In Celtic mythology the shriek of a banshee was the sign of death approaching. Some women even worked as banshees, wailing laments for lost souls for a price. The sound of a woman screaming had power to strike fear, but at the same time it was also a howl of pain which was understood by all.
Researchers into use of language in literature identified that women invariably are described as ‘shrieking’ and ‘screaming’ while men are more likely to be said to be ‘shouting’. Therefore you could argue that screaming is seen by many as an expression of unwanted emotion, as though such outbursts are a sign of weakness or madness.
You’d think then that this would mean women would be known as the best screamers in music. Somehow the music industry bias means even this accolade is skewed in the favour of men. Quite a few publications have run ‘the best screams in music’ lists and women are poorly represented on them all. Paste magazine’s list included zero female screams, Pigeon and Planes had a few but nowhere near 50% and The Independent actually said: ‘Great female screams are quite scarce, it seems.’ That of course is totally wrong and insulting. Women have been screaming on record for a long time and they still are, just listen to the new Bully album.
So in honour of all banshees everywhere and since it’s Halloween here are my five favourite female screaming songs.
1) Hole – Violet
Courtney Love once said she wanted ‘every girl in the world to pick up a guitar and start screaming.” There’s something cathartic about the need to yell your pain right out. Here statement was a call to arms, a reckoning. Too many female artists were, and still are, afraid to look hysterical or aggressive. Not enough women let their inner scream out. Courtney lived to scream. She had the anger and the power in her voice to rip a hole right through your soul. Violet and much of the classic Live Through This is a wail of horror about being a girl and trying to live in this fucked up world, which sounds more beautiful now than ever.
2) Bjork – It’s Oh So Quiet
Screaming isn’t just about pain, of course. The scream is also a sign of female sexuality and desire. In this song Bjork channels her joy and excitement about love in a hyperactive explosion of hysteria. Love might be good, it might be bad but she is going to scream either way.
3) Janis Joplin – Piece of My Heart
Personally I’ve always preferred the velvet tones of Erma Franklin’s original version (which I wrote about here) but when it comes to women screaming on record there’s no one better than Janis. She channeled raw energy into her vocals, expressing her power and strength that few have matched since.
4) TINA Turner – River Deep, Mountain High
Tina in the 60s always sounded like she was on the verge of screaming, such was the style of her vocals. Perhaps that wasn’t how she wanted to sing, since on her first solo record she went country and attempted more straight ballads (as I wrote about here). Similarly to working with Ike, Tina didn’t have much control when she stepped into the studio with Phil Spector. His perfectionism pushed her to the limit, as she recalled, “I must have sung that 500,000 times. I was drenched with sweat. I had to take my shirt off and stand there in my bra to sing.” As the song builds to its euphoric finale she is given free rein to shriek, resulting in one of the best vocal performances ever recorded.
5) Kesha – Praying
When it comes to screaming Kesha’s ‘Praying‘ is a howl of triumph and despair at the same time (please read my review of her unexpectedly brilliant album here). The whole song is one slow scream but then the top high note sounds like she’s been waiting her whole life to wail out her woes to the world. I believe it’s called a whistle note and because it’s so high she hasn’t been singing it live, which seems like a mistake. Sometimes you need to just let rip, whether it’s in tune or not. Sometimes you just need to get the pain out.
I’ve made a playlist of these songs plus a few more that vary from shrieks to growls and everywhere in between. I would be happy to hear some more suggestions too (I am pretty short on knowledge of the metal genre especially). Let me know yours in the comments.