagement inherent in music listening underpins the approach to vocal quality analysis I present at the outset of my study, in which I link descriptive language about voice to the physical components of vocal sound production. In my analyses of lyrics, instrumental quality, dynamics, rhythm, form, pitch, and the sonic "space" afforded by each recording, I continue to attend to the types of embodied and associative responses afforded by each element, demonstrating how an engagement with these sounds informs conceptions of gender identity.


  • thumnail for Heidemann_columbia_0054D_12271.pdf Heidemann_columbia_0054D_12271.pdf application/pdf 18.4 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Hisama, Ellie M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 15, 2014