In Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention, I argue that in vocal performance, the voice shapes the desire for God that is given expression in, under, and around the actual words spoken.
Popular culture theorist Peter Antelyes, when speaking about the music of Bessie Smith, used the intense closeness of the microphone as a metaphor to describe the graininess of her singing: “Bessie didn’t need a microphone because she was a microphone, or rather, she had swallowed it; and she would fill you up with her own ‘muscle.’”
Semiotician Roland Barthes calls this the “geno-song” which gives expression to the sheer material beauty or voluptuousness of the way the words are “bodied forth,” accentuating the shaping and uttering of sounds apart from their being communicable language in service to codes and conventions of proper speech and communication.
In the book (119-120) I go on the say that:
The grain of the voice invents the tone or tone of voice established by a theological composition. This tone of voice is pervasive and invents the shape of religious desire. … This desire takes many shapes defined by many tones of voice: persuasive, collegial, moralistic, wise, insightful, responsible, anxious, troubled, longing, hopeful, and so on, and contributes to the construction of a soundscape of religious desire that a theologian and audience inhabit and rely on.
The tone or grain of the work is pre- or extra-verbal. It expresses an intention: life lived within this religious soundscape, prior to, or in spite of the content of one’s words. It says such things tacitly as: “welcome to the intimate, exclusive soundscape of the wise mentor who desires for you to learn what she knows,” or “welcome to the loud, nagging soundscape of the angry parent who desires a more obedient child,” or “welcome to the inviting, interpersonal soundscape of persuasion and the desire for your conversion.”
As the sound of religious desire searching for language, the voicing of theology lies at a deeper, more interior level than words or ideas can express. As theologian Burton Cooper puts it: “Our love of God, our trust in God, our felt need of God, our loyalty to God, in other words our emotional relatedness to God, lie at a more fundamental level than our ideas about God.” Even without the words, the grain of the voice expresses a very particular religious intention, creating a soundscape that shapes the form of religious desire that exists between communicator and audience. The final sound of a theological performance, therefore, is a profound expression of religious intentionality, giving voice to the shape of the God-shaped hole between performer and audience as it reaches toward adequate words. When an audience hears the final mix, they tune in to the tone of the work, and hear beyond words the sonic shape that desire for God can take within the larger soundscape of their lives.