Feature writing

AI

How to get a husky, sexy voice — just like Scarlett Johansson

Website:
The Daily Beast

Date:
May 24, 2024

Scarlett Johansson’s OpenAI-related controversy highlighted her distinctive voice. Experts reveal why voices go gravelly, and how people can achieve the sound—without being sick.

The world may appreciate Scarlett Johansson’s distinctive voice, but she doesn’t appreciate any perceived commodification of it outside of her own control. This week the actor accused the artificial intelligence company OpenAI of creating a virtual assistant voice that sounded “eerily similar” to her own. However, the Washington Post reported, another actress was hired to create the “Sky” voice, months before OpenAI CEO Sam Altman allegedly contacted Johansson to license her voice—a request she refused.

Johansson’s warm, approachable huskiness is her voice’s USP, a state most of us can only achieve through the otherwise miserable ravages of a cold, hangover, or allergies. Even then the sexiness is temporary—and you’re usually feeling too lousy to revel in it, no matter if loved ones or friends make admiring noises about your new, sexy voice.

“When you get a swelling of vocal cords, the mass of the vocal cords increases, which slows done the vibration of the cords,” Hayley Born, MD, MS, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, told The Daily Beast.

Male vocal cords have a larger mass than female vocal cords; it’s part of the reason why men’s vocal pitch is generally lower, said Dr. Born. That pitch gets even lower when the vocal cords become swollen.

Evan Kennedy, an Associate in Clinical Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, told The Daily Beast: “We think of our voices as identity-related things that hop out of bodies as a result of physical vibration. Huskiness happens if we get sick, or have a long night out, and end up with dehydrated, overused voices. The vocal folds in the throat get thicker and heavier, causing them to vibrate at a deeper pitch with less regularity leading to a breathier, huskier sound.”

For some the huskiness is welcome. Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Marilyn Monroe set an early, iconic template of husky-toned women. Harvey Fierstein, Bob Hoskins, Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Willis, and Tom Waits are among many famous male raspers. In Family Guy, Peter desperately did all he could—all mostly hilariously disgusting—to get his “ill” voice back after he had recovered from illness. (Kennedy said that if your voice doesn’t return to its version of normal within two to three weeks, then seek medical counsel.)

What makes a husky voice sexy? “At the end of the day a husky voice comes with decreased volume, and a breathy quality that might betray feelings of intimacy,” Kennedy said. “A husky voice is less direct as compared to clear and crisp communication. It feeds into what our culture holds to be ‘sexy.’”

Dr. Born and her colleagues see performers from Broadway musicals desperate to escape the ravages of colds, which mean they can’t reach the high notes, or whose range has decreased because of the swelling of the vocal cords. Other performers, male and female, embrace and healthily train voices to sound raspier and huskier—indeed, they may be well known for it.

One toddler said they liked their dad’s new husky voice “because he sounded like Batman, and that was really cool,” said Dr. Born, adding that Alex Brightman, star of Beetlejuice on Broadway, worked with a speech language pathologist to craft a healthy way to rasp his way through the part. Smokers, Dr. Born said, achieve their own huskiness through a condition called Reinke edema, their tobacco habit leading to a permanent change in how their vocal cords work.

Kennedy, also a Speech-Language Pathologist and Voice Specialist at the Voice and Swallowing Center at Columbia, said that the inhaling of hot smoke from cigarettes caused tissue within the throat to become mildly enflamed. “‘Smoker’s voice’ happens over a long period of time, the tissue becomes larger and heavier, and the vocal cords not able vibrate with as much clarity as before,” Kennedy said.

“For many people huskiness is not the result of the physical nature of the vocal folds, but how we organize our throats and mouths to create sounds,” Kennedy told The Daily Beast. “My work is about helping people to achieve their desired sounds more efficiently in ways that do not tire them out. I work quite a bit with transgender individuals adjusting their voices to be congruent with their gender.”

Is a husky voice always the result of a cold, a physical quirk, a sign of another condition, or something we can all do with practice? “Our voices are part of our identities, and people who create their identity around their looks or their voice may play up certain aspects of their voice,” said Dr. Born. “Some people may have a large or small voice box, or a scar or cyst or polyp on their vocal cords.”

Some people may also practice “vocal fry,” where you speak at your lowest vocal register, achieved by “using less airflow, resulting in the vocal cords vibrating less efficiently, producing a deeper sound,” said Dr. Born.

 

“Our voices are consequences of habit”

People have “a great deal of malleability” in how they express their voices, Kennedy told The Daily Beast. “Our voices are consequences of habit, and you can certainly build a habit over a period of time. But achieving a husky voice may not be the most efficient use of your voice. It is all individual: how a voice sounds, rough or clear, husky or sexy, is defined by the person. Singers may want a husky voice, without sustaining injury. I might hear dysfunction in a voice, but the person whose voice it is may say it works perfectly for them. One old wives’ tale is that gargling or drinking hot tea have effects on our voices. They don’t. Our voice boxes are closed off to liquids.”

Kennedy said specialists try to determine what is causing the huskiness, and whether that underlying cause needs medical intervention. After this, surgery and/or training the voice can follow.

“People who speak in a lower register may feel more affirmed and powerful,” said Kennedy. “Women who come to us wanting that are dealing with the social pressures of patriarchy and hyper-masculine workplaces. Women now have a more expansive set of possibilities of what a ‘normal’ voice can sound like. That opens up more vocal real estate for gender-diverse and trans women too. The horizons are far broader than the ‘Disney princess’ tones of old.”

Meanwhile, Kennedy said, queer-identified men “may be dealing with an internal struggle around a voice that might betray them as more feminine than they would desire. Queer and trans individuals are balancing finding a voice which is congruent with them, while also facilitating self-reflection around how queer-sounding communication could be a powerful and enjoyable thing to incorporate into their identities.” (A fascinating documentary, Do I Sound Gay?, illuminates the topic further.)

Kennedy said huskiness was experienced by many people who aren’t ill, and who are just using their voices a lot. “The number one thing patients come to us for is how to keep their voices healthy when those voices are being used such a lot all the time in the world we live in. When it comes to communication, we’re marathon runners compared to how we began as communicators. It’s exhausting work—these tiny muscles in our necks are so impressive.”

So, how to stay healthy-voiced? “Our advice is to get rest, sleep, stay hydrated, regulate the things that can affect your voice, like allergies, and see a speech therapist if you’re finding your voice can’t cut it throughout the day,” Kennedy said.

For Dr. Born, “the deep dark secret of laryngologists” is hearing a voice with a gravelly texture, like Johansson’s or the singer Adele’s, and “seeing what the vocal cords are like—to understand what it is about the vibration of their cords that gives them their vocal textures. Is it pathology or behavior, or is it just the way they use their voices?” As with AI itself, our voices—husky, high, low, and clear—remain a many-toned mystery.