In my 2014 Noisey article on Meghan Trainor & Nicki Minaj, I said that in pop music (and beyond) white feminist aesthetics tend to focus on representations of the body (body image, objectification), whereas black feminist aesthetics tend to focus on the body as a source of pleasure. Though both “All About That Bass” and “Anaconda” throw shade on “skinny bitches,” Trainor used lyrics to talk about her rehabilitated body image, whereas Nicki rehabilitated the actual sounds (Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”) that gave her pleasure when she listened and danced. Here I want to develop a related claim: in the repertoire of black women’s pop music performance traditions, singers and rappers make non-verbal sounds as a way to experience physical, corporeal pleasure in the performance of the song.
This tradition has a history. For example, Francesca Royster argues that Michael Jackson’s use of non-verbal sounds produces an erotics that exceeds the cisheteronormative bounds of his songs’ lyrics. They were what allowed her, as a queer teenager, to identify with a love song that otherwise excluded her:
in the moments when he didn’t use words, ‘ch ch huhs,’ the ‘oohs,’ and the ‘hee hee hee hee hees,’ fueled by mysterious elements like ‘the beat,’ ‘the force,’ ‘the madness in the music,’ and ‘a lot of power.’…I ignored the romantic stories of the lyrics and focused on the sounds, the timbre of his voice and the pauses in between. listening to those nonverbal moments–the murmured opening of “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” or his sobbed breakdown at the end of “She’s Out of My Life,’ I discovered the erotic (117). “Through his cries, whispers, groans, whines, and grunts, Jackson occupies a third space of gender, one that often undercuts his audience’s expectations of erotic identification” (119).
Jackson’s non-verbal sounds–his use of timbre, rhythm, articulation, pitch–impart erotic experiences and gendered performances that can veer off the trite boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl stories in his lyrics.
Nicki, Missy, and Beyonce all pick up on this–they use non-verbal sounds as opportunities to feel their singing, rapping, vocalizing bodies as a source of pleasure–and as opportunities for their audiences to feel some bodily pleasure as we sing along.
Nicki makes a lot of noises: she laughs, snorts, trills her tongue, inhales with a low creaky sound in the back of her throat, percussively “chyeah”s from her diaphraghm, and a bunch of other things. She makes a lot of these sounds in “Anaconda.” The video shows scene after scene of Nicki enjoying her body and the bodies of the women around her. The last part of the video, which coincides with the song’s coda, is where she makes most of the non-verbal sounds. It kicks off with a quasi-sarcastic cackle that goes from her throat and chest up to resonate her nose and sinuses, and her verse ends with a trademark “chyeah,” which is followed by another cackle. Then she has a gristly, creaky exhale and inhale, trills her tongue, makes a few more “chyeah”s. In “Feelin Myself,” she ends a long “lazerrrrrrrrrrrr” with a little trill, and then ends the song with a low, knowing laugh, a trill, another laugh, and an inhale. She does a similar extended “Wai-ki-kiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii [inhale]” in her verse in Big Sean’s “A$$.” Sure, these sounds have rhythmic, timbral, and pitch effects in the songs, but they’re also, well…fun to make. They feel good. And given Nicki’s constant discussion of how much she likes her body, it makes sense that these sounds are, well, ways that she can go about feelin herself.
Missy’s new video also has a lot of non-verbal sounds. In the intro, we hear Missy’s disembodied voice and see people sing and dance along to her. So there’s explicit instructions that it’s cool to play along with her, that it’s not just about Missy having fun, but us too. In the first verse, she extends some “nnnnn”s and “uuuuunnnnng”s. This gets your whole mouth buzzing, up into your sinuses. There are tons of uptalked “What?!”s all over the song. There’s an “Umm-hmm-hmmm-hmmm yack-it-to-the-yack,” some gunfire sounds, a “purrrrrrrrrsy cat,” and a “blah-blah-blah-blah.” There’s a bunch of guttural “Uhhhhhhhs” in “Lose Control.” “Work it” has the backwards rapping, the “bom-bo-domp-domp” and “gadonk-a-donk-donk”s, and some more percussion sounds and “blahs.” “Get Ur Freak On” has a “skrrrrr!” that we might hear as a predecessor to the ubiquitous car screech sound we hear in, like Rae Sremmurd, some “sw-sw-sw”s, a spitting sound, and, of course, the “holla”s and the “brrrrrrah!”s.
Beyonce isn’t as prolific a noisemaker as Missy and Nicki, but the same general idea often informs her singing. For example, the variety of singing styles and techniques she uses on her 2013 eponymous album very obviously require her to use all different parts of her body, from her sinuses down to her diaphraghm. From its high-pitched Janet-like giggles to its low husky verses, “Drunk In Love” features Beyonce resonating a range of different body parts. But what’s most interesting about this song is its “surfbort” lyric, which became a fairly viral meme. One instance of the meme was a video that loops Beyonce singing the song:
The thing about “surfbort” is that it’s not just funny to see (e.g., “Bort of Directors,” “Ernie and Bort”), it’s fun to say.
Nicki, Missy, Bey, they all use sounds that feel good to make. When we sing along with them, we feel a little bit of bodily pleasure in our mouths, throats, faces, and torsos. The songs don’t just talk about how great it feels to live in one’s body, they offer us specific techniques for enjoying our bodies. (And if we wanna go all theory on this and think about queer eroticism as a kind of erotic that involves something other than genitals and other gendered body parts, then this practice fits that bill. This loops us back to Royster’s analysis above.)