Friday, August 26, 2016

“I Started to Fade Away”: Feist and Barthes’ Notion of “Recuperation.”

Here is a paper I originally presented at the IASPM Canada conference in 2007. Some of the theoretical material on the voice made its way into my book on Morrissey, published by McFarland and Company in 2011. The application of Barthes' "recuperation" is of recent interest due to my rereading of Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text.

There are challenges in discussing the singing voice, due to the lack of a good critical vocabulary with which to engage with the subject in a meaningful way. I would like to explore the singing voice in popular music, and to embark on the consideration of a new framework with which to discuss it, using the writings of Roland Barthes on the pleasure of a text as a starting point. This new framework can be considered in the discussion of Canadian singer Leslie Feist, whose star image is often based around her voice. Also, Feist is a figure placed within a rich context informed by French cultural history and the Canadian independent music scene, as well as the larger context of successful Canadian female singers.

To begin a study of the singing voice and, in turn, its characteristics in eliciting desire, it is useful to consider Roland Barthes’ concept of the “grain of the voice.” For Barthes, this “grain” does not only refer to the timbre, tone or character of the voice, but a process of communication within the voice: “the signifiance it opens cannot be better defined, indeed, than by the very friction between the music and something else,” that is, language. (Barthes 1977, 185) Between these two communicators of meaning—music and language—there emerges, for Barthes, signifiance within the “grain” of the voice. On the one hand, the “grain” refers to the physicality of the voice, pointing not to any sort of meaning but rather to the present physical body. On the other hand, signifiance suggests a continuing process of some kind. Barthes talks about the “grain” of the voice as the “very precise space . . . of the encounter between a language and a voice.” (181) For Barthes, meaning can come from the voice itself, and not only from what it communicates through language. (Barthes 1985, 183-184)

Barthes refers to an “imaginary” in music which serves to “reassure, to constitute the subject hearing it.” Barthes recognizes that there is a difficulty in discussing music in a satisfactory way, suggesting that “this imaginary immediately comes to language with the adjective.” (Barthes 1977, 179-180) Instead of changing the language by which one talks about music, Barthes wishes to “change the musical object itself, as it presents itself to discourse.” (180)

Challenges in discussing the singing voice are evident in musicological literature, as demonstrated in the following examples. In an article discussing opera singer Maria Callas’ voice in cinema, Michal Grover-Friedlander recognizes the problems inherent in discussing the singing voice apart from the “anchoring body,” and apart from suggesting that “the voice itself . . . has ‘body.’” (48) Citing Žižek and Dolar as scholars who also claim the “materiality of the voice,” she suggests that Barthes’ “grain” is “insufficient.” (48-49)

Laura DeMarco, in discussing the differences between the castrato and countertenor varieties of the male voice, describes those voices in terms of their characteristics rather than in terms of their potential for non-verbal communication. She discusses how the voices sound—for instance, calling the castrato voice “dramatic”—without attempting a discussion of what those sounds mean. (179)

Benjamin Givan recognizes the problems with discussing the voice in his attempt to explore the vocal technique of jazz musician Louis Armstrong. Givan writes that characteristics of Armstrong’s voice “are neither readily transcribed into Western musical notation, nor easily described verbally.” (190) Instead, Givan focuses on “Africanisms” in Armstrong’s vocal style.

Even in these few articles, it is clear that there is a definite lack of appropriate vocabulary within musicology with which to approach the study of the voice. Musicological discourse generally focuses on the text of the music—that is, the score—rather than the instrument. For example, in a discussion of an instrumental piece and its interpretation by a player of a particular instrument, the focus is often on the piece itself—the text and its interpretation—rather than the tone or quality of the instrument that performs it. A marked exception to this is if a performance is being discussed in terms of proper historical accuracy, or performance practice. But what is the “text” of the performing voice? This is an important question when one considers popular music, and vocal pop or rock music in particular, where the composition is generally written for—and by—a particular singing voice.

There are instances in which a celebrity persona is actually built around a singing voice. An example of this, which I would like to use as a case, is the Canadian singer Leslie Feist, often referred to by her last name only. Her voice is part of her present image or persona; she has been linked to French chanson or popular song, as well as the independent music scene in Toronto. She also carries with her a certain authenticity because she injured her voice in the late 1990s from her involvement as a punk singer. This resulted in her changing her style from “harder” music to become more of a singer-songwriter. These elements of her persona—an authenticity derived from injury, a change of style—force a study of interconnections. In other words, these elements compel one to explore the voice apart from the music itself and to consider what drives that voice.

