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In Defense Of That Whole Weird ’90s Rock Marble-Mouthed Thing

American singer Rob Thomas, of the American rock band Matchbox Twenty, sings on stage during a concert in Los Angeles, California, circa 1996. (Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images)
Lester Cohen/Getty Images

This week, Defector has turned itself over to a guest editor. Brandy Jensen, former editor at Gawker (RIP) and The Outline (RIP), and writer of the Ask A Fuck Up advice column (subscribe here!), has curated a selection of posts around the theme of Irrational Attachments. Enjoy!

I am, I suppose, a latter-day Millennial, which means that my peers grew up calling themselves “'90s kids,” even though we were only alive for half of the actual '90s, years which largely passed for us in an indiscriminate blur of sensory impressions: the taste of pesto, the smell of CK One, the sound of Rob Thomas’s voice. A simple transcription does not suffice to capture the way Thomas sings the lines “Reach down your hand in your pocket / Pull out some hope for me” in Matchbox Twenty’s “Long Day.” Once he gets to “pocket“—a word he rolls around his mouth like a marble, “pockEHT“—he starts muffling the syllables, like they are resonating from inside that gauzy enclosure. Vowels acquire a protective padding of phantom consonants: “pull out some hope foe mRe.” When Ryan Gosling covered “Push” for the Barbie movie, he made sure to go all out with this particular mannerism: “I wanna take you for grantAGH,” he gurgles, out-Thomasing Thomas.

Something happened to rock singers’ voices at some point in the early '90s. Jaws locked, tongues stuck to palates, and every syllable became saturated with a swampy viscosity. This was a swing of the stylistic pendulum away from the high, pinched tones of hair metal: Joe Elliott’s keening on Def Leppard’s “Animal,” Bret Michaels’s whole weird deal where he sounds like he’s sucking on helium even in his lowest register. The new crop of singers still screamed and howled, but they spent most of their time in murkier territory. “Black hole sun, won’t you come,” went Chris Cornell’s rumbling invocation; “I’m the man in the box, buried in my shit,” Alice in Chains’s Layne Staley groaned, slightly less articulately. The consensus among these singers seemed to be that the voice should cruise low and soupy, that syllables shouldn’t be articulated so much as folded into a thick paste of consonants. When Staley stretches out a harmonized Yeah in “Man in the Box,” his tongue creeps upward, giving the word a light phasing effect, as if he is falling in slow motion, or perhaps being buried alive.

Where did this voice come from? Most proximately, from heavy metal. By the time the first grunge acts were breaking, the likes of James Hetfield and Ronnie James Dio had already been singing this way—the telltale sign is, again, the sloshy Yeah with a ghost r in it: “yReaH“—for years. Jack Endino has pointed out that this “yarling” vocal mannerism, as he calls it, appears as early as 1968, in Iron Butterfly’s ponderous proto-metal “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” From those early days, metal singers were faced with the problem of matching the ferocious intensity of the loudest instrumentation yet devised by human beings, all with the frail piping of a single voice. The yarl was a way to make the voice more than itself, to give it a hard protective shell that would allow it to enter the fray. It was also in part a technique for melting the voice into the sludge of the band. Doug Ingle’s singing in Iron Butterfly is stiff and mannered, to put it generously, but it betrays a conception of the voice as another riff instrument, spitting out nonsense syllables in a call-and-response with the heavy fuzz guitar. This was singing not as melodic vehicle or technical exertion, but as texture.

Still, as Kelefa Sanneh has argued, in the years between the original yarlers and the first grunge hits, the dominant emotional strain in metal reversed polarity: What was originally hailed as “downer rock” mutated into the paradigmatic white-dude party music of the '80s. (This is the distance between, say, Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” and Poison’s “Nothing But a Good Time.”) After a sustained pursuit of the high and the intense, heavy rock singing circa 1990 found itself with a limited vocabulary for capturing the drabber textures of experience: the slump after a long day; the doldrums at the end of history. The resurgence of the yarl in mainstream heavy rock represented a return of the downer strain.

We all know what happened next. Pop music is formally incapable of sustaining such strenuous negativity for long. And so the yarl became, implausibly, the voice of uplifting Christian-adjacent heavy rock: in Scott Stapp’s baloney-sandwich-in-mouth vocals for Creed, or Alex Band’s similarly obstructed singing in The Calling, a band that many listeners are still astounded to learn is not Creed, you can hear what can only be called extreme yarling. This is the point where the yarl started to be funny. How can you not laugh at Stapp’s rendering of a simple line like “Can you take me higher?” as “CRan you tRake mRe highEAH?” This is the sound of grunge’s final hardening into a kind of meatheaded worship music. 

