Track 3: Miley Cyrus, “Wrecking Ball”

I isolated the breath taken by Miley Cyrus immediately before she launches into the final chorus of her 2013 hit song “Wrecking Ball”. On its own, the breath sounds quite unnatural: it is loud and seems to crescendo to a peak right before Cyrus sings the words “I came in like a wrecking ball” (Cyrus 2013). Its sonic envelope perhaps resembles a human breath far less than it does a carefully constructed studio effect like the backwards cymbal on the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” (The Beatles 1967).[xiii] However, despite its apparently unusual shape, the breath fits easily in the context of the recording, as it is rhythmically consistent with the rest of the sequence of five eighth-note pick-ups, serving as the sixth pick-up (see: Figure 3).

Figure 3

Additionally, it matches Cyrus’s singing voice dynamically. These features suggest that the sound of Cyrus’s breath was consciously treated as a constituent sound by the recordists who worked on the track. Analyzing the breath’s dynamic shape using Sonic Visualizer (see: Figure 4), shows that the breath grows in intensity such that it flows easily into Cyrus’s articulation of the word “I”. The breath’s dynamic peak is not as high as the succeeding vocal, but it is higher than the preceding vocal passage, an exposed and quiet interlude accompanied only by piano. The breath and opening of the final chorus of “Wrecking Ball,” recorded by Miley Cyrus. This passage is found at 2:50 in the recording.

Figure 4

The relative dynamic levels (using Sonic Visualizer) of the end of the bridge and the beginning of the final chorus of “Wrecking Ball,” sung by Miley Cyrus (approximately 2:47–2:52 in the track). The lyrics are overlaid on their respective components of the visualization. The height of the lines represents dynamic intensity.>

The breath seems to have been compressed along with the rest of the vocal, a process that would have made it more audible and altered other sonic properties associated with it (such as its timbre). Compression is a technique that, in the words of one recording handbook, “stabilizes the image of the sound” on the recording “by evening out the volume peaks on a sound” (Gibson 2005: 79). This, in turn, allows a recordist to “turn up the overall volume and put the whole sound right in your face” (ibid.: 80).[xiv] Thus, the sound of a breath—say, Cyrus inhaling—can be made to closely match the dynamic of the surrounding vocals using compression. It is hardly surprising that Cyrus’s vocal would be substantially compressed on the recording of “Wrecking Ball,” since this is a standard technique in pop music recording. However, the compression of the breath is interesting if we consider it within the context of recording as a process which constructs and authenticates the musicking body.

A quick and unscientific comparison between the studio recording of “Wrecking Ball” and Cyrus’s live performance of the song at the 2013 iHeartRadio Festival reveals that the studio recording is notable for its polished, even vocal (“Miley Cyrus LIVE Wrecking Ball at iHeartRadio 2013”). In her live performances of the song, Cyrus’s vocals are a bit wobblier, as one would expect, and her breaths are usually inaudible. Cyrus typically drops her hand-held microphone to her side between lines, thus making her breathing inaudible to the audience. The contrast between the live and recorded versions is not simply a reflection of the technological contexts, rather, this contrast points to the different expressive forms employed by Cyrus. Within the song’s structure, the moment before the entrance of the final chorus is marked as particularly expressive and intimate. Cyrus sings a line from the latter half of the song’s verses: “Don’t you ever say I just walked away. I will always want you” (Cyrus 2013). In concert performances of “Wrecking Ball,” Cyrus uses the moment in the song to convey vulnerability through her body, making gestures with her arms, employing her facial expressions, and perhaps even crying (“Miley Cyrus Cries During Wrecking Ball Live at Staples Center Bangerz Tour YouTube”).

In contrast, the studio recording does not have a visual component with which Cyrus can convey meaning and emotion to audiences, and consequently, all of this emotion must be directed towards the sonic construction of Cyrus’s performance. On the recording, she sings the critical pre-chorus line with (apparently) the same level of dynamic intensity as in the earlier verses, yet this moment in the song (at 2:41) stands in contrast to the rest of the track for its spare accompaniment, consisting solely of a barely audible piano. The staging makes Cyrus’s persona seem vulnerable, and it stands in stark contrast to the dense texture and assertive, belted vocal that follows. The sound of the breath, while expressively extraneous in a concert performance, serves an essential function in representing the emotional vulnerability and strength of Cyrus’s recorded persona. The breath is the one sound in this recording that listeners are sure to recognize as “human”—including even Cyrus’s voice, which, through studio processing, seems rather technological, particularly compared with her concert performances. Moreover, the staging of the breath in this way is not necessarily part of a broader process of pop music production, or even of the production of Cyrus’s other recordings. Nowhere else on Bangerz, the album featuring “Wrecking Ball,” is Cyrus’s breath nearly so prominent. Instead, the highly audible breath is part of the expressive apparatus of this track in particular; it sonically conveys Cyrus’s humanness using the technological procedures that give the track its identity.

