For my unfamiliar voice, I chose to listen to the song, “Follow Your Arrow” by Kacey Musgraves. Musgraves’ music fuses traditional country twang with a more contemporary pop style. As a lover of indie, alternative rock, I wasn’t used to listening to this genre and was uncomfortable at first trying to delve into the different rhythms and tonal qualities.
My relationship with country singers and songs has always been ill-disposed. Growing up, I carried along a stigma of the genre, associating it with narratives that overwhelmingly dealt with white men, red trucks, beer-drinking, Christianity, and objectifying women. Approaching this song, I was wary to indulge in these vocalized narratives I have tried so hard to avoid. At first, as I listened to the song, I noticed many of the elements I consider traditional country, including the upbeat acoustic guitar and banjo strumming accompanied with a simple bright harmony. And, yet, as I continued to listen to the song, I was delightfully surprised with the voice and the narrative being sung.
Musgraves was blatantly singing against the narratives I abhor, instead choosing to use her warm, soft, and bubbly tones of voice to counter hurtful social expectations of women and sexuality. She asks in her song for the listener to not be afraid to be themselves, whether that’s being queer or unmarried, and act in ways they desire despite what society deems ‘normal’ or ‘worthy.’ Her voice in speaking these truths became an instrument of sorts mirroring the clear, buoyant tones of the guitar. Particularly, she trails off with certain sentences just as the strumming pattern does. The two together created a general feeling of comfort and lightheartedness, seemingly giving advice to the audience as one would to a younger sibling or beloved friend.
I noticed how the guitar, banjo, and tambourine would increase in pitch when Musgraves began to crescendo into the chorus with the line “So make lots of noise.” After multiple listens, I also realized the drums coupled with her voice helped to emphasize her refrain in which she frequently addresses the audience (“If you save yourself for marriage…If you can’t lose the weight”). Together I got a sense that this repetition of her voice acts as a percussion of sorts, stressing certain words and images to bring the listener into the conversation. Noting this singer-listener conversation, I couldn’t help but attempt to bring an embodiment to the voice I was hearing. I began to picture a woman in her early 20s, an older sister or friend of sorts, attempting to console me into living a more carefree, ‘carpe diem’ lifestyle. Listening more and more, I recognized her voice as an authentic person and not so much a mediated instrument I was listening to through my headphones.
Out of my own curiosity, I tried to read the lyrics and understand the song without listening to the voice and music. In doing this, it helped me to see that, although her lyrics could stand alone in delivering the message of being oneself, the way her voice is mediated through the pitch changes and melodies of the song truly establishes a clearer personality and theme to take away. For instance, when she enunciates the first syllable in “horrible,” the listener can not only hear she is rhyming the syllable with “bore” but is also nodding to the issue of name-calling making ‘horrible’ “whore-ible.” These specific tonal inflections of voice gave me the sense Musgraves was conversing in an honest, blunt, yet tender fashion to explore the morals of maintaining one’s authenticity. This overall affect, or feeling, allowed me to connect to what she was expressing and directly engage with her narrative. As a whole, I felt there was a shared understanding as she juxtaposed her lyrics against standard country conventions, embracing the genre in a new light as I did listening.