Maroon 5 has a new single. It’s called ‘Maps’ – maybe you’ve heard it? You’ll know it when you do, because, even though most it of it sounds exactly like all other Maroon 5 songs (not that there’s anything wrong with that), there is one distinctive feature: right after the chorus, Adam Levine (a high singer under normal circumstances), sings, “Following, following, following.” Or, he doesn’t so much sing it as melodiously squeak it.
I have it on good authority that Adam Levine is very attractive. I also have an impressive amount of anecdotal evidence that suggests that squeaky voices are not considered desirable in men. However, in pop music, men often shriek at very high registers in their pursuit of women. For example, last summer, Jason Derulo subjected us all to the ear-splitting insistence that some poor woman “take him to the other side (toniiiiiiiiight)”.
Munchkin-sounding men are a pop-music staple. But why?
In evolutionary biology (bear with me here), a ‘signal’ is a trait or behavior which modifies the behavior of the recipient of the signal. For example, female bower birds are more likely to mate with male bower birds that adorn their nests; nest adornment is therefore a sexual signal.
Signaling is sometimes described as either ‘honest’ or ‘dishonest’. In the context of sexual selection, an ‘honest’ signal is a signal which accurately predicts the presence of other desirable but invisible traits. A famous example is the peacock’s tail. Some evolutionary biologists have argued that the elaborate tail of the male peacock is an honest signal because the tail is metabolically costly, and because the unwieldiness of the tail makes the bird vulnerable to predation, and the male’s continued existence and evasion of predators is testament to his superior genes. It is not the genes of the tail itself which are desirable, but the genes which allow the bird to maintain the tail.
Which brings us back to Adam Levine and his Minnie Mouse impression. Many sexual signals have to do with cost, i.e. I can grow and keep this enormous tail and still have enough energy to walk and eat and mate – I must therefore be a genetic dynamo. Perhaps Adam Levine’s vocal stylings are a perverse sort of honest sexual signal. Perhaps, when he whinnies, “Following, following, following”, what he’s really saying is, “I am so sexually attractive that women will want to sleep with me even if I sound like a member of the Lollipop Guild”. Maybe, just maybe, it takes a really big man to sing in such a wee voice.
Or maybe not.