A new voice surfaced one day on my favorite public radio show, Film Week on KPCC. The roundtable format is simple and predictable: the host is joined by two or three film critics, out of a pool of eight or so, to review new releases. I sat down to breakfast expecting to learn something, expecting to smile, hoping to be entertained, even though I rarely go to any movies. But that day a young lady talking “mall talk” joined the panel. I felt an immediate hostility to her, and changed stations.
From then on I was elated whenever they didn’t feature the voice. I suspected it would return, and it did. It was now going to be one of the regulars.
The young lady’s name is Amy Nicholson. I flipped the dial, or found another podcast, whenever I realized they’d invited her back. I was angry at the station, which at one time I supported with donations, for unleashing that voice on a whole region, when so many other reviewers would have done better. I was even angrier at Ms. Nicholson It was not only her voice: it was also what she did with it; the issue was the hip, nonchalant persona she oozed onto the airwaves.
I am not alone in my dislike. Film critic Nicholson has many critics on the station’s website. AlfaRomeo911 says, “Amy is an immediate reason to skip the show.” Shadow Lady says, “Another show made unlistenable by Amy Nicholson.” Terminatrix666 says, “Amy is dreadful. Please replace her with any of the others. When she’s on, I’m afraid I skip the entire show.” Webstuff says, “I just have to join in the chorus. I don’t mean to be mean but Amy has the perfect voice for a phone-sex worker. Please do us all a big favor: stop inflicting her on our ears and return her to her desk job for God’s sake please!” In response to these protests, the station features Ms. Nicholson more prominently than before, and on more programs.
So what does she sound like? First, what she’s not: the other panelists have meaty, engaging voices. They aren’t of course actors; what they do have is personality, three-dimensionality, and a soothing atmosphere of authority. Listening to them is like listening to brilliant dinner guests. When the show is over, you can’t wait for them to come back.
Amy, of the texting generation, talks very fast in a tone devoid of discernable emotion. She fails to fully appreciate she’s on the radio. Like many people nowadays, especially middle-class whites, she tends to upspeak, bending her statements into questions: “I like what low-budget horror movies do in terms of taking risks?” Or: “This film doesn’t just tap into nostalgia?” Or: “It’s not often in a teen movie that the female love interest gets to be recognized as her own person by the protagonist?” Upspeak is an irritant, conveying a kind of in-your-face lack of confidence as well as mistrust in the listener’s ability or willingness to listen (“You know what I mean?”) and even demanding attention in a subtly admonishing way with the unstated message “Are you still there? Do you get me? Do you feel me?” Besides the upspeak, Ms. Nicholson’s speech is plagued by a fussy, very Californian overemphasis on certain operative words: “Adam Sandler’s characters are so negative and sour, and yet he thinks that’s adorable.” “José Morales has this movie star presence.” “Rosamund Pike plays an annoyed wife better than about anyone else on the planet.” I don’t think anyone knows for sure how or where upspeak got its start, but it’s here to stay (at least for the next decades) and almost as common among young men as among young women. Alongside this habit, Nicholson often gets grandmotherly when singing a film’s praises; it’s a Julia Child/Valkyrie shrillness that grates, so that in one sentence she can go from Valley Girl to octogenarian. And not only that: she often finishes utterances with “vocal fry,” a low, growly Valley way of sounding sophisticated. As if that weren’t enough, she slurs and even mispronounces so many words that a good part of her speech becomes unintelligible. Amy Nicholson’s voice and delivery are a disaster. One listener, Peteski Archer, has put it well: “Amy, you’re awful.”
Radio voices talk from a space that is at once the idealized ether and the untidy den of the inner head. Those I know exclusively from the airwaves have never been burdened with faces or bodies: they are just smudges, analogous to mental images of abstractions like “over the last few weeks” or “in the eighteenth century.” I accept these voices as stand-ins for actual persons whom I never trouble to picture in a precise way. I’m satisfied that for me they will always be voices only. In fact, I need them to stay voices: they’re complete as they are.
One Saturday, back in the States after living in Spain for ten years, I turned on the car radio and heard a wise, comforting storyteller-voice that told an ethereal tale about a youth with terrible acne who wandered into the north woods and fell in love with the sight of a doe in the distance. Before that day I’d never heard of A Prairie Home Companion, but from then on I tuned in every week. I looked forward to the drive home from the gym on Saturday evenings when I could hear Garrison Keillor paint a picture of a forlorn, frozen, funny Minnesota town. I would have been less interested in the same material on the page. Half the charm was the voice’s music, the timing, the pauses, the baritone alternating with an occasional sententious falsetto, the cunningly crafted breaths, the downhome talk spiced up with New York style. It was also a voice that suggested twilight and farewells. It looked back to an era long-gone but cherished, and part of its genius lay in its always threatening to fade away, its continual and somber message to the audience that not only were the old days dead, but the artificially revived radio show was itself a precarious artifact forever teetering on the edge of extinction.
