Let Me Clear My Throat
“A remarkably entertaining and thought-provoking look at the human voice and all of its myriad functions and sounds . . . Wonderful” (Library Journal, starred review).
From Farinelli, the eighteenth-century castrato who brought down opera houses with his high C, to the recording of Johnny B. Goode affixed to the Voyager spacecraft, Let Me Clear My Throat dissects the whys and hows of popular voices, making them hum with significance and emotion.
There are murders of punk rock crows, impressionists, and rebel yells; Howard Dean’s “BYAH!” and Marlon Brando’s “Stellaaaaa!” and a stock film yawp that has made cameos in movies from A Star is Born to Spaceballs. The voice is thought’s incarnating instrument and Elena Passarello’s essays are a riotous deconstruction of the ways the sounds we make both express and shape who we are—the annotated soundtrack of us giving voice to ourselves.
“Standout pieces include a biography of the most famous scream in Hollywood history; a breakdown of the relationship between song and birdsong; and an analysis of the sounds of disgust. Akin to: A dinner party at which David Sedaris, Mary Roach and Marlon Brando are trying to out-monologue one another.” —Philadelphia Weekly
“The beauty of Ellen Passarello’s voice is that it’s so confidently its own . . . I began randomly with her essay wondering what the space aliens will make of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ on the Voyager gold record and couldn’t stop after that.” —John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead
In this funny, visceral collection of essays, Passarello explores the ways our voices can entertain us, connect us, ruin us, vent our pains, and tether us to a place or tradition. Subjects range from sports announcer Myron Cope's pretzel-mouthed Pittsburghese to Marlon Brando's gut-wrenching "Stella!" in A Streetcar Named Desire and the punctilious mouth diagrams of Frank Sinatra's "Tips on Popular Singing" pamphlet. In the most moving essay, an account of Judy Garland's legendary concert at Carnegie Hall meanders forward and backward through the diva's troubled life, taking us from the "little red-walled room" of her mother's womb, filled with her voice, to the glittery blue velvet that lined her final bed after an overdose of Seconal. Passarello isn't afraid to get personal, either, revealing how years of her own mother's "harpy" bellowing prepared her to win the 2011 Stella Shouting Contest, and musing on the cawing of the crows that populate her wintry Iowa backyard as a metaphor for the tougher grit that rock 'n' rollers like the Fendermen injected into popular music's songbird melodies. The essays are interspersed with brief monologues from voice-over artists, auctioneers, singers, psychics, American Idol contestants, and Holy Rollers, discussing what voice means to them. This striking debut is graceful even in its portrayal of the most barbaric groans and yelping cries.