Performing Conformity, Unleashing Craft: Female Vocalists of Postwar Pop, 1945-1956

Culpeper, Sarah, Music - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Maus, Fred, Department of Music, University of Virginia

This dissertation centers on female postwar pop singers and the hit records they made between the years 1945 and 1956. I consider the vocal styles of Doris Day, Patti Page and Mary Ford in combination with the personae and images they projected through records and other media. The project serves in part to document and recuperate the sometimes-disparaged genre of postwar pop, and to restore its neglected female singers to popular music history narratives.

I glean my understanding of the singing voice from pedagogy and science literature, and from these sources I build a technique-based analytical vocabulary for vocal style. I apply this vocabulary to close readings and interpretations of the singers’ hit recordings, and I bring my readings into dialogue with historical reception discourse. To understand how the singers may have resonated with postwar audiences beyond the vocal dimension, I connect the images they projected to historical scholarship about gender and sexuality in postwar America.

All three singers presented a degree of conformity while also complicating the era’s mores. Day never transgressed norms of postwar sexual propriety, yet the discourse around her appeal suggests that audiences found her sexually desirable. Page presented a placid poise in her media appearances, something that contrasted strikingly with her reputation as a dazzlingly powerful singer. Ford and her husband Les Paul often presented themselves as an ideal postwar couple, and yet a narrative of marital fracture seeps into some of these presentations.

I argue that the vocal craft of Day, Page and Ford centered on relaxed pop singing: a style that has since fallen out of favor in the popular sphere, and for this reason can be difficult to appreciate today. But when Day, Page and Ford made records, they presented unique articulations of the desirable pop singing aesthetic of the era: one that was characterized by a smooth vocal tone, and the conveyance of ease and warmth

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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