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Rihanna, Adele, And What Happens When Female Voices Show Their Pain

Hazel Cills on why we love imperfect pop vocals.

Pop music is all about perfection, which you can find in the honeyed voices of the likes of Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, or Justin Bieber. But there’s something refreshing about the imperfect pop voice. A megastar’s vocal that sounds like it belongs on early, guarded demos can feel like we’re witnessing what’s happening behind the scenes, that some scrim has been lifted. But there’s also something fantastic about hearing a pop star take a razor to the red tape that marks their vocal constraints and abilities, to hear them force through a song with what sounds like real desperation. Sia’s throaty, slurred vocals are her norm, and they are what make her dark songs about lost love and drunken nights all the more devastating. One of the best songs from Adele’s 25 was the Bruno Mars–penned breakup song “All I Ask,” partly because she is purposefully pushing the limits of her vocal range. “I’ve never sung that high before,” she told Rolling Stone about the song, which is understandably hard for her to even perform.

For singers who’ve built a career on the distinctive perfection of their voice, the strained, frayed vocal take rejects the known narrative. It pulls celebrity musicians down from their pedestals to a place where they can mess up a bit and let their voice curdle and break from what listeners have come to expect from them. The imperfect pop voice strives for #realness, for bringing a sense of authentic pain to a song by a singer who could very easily deliver the same track in A-plus pitch. It's notable when a pop star sings this way, betraying their perfect voice and inventing a dimension to their image -- something beyond groomed perfection. We love the rawness of pop imperfection for the difficult nature and labor of the singing itself, for the singer showcasing their voice in less glamorous tones, and for how messy singing strengthens the emotional impact of a song.

On the Anti stand-out track “Higher,” Rihanna pushes her voice to its frayed edge, to notes at the limit of her range. “You light my fire, let’s stay up late and smoke a J,” she’s pleading with a lover for company at some dismal early-morning hour. Rihanna’s vocals are jarring -- we are not used to her sounding genuinely desperate. She’s long been pop music’s intimidatingly cool girl who straight-up demands male devotion and is more than vocal about the fact that she doesn’t need a man or even have time for one. Her singing voice, even when it’s sprightly turning abstract syllables into a flirty hook, always rings with flawless, reliable authority. And you hear none of that steely authority in “Higher,” in which Rihanna’s scratchy delivery makes her sound like she’s huddled up somewhere in the dark just barely holding on to a glass of whiskey, a joint, and her well-publicized, untouchable sexual confidence.

In the chorus on Chairlift’s latest song, “Unfinished Business,” singer Caroline Polachek slips from her usually pristine voice to a creaking vocal fry when pronouncing “unfinished.” She stretches “un” like she’s gasping for air before letting her voice zig-zag like a collapsing accordion over “finished,” complicating the word much more than it probably needs. But within a song about refusing to let a fight go, over the militaristic pitter-patter of a timpani drum, it makes you feel like Polachek is staggering away wounded from the end of a cinematic brawl, like her knees could buckle under her at any second.

When Demi Lovato, whose raspy voice can turn sultry in a pop song, released a video for her challenging song “Stone Cold," she released a “live in the studio” video rather than a music video. It’s a smart, bare-bones isolation of not just her voice but how much physical energy she’s putting into singing this song: eyes closed, brow furrowed, all the things you see in a live performance that stress how much work this singer is doing.

People often forget how much physical work goes into just being a pleasing pop vocalist. Female pop singers are perceived as being cogs in a machine, a voice and a face to present the work of a back room of songwriters, producers, musicians, vocal coaches, and more. “Singing is not seen as deliberate work, but effusive labor,” wrote critic Sasha Geffen in her piece “Radical Strain” about how critics often perceive women’s singing voices as merely a natural occurrence. But the voices of Rihanna, Adele, and all singers are instruments unto themselves. When singers warp their delivery, slurring and cracking words, they help stress how their vocals are a tool, that their singing takes real work --whether it’s to sound pretty or rough-around-the-edges. These voices can go to 11, too.

The imperfect pop voice also stands in stark contrast to a growing trend of indie pop voice, which in addition to its weird pronunciation favors soft, muted singing tones. Selena Gomez’s “Good for You,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s “All That,” and Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams,” and artists like Wet’s Kelly Zutrau, Halsey, Kehlani, and Lorde often sing-talk, favoring whispery restraint. This doesn’t mean these singers can’t sing well (though their ranges are arguably far different from Lovato's or Rihanna’s), but there is little risk in these artists' songs when it comes to singing. Where indie pop vocalists make the decision to use their voices in a way that complements the minimalism of their instrumentals, the pop vocalist striving for imperfection will use sparse production as an opportunity to go even harder.

Pop stars have to prove how good they are vocally in order to make these strained songs work. There has to be a come-down, a move to getting straight to the heart of a singer’s pain (because these songs are always about pain) without the production frills and backup singers. In a sense, fans want to hear a singer sound like she’s breaking down, the curtain lifted to show just how hard she’s working for a song. These types of songs are now celebrated for their rawness, for their ability to perfect the art of sounding imperfect.