Scott Stapp of Creed performs the tour opener at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago. October 14, 1999. (Photo by James Crump/WireImage)
James Crump/WireImage via Getty Images

There is, however, another side to this historical process. While Stapp was strutting and sweating, tendrils of the yarl spread further, out from the grey slough of grunge and throughout the landscape of pop and rock, from Alanis Morissette’s thick bleat, to Darius Rucker’s tight croon, even resonating more obliquely with Natalie Merchant’s mid-Atlantic vowels—rounded in a different way, less through distortion than through careful polishing, as if fresh out of a rock tumbler. I never cared much for Soundgarden or Alice In Chains or really any grunge bands except Nirvana and—laugh if you want—Bush. But these rounded, padded voices that I heard on adult-alternative radio, voices I would only years later come to understand as mediations or adaptations of grunge’s vocal techniques, captivated me. Where in Cornell’s and Eddie Vedder’s low tones I heard a self-protective stance, a desire to shield the exposed self from buffeting harm, in these more pop-oriented singers’ mannerisms I heard a kind of vulnerability.

This brings us back, at last, to Rob Thomas. Matchbox Twenty is no grunge band—in fact, when Yourself or Someone Like You dropped in 1996, they were hailed as harbingers of the end of the grunge era, promising a return of lighter and more melodic pop-rock to the radio. (The reality is unsurprisingly more complicated: A video of an early live set shows Matchbox Twenty looking and sounding pretty hair metal–adjacent, from Kyle Cook’s crushing Roland JC-120 guitar tone and wide vibrato to Thomas’s leopard-print shirt and eyeliner.) From the start of that album, Thomas asserts himself as an uncommonly expressive singer, coloring his softer tones with a touch of breathy quaver and laying into more forceful passages with a ripping attack. His tics are almost all endearing: the way he half-twangs, half-spits the word “yeah,” the audible sharp breath he takes between phrases, the occasional Alanis-adjacent yodel, his confusing tendency to sing “hell” as a filler syllable.

Yourself or Someone Like You is an album about the doldrums. It bears traces of Thomas’s childhood, living in poverty in the small-town South—“I’m the same old trailer trash in new shoes,” he sings at one point. The situations it probes are bleak and stultifying: The protagonists of its songs find themselves trapped in emotionally abusive relationships, struggling to take care of ailing relatives who are losing their grip on reality, stalking around parties that everyone is twitching to leave, working shitty jobs and dreaming of one day being the boss. Other people seem to exert a suffocating force: “I want to push you around and drag you down”; “She drags you down, then she pulls you up”; “Don’t need you crowding up my space”; “Try to turn your head, try to give me some room.” These were sparkling, miserable, often impossibly catchy pop-rock songs, sung in a voice that was largely sui generis and yet also marked by a familiar murk. 

Thomas sings from inside a world where emotion increasingly makes little sense, where feelings hang unaccountably in the air and people find themselves reacting with bursts of violence to seemingly innocuous stimuli. Sometimes it seems like he is trying to fight for the continued possibility of individual expression under such claustrophobic conditions. He often beats his chest during live performances, not as a demonstration of dominance but as a gesture toward the impossible density of experience he is trying to wring out of himself and into the music. (“Clods have feelings too,” went Robert Christgau’s review of Yourself in its entirety.) Other times he lets his voice catch a stray feeling from some unknown source and lend it texture, as if he is trawling for ambient moods. This, maybe, is the real source of his yarl: a momentary overtaking of his voice by some unaccountable free-floating intensity. If there is a tension in his singing, it is one between giving voice to the doldrums and trying to burst out of them—between embodying and resisting what Fredric Jameson long ago called the “waning of affect,” the apparent dissipation of deeply felt individual emotions into diffuse impersonal clouds of feeling. 

Is it laying it on too thick to say that Rob Thomas pushed the yarl to its dialectical limit, transforming what was once a sign of gloom into a sensitive expressive instrument? Maybe so. Thomas’s yarl was largely gone by 1999, when he recorded “Smooth,” a continued object of millennial love-hate fascination. Maybe by that point, even he was starting to sense the whole thing becoming a gimmick. And yet for a while, the trick really worked. Thomas and the other latter-day yarlers made a genuine innovation in rock singing when they reconfigured its distribution of emotion, letting a quality of uncanny, often disproportionate expressiveness soak through and texture each syllable rather than finding it only in stratospheric excursions. That we heard something arresting, even pleasurable, in these voices—until we didn’t—is something we are, perhaps, too quick to take for grantagh.

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