Feist as a commercially successful singer seems to conform to a type of Canadian, female, white, solo performer, such as Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morrisette, Shania Twain and Céline Dion. This is something that will be explored in future work. The goal of this present project is to formulate a new framework with which to approach the singing voice, and thus contribute to a more meaningful vocabulary for the study of the voice.

Through an application of Barthes’ writings about the voice and his notions of how pleasure can be afforded from a text, a more valuable theoretical framework can emerge. Applying Barthes’ broader idea of an erotics of reading, fleshed out in what Richard Howard calls proses, and more specifically, his thoughts on what he calls “recuperation” presented in his book The Pleasure of the Text, to a practical case like Feist can prove a novel and valuable way of speaking of the “text” of the voice. It is through his proses that Barthes “speaks pleasure.” (Barthes 1975, vii)

Barthes’ book explores the ways in which a reader produces meaning, and continues Barthes’ earlier assertion that the “author” is “dead.” That is, simply, intention of the author means nothing, and that the interpretation (or meaning) of the text takes place in absence of the author. The book is set up in short segments, with the subjects or themes of each segment arranged alphabetically, and thus randomly in terms of subject matter. Throughout this “random” structuration, Barthes does discuss the binary of plaisir (pleasure) and jouissance (bliss or ecstacy). This is not a binary of opposites, and the relationship between the two terms is open and fluid. The “pleasure” from the title of the book should be thought of as both the pleasure that a reader takes from reading a text, as well as the pleasure that is apparently inherent in the text itself.

Those texts which do not overcome the “boundaries” of “traditional” literary norms are those texts which can be placed under the rubric of plaisir or “pleasure,” while those texts which disrupt the expectations of what a text should do are texts, then, of joissance or “ecstacy.” Of these latter texts, Barthes writes, “Pleasure in pieces; language in pieces; culture in pieces. . . . nothing is reconstituted, nothing recuperated.” (51-52) Thus this kind of text upsets all expectations, therefore scattering one’s subjectivity.

In one compelling segment of the book, Roland Barthes discusses how art is “compromised,” because of the effort of artists to destroy it. For Barthes, “this destruction is always inadequate.” If the effort on the part of the artist to destroy the art takes the form of continuing to work within art—for instance, in changing the type of art that an artist produces—then it “quickly exposes itself to recuperation.” (54) He concludes that “there is a structural agreement between the contesting and the contested forms,” but that this agreement does not take the form of a dialectic relationship between the art and its destruction for the production of a synthesis. Instead, there results the production of “a third term, which is not, however, a synthesizing term but an eccentric, extraordinary term.” (55) (see Note #1 below) This third term, then, is what Barthes suggests is the result, a “recuperation” of the art. For Barthes, the art has been changed or “compromised” through the production of this new term. This “eccentric, extraordinary term” might point to Barthes’ notion of jouissance.

Locating a moment of destruction in the art and music of Feist is not difficult. The destruction took the form of personal injury. (see Note #2 below) During her time with the punk band Placebo in the 1990s, Feist began to bleed from her throat, due to the high volume and frequency of forced singing during a tour. This resulted in her visit to a musical injury specialist, who employed a holistic approach to healing the voice, over a full year of therapy. Asked whether it is easier to sing softly, Feist replies that it is easier to sing now that she has stopped trying to sing well, or with precision.

Not only has Feist received accolades for her voice in her new style (and now that she is more popular), but she was also lauded during her time with Placebo. In an article from June 1995, Brooker Buckingham writes that, while comparisons with other modern singers like P.J.Harvey and Björk are not completely accurate, Feist does share with them “the determination to find personal truth in the breath of the voice. It’s all about the abandonment of traditional pop vocal syntax, stretching words and stressing sound until the voice becomes an instrument that exceeds its physical source.” (15) Like the proclamation attributed to Vanity Fair on the plastic wrap of Feist’s compact disc released in 2004, Let It Die, that her voice is “one in a million,” it his her voice which is in focus even early on in her career. As an aside, it should be noted that Feist is not only a singer. She also plays the guitar on most of her solo recordings, as well as in concert. Furthermore, she was the guitarist for the Toronto band By Divine Right the same year she released her first solo recording after her injury. In fact, she learned the guitar while recovering from her vocal injury.