In the two decades since I’ve lived back in America I’ve never owned a television set. I’m content with my radio. Even with the advent of YouTube, I still get most of my facts, news, updates, and entertainment from disembodied voices. And when they leave, I often mourn them. I liked Canadian personality Barbara Budd on my favorite station late at night. First the cheesy, tired jazz tune “Curried Soul,” iconic theme music since the ’60s, then Barbara’s matronly, mellifluous voice came on to introduce CBC interviews with the famous and the obscure, mostly the obscure, on topics ranging from the London Underground bombings to bald eagle sightings and fishing mishaps. It felt as if Barbara were talking to me, looking after me, watching over me, and so of course when she retired I felt betrayed and abandoned. She wasn’t looking out for my welfare after all.
Some voices don’t depart voluntarily. One such was NPR’s Neal Conan. I’ve never seen a picture of the man, but out of his voice I hazily, lazily construct a tall, lean, bearded, bespectacled man a bit past his prime. This urbane voice gently introduced me to MySpace; his was a voice of reason and restraint when we were attacked in 2001 and when we twice went to war and when Trayvon Martin’s death started the country soul-searching about racism and prejudice. I came to trust Conan’s warm blend of wit, polish, and aplomb. When Talk of the Nation was suddenly cancelled, it was a calamity in my quiet little world almost as shattering as the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban.
When I turn on NPR and hear Paula Poundstone , the oxytocin is released into my bloodstream and I’m experiencing something akin to euphoria. Amy Nicholson, on the other hand, is a third-grader squeaking out her practice sessions on a recorder. I loathe her voice so much that I almost get physically sick listening to it. But just as interesting as the voice itself is my reaction. I’m intrigued by my hatred; I want to learn more about it.
I live alone. Most of my voices emanate from the radio or the computer. I prefer these to be older than me: I need to be guided and entertained and protected by the droll, experienced brains and mouths of my elders. It is disturbing to hear so many junior voices born twenty years after me. I’m reminded of the passing of time and of other people’s successes, i.e., my own failures. I’m reminded that most of world is younger than me. I now know a few men and women in their nineties; I sometimes ask myself whom they have, among the living, to look up to. When they turn on their devices, they’re met with the same thriving post-collegiate faces I am, hear the voices of boys and girls talking politics and poetry and medicine and talking very smart, voices of their grandchildren’s or great-grandchildren’s generation. What can these children know? It must be common to die of loneliness in such a young world.
In Amy Nicholson’s youthful voice, I hear my own mortality.
Most of us dislike listening to the sound of our own taped voices; I didn’t realize this until late in life (I’d thought I was the only one). I was playing back the recording of a friend talking—to me he sounded like himself—when he suddenly cried out in pain. I felt satisfaction in realizing I was not alone. It was a moment of solidarity with the rest of the world. But I go further than others in that I dislike my own voice not just when it’s played back, but even when I hear it from inside me. It’s not the voice as much as the accent. Though from California, I was adopted (at four days old) by a Jewish couple, refugees from Nazi Germany, and used to speak with a heavy German accent, whereas now I speak with a light one. I don’t sound like wholesome American folks and hate my messed-up accent. True, Amy Nicholson sounds American, but I nonetheless hear much of myself in her: a lack of control, an inability to enunciate, an effeteness of presentation, a disparity between her fluid, smart prose style (she is a good writer) and her quick, mumbling voice (it’s as if she originally learned to talk in an abandoned house with a troubled single parent as model). When the other panelists opine, they do so as confident players in a larger group: there’s the lively, well-trained tenor of the show’s longtime host that plays off against the urbane, distinctively gay baritone of the animation expert that harmonizes with the wide-open, exuberant tenor of the show’s lone African-American voice that makes music with the affable, very white soccer-mom soprano of one of the other female regulars. Amy demolishes the mood of this madrigal ensemble like a baby screaming bloody murder in a theater’s front row.
In Amy Nicholson’s voice, I hear my own undeveloped voice.
