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

Feb 15, 2016
Originally published on February 16, 2016 1:51 pm

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.

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Listen up - what do these songs have in common?


JASON DERULO: (Singing) Every time that you get undressed...


NICK JONAS: (Singing) It's not your fault that they hover. I mean no disrespect.


TREY SONGZ: (Singing) Take this pillow right here, grab this.

KELLY: That's Jason Derulo and Nick Jonas and Trey Songz, all guys who cultivate a super-masculine image but sing in high pitches. NPR's Neda Ulaby noticed something new about the way they're talking about their choices.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Fans of the TV show "The Voice" might remember a former garbage collector wearing dad jeans who killed it with a cover of a Journey song.


RYAN WHYTE MALONEY: (Singer) You said, oh, there's been mornings out on the road...

ULABY: Singer Ryan Whyte Malone blew away bro-country superstar and judge Blake Shelton.



MALONEY: It's my secret.

SHELTON: ...I don't know how you get that high but then look at studly up there. I think you're a stud, man...


SHELTON: ...A completely unique stud that doesn't sound like anybody else.

ULABY: Malone actually sounds a lot like one of Shelton's fellow judges, the muscled and tattooed Adam Levine of the band Maroon 5.


MAROON 5: (Singing) Right here 'cause I need little love...

ULABY: Guys singing high is nothing new, says Robin James. She teaches philosophy at University of North Carolina Charlotte and writes about popular music.

ROBIN JAMES: No. And I mean, this goes all the way back to the oldest European sacred music. There was boys choirs and castrati men who were intentionally prevented from going through puberty so they would retain their high voices.

ULABY: Sure, but boy choirs and castrati were not exactly seen as studly the way Usher and Levine are today. And it's hard to imagine an earlier generation of popular male singers like Curtis Mayfield or the Bee Gees talking as comfortably and matter-of-factly about singing high as Adam Levine on "The Voice."


ADAM LEVINE: First of all, you have a high voice. I have a high voice. We're basically already best friends. And...

JAMES: Men's high voices are functioning not just in terms of falsetto anymore, right, which has been around for a really long time. But there's a sort of popularity of voices with a higher range.


JACK U FT. JUSTIN BIEBER: (Singing) I need you (the) I need you. I need you (the) I need you...

ULABY: You don't get any more popular than Justin Bieber. His grown-up butch look contrasts sharply with his up-pitched sound. But singing like a girl somehow seems to complete Bieber's masculinity rather than undermine it. Robin James thinks this might reflect a generation that came of age during the metrosexual era, perhaps starting with Justin Timberlake and D'Angelo. They look super studly, but their voices reflect more possibilities of what manliness can sound like. And it's worth noting that many of them were influenced by Michael Jackson.


THE WEEKND: I found my falsetto because of "Off The Wall," "Don't Stop "Til You Get Enough."

ULABY: That's the singer The Weeknd talking about Jackson in Spike Lee's new documentary. Tonight, The Weeknd is up for seven Grammys.


THE WEEKND: (Singing) Be in love, oh, oh, ooh - I can't feel my face when I'm with you.

ULABY: Traditionally women have enjoyed more permission when it comes to bending gender norms. Wearing pants and singing with low voices is sexy. Professor Robin James says when she sees music videos with macho pop stars chasing sultry vixens while singing in high voices, she may be seeing a new centering of the gender spectrum.

JAMES: Kind of like man-buns.

ULABY: Man-buns? James says yes. There's a statement being made by the male students and baristas who heap their hair into top knots.

JAMES: My masculinity is so secure, I can even a traditionally-women's hairstyle and still be seen as masculine and macho.

ULABY: The range of the male normal is expanding, and it's gotten higher.


DERULO: (Singing) Just the thought of you gets me so hot, so hot, so hot.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

KELLY: In a very deep voice, I'm going to tell you this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.