In love with a voice

I watched an unsettling movie over the weekend. A movie made in 2013, but evermore relevant today. A world where intimate letters to your loved ones are written by a stranger, where being romantically attracted to a digital (read: not real) person is so commonplace the only doubt your friend has is if you are in love with them.

Her, written and directed by Spike Jonze can seem like a distorted, thwarted look into a dystopian world of holograms and lost person-to-person connection, offers a look into the future through the eyes of the sensitive and lonely Theodore, so broken by his own flaws that the only presence he can confide and find solace in is literally nothing more than a comforting voice, the operating system on his computer who calls herself Samantha. They ultimately fall in love with each other, him only having her voice for company.

I feel like I can relate, though perhaps not to this level, when my husband and I were doing long-distance, just a two minute phone call did wonders to soothe me. For 120 seconds, I didn’t feel like we were physically so far apart.

Is Her really about a sad, down and out loser, or is it a love story about a love so pure that it transcends the physical?

I’ve always been curious about the effect of voice on our emotions, at how a sound, a cry, a whimper, is able to manipulate such feelings in us. Emotions defy logic, right? Our innate scale of balance for major life decisions is heart vs head, right? We know that our heart (emotions) is always fighting with our head (logic). Emotions are complicated, each feeling is made up of many different feelings, and we feel them all at the same time.

A group of scientists at the University of California, Berkley, surveyed more than 2,500 people in the United States and China about their emotional responses to thousands of different scores of music from different genres including rock, folk, classical, experimental etc. They found that the music evoked similar responses in the participants, e.g. angry, sad, but depending on their culture, can be viewed on as good or bad. Musicians rely on their choice of key to evoke particular emotions, F# Minor for gloomy, C Major for happy. C Major and its relative A Minor are the most common keys used in pop music.

Theodore never sees Samantha’s face. Because she doesn’t have one. Closer to the present, in the first portion of Netflix reality show, Love Is Blind, contestants go on dates to find The One, separated by a thin wall. They are unable to see each other, being forced to forge a connection only from the sound of their voice. Two contestants, Lauren Speed and Cameron Hamilton went on to get married, from meeting on the show. Of course Lauren and Cameron are both real people, but they started out not having seen each other and still feeling a warm, fuzzy affection for each other.

Her and Love Is Blind are the exact opposite of our modern day Tinder pattern for consumption, where much of the value that we place on someone is based on what we see.  Are we really able to fall in love without being superficial? I’m not so sure. The human voice has the ability to convey information such as race, age, physiological details. A breathier voice is immediately more attractive. We will always be attracted to someone we find attractive. If we have not met the person, a voice allows us to conjure an image in our heads of what the owner of the voice might look like. If we are attracted to the voice, our imagination of the person is naturally one we would find attractive.

In the movie, I’m almost sure there was post sound engineering work involved to make her voice crisp and clean, even more breathy, and free from noise so that emotion from her voice is delivered like a punch to the gut. Furthermore, Samantha is an advanced artificial intelligence operating system, she learns from Theodore, his likes and dislikes, his habits and patterns, has all the answers to his questions, and then creates algorithms for her own predictions of his actions. She is tailor made for him, it’s impossible for him not to fall in love with her.

Using the power of voice and its many levels of allure to exhibit desire, longing, pain, human emotion, Spike Jonze gave Theodore, a broken man, hope. He gave Theodore a customized, perfect other half.

But alas, in the end, that relationship ended too. A voice is lovely, but perhaps, we cannot survive without physical touch.


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