Like a lot of adopted people, I searched for and reunited with my birth parents. After years of being “in reunion,” my birth mother died, and not long after that my birth father began to display signs of senile dementia. I tried to help with daily tasks like shopping and housework. I alerted his daughter, my biological half-sister Samantha, but at first she couldn’t accept that anything was wrong, and even gave him a big new dog. After a year she finally caught on that he was sick and helpless. She sold his house and moved him far away, to another state. She is now the sole inheritor of his estate. Samantha talks very fast and has a chaotic voice. Her favorite words are “Oh. My. God” and “totally.” In her presence, you have to plan carefully when to jump in, so you can get a word in edgewise—but it’s hard work and requires cunning, the kind you need when swatting a fly with your hands. I once spent Thanksgiving dinner with her. She talked incessantly and anyone could see how much she loved her beer. Her boyfriend loved his beer even more; he guzzled it down and held forth on baseball and football and motorcycles and NASCAR and his favorite topic, urban planning, as she peppered him with questions. Around him Samantha, though over forty, turned into a co-ed constantly in need of an assertive male to instruct her. She was every inch my biological half-sister: we had nothing in common. If I had said to her, “I am tired of life in the States and plan to hitchhike to Bolivia and join the Mennonites and father eleven children,” she would have looked at me untroubled with her candid, inscrutable face and asked, “Oh my God that’s totally awesome, when are you leaving?” If I had said, “Life’s not good and I wish to end it all; do you have any ideas on how I might do so?” she would have gazed at me in her chipper way, free of emotion and concern, gone on drinking, and inquired about the many available forms of suicide. Samantha’s voice is so much like Amy Nicholson that when I juxtapose the two, I hardly discern a difference. I have not heard from my bio half-sister in a year, while her ward, my birth father, languishes in his darkened room, ungroomed, unwilling to shower, deaf and half dead, looking not seventy-nine but ninety-nine.
In Amy Nicholson’s voice, I hear the silly, rejective voice of the sister I never got to know.
I wish I could say that understanding the origins of my allergy to Amy has made it possible to listen to her. But insights alone aren’t enough. At most, insights have allowed me to channel my hostility into writing down my thoughts here instead of leaving caustic comments on the show’s page. I do feel guilty about some of those comments. But what I wrote was the result of a sense of loss and betrayal: the old voices are going away, the sonorous public radio voices I grew up with are disappearing, and kids born in the ’80s and ’90s are taking over and becoming stars. This generational shift is inevitable and I should try to come to terms with it.
While reflecting on Amy’s oice and all that it does and doesn’t do, I’ve come to realize how unusual it is to hear a media or public-figure voice (even a drastically uptalking voice) that completely fails. And never in history have there been more voices or more choices. When I first moved to back to the U.S. from Spain, the Internet hadn’t yet taken off and people were still listening to shortwave radio. I struggled with my antenna and even attached a wire that I dangled out the window just so I could listen to Radio Exterior de España and the BBC World Service. Half the time the reception was so bad I had to give up. Now I not only listen to Radio Exterior but also regular Spanish radio and myriads of local Spanish stations. The way they read their news is urgent, bellicose—the authoritarian style I remember so well, though most of the voices have gotten younger. The World Service announcers read everything much more slowly, in their gracious, post-imperialist accents, though the names have become more exotic: the Francis Lyons are dying off, making way for a new era of Ritula Shahs and Razia Iqbals. What would meals be without them? Music won’t work: my racing-around thoughts won’t pause enough with music. I need to travel somewhere, hear stories; food needs to go down to the sound of a good voice telling me a story.
I’m ashamed to admit that my favorite voices come on late at night. I avoid the computer and the tablet and the smartphone and turn on my oldest radio, part of a dusty RCA stereo from the ’60s, the same one I listened to when I was little. The hour is too late for politics and debate or well-considered critiques; it’s past time for the rational and enlightened. A host and his guests are discussing UFOs and alien abductions and poltergeists and Ouija boards and sprites and leprechauns and raising the dead—even the embalmed dead—and truckers from all over America are calling from their lonely rides through the night to share about their ghosts and their close encounters and near-death experiences and miraculous cures. What better way to spend the time when no one is around, when all you can hear outside are the coyotes in the hills? I turn off the lamp; the ancient radio gives off its frail glow. Through venetian blinds, slatted moonlight floods a patch of bedroom near the window. The gun-show and smell-good plumber and Roto-Rooter commercials out of the way, it’s time for the host to introduce his guest and his topic—mindless stuff, you could argue. But it doesn’t matter. I manage to forget everything I found out in college and beyond, and let myself be seduced by those Middle American voices that so easily, so earnestly, spin story after story from the Outer Limits. I couldn’t imagine those voices in daylight: maybe the sun’s first rays would shrivel them up as if they were vampires. Here they come! I curl up with my chamomile tea and feel my pleasure chemicals percolate and circulate as night voices draw me in with the latest “report”: sonic booms and brilliant blue pie-plates are hovering in the darkness over Utah.