If one accepts that the injury to Feist’s voice was an inadvertant destruction of her art, then it could be argued that what comes after is a recuperation of that art, in the form of an “eccentric, extraordinary term.” It seems that one way in which this term is extraordinary is its placement into a milieu of French chanson. Feist moved to France in 2003, and though she has been featured singing in the French language, she claims that she does not speak it: “I didn’t speak a word of French when I arrived and now I speak three words of French.” (Burgel) In November of 2004, Feist was asked to sing with the famous French singer Juliette Gréco, performing a new rendition of Gréco’s famous song, “La Javanaise,” written by Serge Gainsbourg. In the live performance, Gréco sang the first part of the song. Feist, with frequent collaborator Gonzales on piano, sang the second part in a slightly different arrangement. Feist exclaims that it was “kind of like the old guard passing the torch to the new guard.” Thus, Feist suggests that she is in fact part of the cultural milieu of French chanson, a peculiar position to be in considering her uncertainty in the French language, as well as her Canadian nationality.

Another way in which the “extraordinary term” manifests itself is in the description of Feist’s music as “jhai” [pronounced like the letter ‘j’]. From publicity during the promotion of Let It Die, “jhai” is described as “a detached manner of singing especially suited to very emotional material. The emotion is underplayed, never quite lets go and leaves room for the listener to crawl inside.” ("Feist Biography") Also, “Like line drawings as opposed to detailed paintings, these songs leave you space to fill in the emotional blanks.” This style of singing manifests itself with the singer no longer worrying about singing well or with precision. “Jhai” also carries with it a suggestion of relaxed singing, without much worry or stress. For Feist, “jhai” is also an opposite presentation of her teenaged self. She states, “When you’re 17, drama fires up everything you do. . . . Everything is so intense—I sang like that when I was 17. Now I’m 28 and I’m beginning to realize that being calm is OK.” (Ferranti)

Thus, there are some possibilities as to what might be happening here. On the one hand, there is the possibility that the stereotypical result of the passage of time and the maturity that comes with age manifests itself in the new style of Feist, with the singer now comfortable to sing in a calm way, allowing the “drama” expressed through the art to be repressed, and to be more subtly expressed in the music. On the other hand, the recuperation of her art, after its destruction, might result in the production of the “extraordinary term,” a style of singing that Feist calls “jhai.”

There are many questions which this short exploration into Barthes and Feist raises. First, is it even possible to apply Barthes’ thoughts about written texts and literature to other arts and their participants? Furthermore, why would an artist purposefully destroy their art? What if the artist inadvertently destroy their art, as might be the case with a figure like Feist? Does the inadequate destruction of the art always result in the production of an extraordinary term? If so, what are the effects of this “extraordinary term”? Finally, how does the production of this “extraordinary term” affect the art and its consumption or expression?

This exploration serves to ask more questions that provide answers, and ultimately seeks to explore new ways in which to discuss the singing voice, and to attempt to provide new vocabularies with which to discuss the singing voice in a more meaningful way. It is my hope that this present work constitutes a start in that direction.


Note #1: Barthes illustrates this by using Bataille: “Bataille does not counter modesty with sexual freedom but . . . with laughter.” [emphasis in original]

Note #2: This was revealed by Feist in an interview with David Dye on the National Public Radio programme World Café. The complete interview can be heard at the NPR website, available from (accessed 2 November 2006).


Author Unknown, “Feist Biography.” High Road Touring. Available from Internet. Accessed 26 March 2007.

Barthes, Roland. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980. Translated by Linda Coverdale. New York: Hill and Wang, 1985.

_____. Image—Music—Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

_____. The Pleasure of the Text. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.

Buckingham, Brooker. “Come On In, the Water’s Fine.” Core Magazine (June 1995). 15-16.

Burgel, Sheila. “An Interview with Feist: Canada’s Smooth Operator.” Cha Cha Charming Magazine. Available from Internet. Accessed 26 July 2006.

DeMarco, Laura E. “The Fact of the Castrato and the Myth of the Countertenor.” The Musical Quarterly 86:1 (Spring 2002). 174-185.

Ferranti, Lauren. “Feist: Once More, with Less Feeling.” (4 June 2004). Available from Internet. Accessed 26 March 2007.

Givan, Benjamin. “Duets for One: Louis Armstrong’s Vocal Recordings.” The Musical Quarterly 87:2 (Summer 2004). 188-218.

Grover-Friedlander, Michal. “The Afterlife of Maria Callas’s Voice.” The Musical Quarterly 88:1 (Spring 2005). 35-62.