This Is Why You Probably Hate Slam Poetry, According to a Linguistic Scholar
It’s called “slam voice” and apparently most poets hate it too.
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you've ever attended a poetry slam, you probably already hate "slam voice." For the uninitiated, it's a term used to describe the affected vocal delivery that has evolved out of the spoken word scene in recent years, and tends to involve a number of common features: mournful tone, stilted, Shatneresque pacing, and long crescendos deployed to show us just. How. Fucking. Intense. Everything is. As an outsider, it's an easy thing to make fun of, but unfortunately for our cold, dead hearts, it's always been hard to articulate exactly why it annoys us.
Lindsay Alley is a regular fixture at the Vancouver Poetry Slam (the longest-running event of its kind in Canada), as both a performer and a volunteer. And while her intention wasn't to rip on slam voice, she did recently undertake a linguistic examination of the phenomenon, and interviewed members of the community to get an understanding of it from the perspective of the poets themselves.
She talked to VICE by phone about her findings; what slam voice is, where it came from, and why, apparently, most poets hate it too.
VICE: So, what is "slam voice"?
Lindsay Alley: It's a label that gets thrown around—mostly derisively—for performers and poets who have a similar sound. It's usually something people say about performers or performances that annoy them. Or that they don't connect with. In every art form there's a style—in this case, a sound—that's uniform. There are always conventions. It's often about people signifying that they're part of a group—usually people they like or admire. That's a very human thing. And it's this kind of subconscious identification. In language, it often happens with slang. You can use slang as a way of determining which social groups or generations people identify with. And with an art form that's primarily spoken, it inevitably creeps into the art.
What are some of the common linguistic factors?
The two main things are pitch and intonation. First of all, it's pitched higher than regular speech. There's also a repetition of pitch patterns and rhythms. It's an unnatural-sounding pattern, and it tends to recur throughout the performance without necessarily being informed by the content.
I noticed some warping of vowel sounds, similar to what's been explored recently in all those posts about Indie Girl Singer Voice [that vocal trend that makes "me" sound like "maay" and "you" sound like "yee-oo"]. There's a ton of vowel warping in that sound, and I definitely noticed some of that in the poets I examined. There's a tendency to take shorter vowels on some words, and draw them out by turning them into diphthongs—which is one way we place emphasis.
And particularly with emotional poetry, there's a warble. It's this vibrato sound that comes through, which is an attempt—maybe subconscious, I don't know—to convey strong emotion. It's interesting with spoken word poetry, because things often do get emotional. You get a score in slam poetry, and often poems with intense emotional content have that reflected in their scores. So it makes it seem like that's something to strive for. But it's not meant to be acting. Some people have this idea that if they can imbue their piece with stronger emotions, they'll score higher. And that isn't always the case. If it's planned or obvious, it doesn't feel the same way.
Any idea why it happens?
It's certainly more common in newer performers. There's a tendency toward uniformity that's more prominent than in other art forms, and it's interesting to think about why that is. The circumstances of a slam are unique in a lot of ways. Most new people in other art forms aren't getting their start by doing competition in front of an audience. And having that pressure can lead people to imitate things that score well. It's totally understandable. It's terrifying getting up there. And if the only feedback you get is a number, and you don't get any specific or useful criticism from those numbers, it makes sense that you might reach for what other people are doing that works.
In any art form, when you're starting out, you don't always have an ear for how things should be applied. And spoken word is no different. It's easier to be more imitative. A newer performer doesn't necessarily have the same nuance or understanding, but more mature performers are familiar with the tools, and are able to use them for specific effect.
How ubiquitous is this? When you see poets from the US or Europe, do they sound like that too? Or is this just a North American phenomenon?
Oh, it's everywhere. The specifics of the sound are different—I'd say that poets from further east, and urban centres in the states tend to have a more hip hop-influenced sound, but definitely it's happening everywhere. It's not just here.
Not just us, then. And how do people in the community feel about it?
The people I spoke to all said they found it annoying. They see it as very imitative, and that's part of what's annoying about it. People who work in this art form tend to place a lot of importance on honesty. It's very autobiographical. And people in that community work to find their own voice, and prioritize honesty—in your words and your representation. So to see performers who sound like they're speaking with someone else's voice, and think that's what they need to do to be successful—consciously or subconsciously—it doesn't have the effect they want it to.
So, if everyone thinks it's annoying, does that mean it's going to change? How do you push a performance style into evolving?
For individual performers, the biggest thing to be doing is work specifically on your performance. There's a focus on the words and the poetry, but the whole thing is the art form—the words you write, and the performance you give. Both steps are difficult and both need attention. Just having reasons for the choices you make, and why you do what you do. I think that would go a long way.
It would also be good for the community to have more resources and exchanges and feedback. And workshops. Which is something we're working on. To have more specific, helpful, critical feedback. Because there are elements of the sound that can be used effectively, and when they are, it doesn't get referred to as "slam Voice." Sometimes the tools I've mentioned—like drawing out a vowel for emphasis—can get employed without as much thought, and you find words being emphasized for reasons that don't make sense. It could be out of habit, it could be because they've done the piece a million times, and you want to say "why are you emphasizing the word the? It doesn't make any sense!" But if those tools are used by a performer who's thinking about which words they want to emphasize and why, then it doesn't come across as slam voice. It's the same ideas and some of the same sounds, but they're being used to convey something.
But for the moment, it's safe to say slam voice isn't going anywhere?
It's not going to just vanish. There are always going to be people who are new, who are trying things out. It's not going to disappear, but it will definitely change as time goes on. Language is ever-evolving. The way we speak day-to-day is changing constantly. And so language-based performance art forms will continue to do the same.
Interview was edited for length and clarity.