At the same time, the studio construction of humanness via the sound of breath in “Wrecking Ball” highlights a particular difficulty for female performers in the recording medium. Cyrus’s vocal on this track presents her as what Jennifer Fleeger (2014) has called a “mismatched woman”, a mediated presentation of a woman’s voice that assures listeners of the authenticity and wholeness of the woman’s musicking body. For Fleeger, the concept of the mismatched woman “arises from the rift between the rhetoric of fidelity that accompanies the introduction of new sound machines and the dissociation of body and voice they require to function” (ibid. 6). The mismatched woman is a particular sort of “schizophonia” (Feld 1994; Schafer 1977), a term that is generally understood as the separation of sound and source that is inherent in the recording medium–the schizophonia of the mismatched woman is inflected by the gendered discourses of sound (re)production that characterized recording from at least the early 20th century. In the case of contemporary pop production, this means that female performers are often limited to a handful of sonic self-presentations, and that their status as creative agents is substantially circumscribed.

These limitations are tied to a broader suspicion of the technological resources of record production, particularly as they apply to female artists. Kay Dickinson observed with regards to Cher’s vocals on “Believe” (1998),

Certain vocal conceits are cherished as exceptionally direct conduits to the core of the self, to some sort of emotive truth, with Bob Dylan’s scratchiness or James Brown’s grunts winning more of these types of prizes than the smooth, non-grating and physically less aligned vocal offerings of the likes of ABBA. (Dickinson 2004: 166)

The cultural preference for the apparently less mediated and less refined vocals of male singers assures that the conventional vocal production found in recordings of female pop singers will not be seen as properly ‘musical’. This is precisely what Emma Mayhew found in critiques of Kylie Minogue’s recordings, which deemphasized her vocal abilities in favor of the technological work of her (male) producers (Mayhew 2004: 154-155). Similarly, Liz Greene observes that female vocals are often recorded in a close-up perspective without reverberation, “allowing listeners to feel unrealistically close to the singer, as if the performer is whispering to them” (2009: 64). Importantly, this close perspective not only facilitates, but requires, that listeners are able to hear the female performer breath on the recording.

In an apparent paradox, the sorts of technological transformations of female voices described by Fleeger and others are seen as simultaneously authentic and devalued. Female pop vocals fit into prevailing discourses about the voice as the sonic expression of the human soul while also being judged inferior to (male) vocals that are perceived as less mediated.[xv] We can easily hear many of the characteristic production techniques in Cyrus’s vocal on “Wrecking Ball”: the double-tracked voice in the chorus, the various transformations of her voice to construct backing vocals, the almost certain use of ubiquitous Auto-Tune and compression technologies. By not only severing the sound of the voice from the body that produced it, but also splintering that voice into multiple individual parts, these techniques ensure a “mismatch” between Cyrus’s body and her voice. That mismatch is further highlighted by the substantially different vocal qualities displayed by Cyrus in concert performances. However, the presence of Cyrus’s breath cuts against these trends, challenging the idea that her singing is one of “the smooth, non-grating and physically less aligned vocal offerings” (Dickinson 2004: 166) that are perceived as inauthentic, and thus, restoring a trace of Cyrus’s musicking body to the recording.

Cyrus’s status as a mismatched woman is seen further in the disparity between the authenticity claims made by “Wrecking Ball” and Colin Stetson’s “Hunted”. For Stetson, the sound of breath (as a studio construction) verifies the explicit claim in his liner notes that his body is coherent, that it produced all of the sounds on the record in real time. In contrast, “Wrecking Ball” makes no such claim because, by convention, pop music audiences do not require it of female pop stars. The heavily processed sound of breath on the recording of “Wrecking Ball” conveys a musicking female body—but without the suggestion or requirement that there be a corresponding ‘real’ musicking body that is capable of reproducing those sounds ‘live’. Cyrus uses entirely different expressive means to convey her authenticity as a performer in a concert setting, highlighting rather than concealing the distinction between her body as a recorded construction and as a physical presence.