The Rural Voice on Reality TV: The Politics of Timbre in the Ukrainian ‘Voice’
Maria Sonevytsky, Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology, Bard College.
This talk concerns the politics and aesthetics of what is known in post-Soviet Ukraine as the avtentyka singing voice (автентичний голос), which translates literally as the “authentic” voice. My focus is on the problem that this avtentyka vocal timbre creates when it appears in the context of a popular reality TV singing competition called Holos Krainy, or “Voice of the Nation,” part of the global “Voice” franchise that has aired in Ukraine since 2011. Beyond the clashes of style and genre that occur when avtentyka singers who use village timbres sing modern pop hits, I attend to a more general politics of vocal timbre to examine how the avtentyka voice, which sits within a historical trajectory of resistance to state power, challenges the conventional wisdom about how the folkloric necessarily points backwards, toward an essentialized national past. Rather, I consider avtentyka and its iconic vocal timbre as a form of late Soviet expressive culture that also has the somewhat paradoxical potential to operate in today’s Ukrainian mediasphere as a forward-looking expressive form. Rooted in ethnographic research among avtentyka practitioners, I examine how the politicized timbres of avtentyka reject logics of success according to the standards of reality TV “democratainment” and remake failure in the competition as an act of refusal—of the limited musical forms that dominate Ukrainian media and as an assertion of the ungovernable wildness of Ukrainian rural expressivity.