If you want to understand with precise fidelity what Taylor Swift meant by “Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby / And I’m a monster on the hill,” do I have an audio book for you.
Lake Bell’s Inside Voice: My Obsession With How We Sound, out this week, spends an entire chapter unpacking this aughts-era addictive vocal brew that enthralled and repulsed what we now refer to as the discourse. Ever since the “sexy baby” heyday of the mid-2000s, Bell has been obsessively thinking about the vocal phenomena. As covered in the book, her directorial debut, 2013’s critically beloved In a World…, itself a vocal ode, has scenes that employ the affected voice to comedic and meaningful effect. The timing of this “sexy baby” renaissance, however, was a happy, mutually affirming coincidence, Bell told me a week after Swift’s Midnights release and a few days before Inside Voice’s premiere.
“Her referencing ‘sexy baby’ kind of makes me go, Gosh. I don’t know if she’s referencing it in the cultural sense that I’m referencing it, like in the way that I coined it, but maybe it is part of the lexicon now, which is so groovy and cool,” Bell said. “And I know that The New York Times has written about ‘sexy baby.’ There have been editorials about ‘sexy baby’ before. But if Taylor Swift puts it in her song, I am grateful to her. Thank you, Taylor. I’m on the record. Call me. And can my kids come and see your tour?”
Bell’s project, which is a sweeping excavation of voice and what it reveals about who we are, is published by Malcolm Gladwell’s audio company Pushkin Industries. And she credits Gladwell, an old friend, with making the “sexy baby” section what it is—a thorny, complicated exercise in living every day as a woman.
“The first pass of the ‘sexy baby’ chapter was different,” Bell said. “I had written it with kid gloves a little bit. I was trying to soul search and figure out a way to understand and decode this dialect—the ‘sexy baby’ dialect—with grace and love and generosity and all this stuff. And we did the read through and Malcolm just basically called bullshit. He’s like, ‘You do have a bone to pick with it, and that’s what we need to talk about.’ He’s like, ‘I actually think I need to interview you because you’re the expert on ‘sexy baby.’”
With Gladwell in the interview seat, Bell was able to define her ‘sexy baby’ terms, which are, as she recounts for me, “a cocktail of three core distinctions. It’s a level up in pitch. It is a vocal fry. And it’s an uptalk at the end of a sentence. Those are the core principles of it, but then of course, there are also flourishes that you can add or take away.” Betty Boop is the original sexy baby. Marilyn Monroe’s breathy flourish is a clear antecedent. Paris Hilton perfected the form. It is youth fetishized and femininity patronized. It is Cristin Milioti’s 30 Rock character.
Bell is easily able to explain to Gladwell why and where it shows up, but she struggles to accept out loud that it grates on her nerves. In that struggle, you can hear the more subconscious one: whether the grating is a product of innate unfeminist judgement or an actually feminist one. The answer, maybe, is that “sexy baby” is a trap. When she tells Gladwell, a man whose public persona is to want to understand the world around him, that he may never comprehend the conflicted hand-wringing hell over one’s feeling toward “sexy baby” because he is not a woman, they are perhaps at one of the few intellectual impasses of Gladwell’s long and storied career.