In 2018, Nicolle R. Holliday and Daniel Villarreal published the results of a study they conducted asking people to rank how “black” President Obama sounded when given four different examples of his speech. Dr. Nina Sun Eidsheim
’s latest book, The Race of Sound: Listening Timbre and Vocality in African American Music
(Duke University Press, 2019) explores the values, stereotypes, and cultural norms that underline such a question. Through examples ranging from black opera singers in the nineteenth century to user’s responses to the vocal synthesis technology called Vocaloid, Eidsheim sheds light on the ways that listeners invest racial and gendered meanings in vocal timbre. Contending that vocal timbre is an even stronger marker for race and gender than physical appearance, Eidsheim explores the consequences of and reasons for the cognitive dissonance caused by of the seeming “mismatch” between the bodies and vocal timbres of African American jazz singer Jimmy Scott and Norwegian child singer and Billie Holiday impersonator, Angelina Jordan. She takes on the significant political and social results of essentialized understandings of race, gender, age, and ethnicity that support cultural constructions of identity and investigates the central role vocal timbre plays in creating and reinforcing those ideas.
Nina Sun Eidsheim is a Professor of Musicology in the Herb Alpert School of Music at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Kristen M. Turner, Ph.D. is a lecturer at North Carolina State University in the music department. Her work centers on American musical culture at the turn of the twentieth century and has been published in several journals and essay collections.