The Voice is a Thief

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Will Marlon Brando’s anguished shout from A Streetcar Named Desire survive as a cultural meme long after Brando himself is forgotten? Will the Stella scream become an enduring cultural reference in the vein of Shakespeare’s quotations? In 2011, essayist Elena Passarello won New Orleans’ annual Stella scream competition by channelling Brando’s abject bawling. This week we speak with her about screams, cries, and the full range of the human voice. How does the body play into the sound of our voice? Is it possible to hear a broken foot bone when a performer speaks or sings? As interviewer Niela Orr puts it, “Passarello’s essays are what would happen if Joan Didion wrote captions for VH1's Pop-Up Video.” Passarello’s work explores the physical and cultural aspects of the human voice and how they might be connected. Our discussion encompasses vocality from opera, Flavor Flav, and James Brown, as well as automated voices, such as the classic Bell telephone operator, the voice of the Moviefone hotline, and contemporary AI, including Alexa and Siri—and how these automated voices mimic accents and human confusion. You’ll also hear Passarello’s rendition of how Koko, the gorilla with a lexicon of 1000 signs, tells the legendarily dirty vaudeville joke “The Aristocrats.”

You’ll also hear fiction from Chelsea Martin on attempts to woo an estranged ex—written in the form of a review of The Organist podcast itself.

Special thanks to Mickey Capper and Sidewalks podcast for the use of “Someone like Baby.”

Produced by Jenny Ament and Niela Orr.