A Love Letter to male falsettos

23.03.10, Words by: Ruth Saxelby

For years my dad was in love with a recording of a beautiful male falsetto, believing it to be a woman’s voice. Discovering the truth he found a strange experience, until he accepted that it neither changed his relationship to the song, nor to its singer, Claudio Villa. The male falsetto is a form of vocal masking far beyond concealment of gender. Its usually limited range and expressivity lends it a sharpness that can cut many ways. Through my open window, into the night air, towards the treetops, sloping off into darkness and memory, playing out the end of the last century…

That’s how I remember listening to Maxwell, who exemplified the position of the countertenor post-Prince: resolutely hetero and sexual (see D’Angelo’s cornrows and abs), yet somehow impossibly so: listen to what he does with Kate Bush’s This Woman’s Work (watch the video).

Queer singers in the ‘90s were set off kilter by this re-positioning of the falsetto, and after the heady outings of Sparks and Sylvester in the ‘70s through the urgent, homo-political sound of Bronski Beat in the ‘80s (an altogether different effect from the shrill harmonies pioneered in the ‘60s by Frankie Valli and Barry Gibb) there seemed nowhere for even the impossibly soaring falsetto to reach in those murky, mannish years. In the following cases I may be stretching the term ‘falsetto’ a smidge, but I see in it some flexibility, like the word ‘queer’ in fact.

Where Jimmy Somerville used the ligamental tension of the falsetto to put over a confined, oppressed state, Michael Stipe internalises this anxiety to creepy effect on Tongue (released in ’95) where he plays on cross-gendered paranoia and flirts with obsession. The immortal Andy Bell aside (perfectly breezy on Erasure’s I Love Saturday, released late ’94) only David McAlmont, when paired with Bernard Butler for ‘95’s top ten hit Yes, was able to replicate the liberty and vivacity of Sylvester and Klaus Nomi. The overly defiant lyric is what makes that cut a standout, but there is something in that and the weird Brit-prog dithering that undercuts the insistent upper register of McAlmont’s vocal. In the end it’s pretty triumphant, and it made that macho musical landscape more bearable.

Sure, in the ‘90s men were allowed to be feminine to a point, but the reactionary ‘lad culture’ had the undesirable effect of elevating the concept of ‘straight-acting’. Thankfully this illusion couldn’t hold for long. I don’t want to make subsequent development sound too easily-won or linear, but I will say the celebratory (if pilloried) rise of a flamboyant queer underground in London in the mid 2000s helped things along marvellously, culminating (well, at least for my narrow purposes here) in the mainstream European emergence of New York’s Scissor Sisters with 2004’s Comfortably Numb, a remarkably strident cover of a paranoia-fuelled Pink Floyd track. Most of the alt-queer performances I remember at the time did not feature falsetto vocals. By this point the falsetto had become an identifiable mainstream indicator of sex (not necessarily of sexual orientation) and sex and pop music were never uncomfortable bedfellows, no matter who was singing or buying. I bought this first Scissor Sisters single and it was everything I needed in a club track at the time: dark and yet strangely positive, both qualities rooted in Jake Shears’ headstrong and high-pitched vocal.

When I hear a band like Wild Beasts now, I think they are no less trailblazing for joining this esteemed line-up of countertenors. Hayden Thorpe’s voice stretches from feminine to ladylike, exploring the operatic quality of the falsetto. Not to put too fine a point on it, for an indie band from Kendal I think a choice like this is little short of courageous: they deserve the epithet conjured by their debut single: Brave Bulging Bouyant Clairvoyants.

In the interests of circularity I would like to end this love letter with Claudio Villa’s epitaph, as passed on to me by my dad. Apparently, his tombstone reads: ‘Death, you stink’. Quite right. Before death let us celebrate all strains of life, and experience that place just beyond our range: it is a place of strange, impossible desire and its sound is the falsetto.

Ryan Ormonde is a London-based poet. Visit his website to see some of his work.