The Great Woman Singer

Gender and Voice in Puerto Rican Music

Book Pages: 312 Illustrations: 50 illustrations Published: February 2017

Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Latin American Studies, Music

Licia Fiol-Matta traces the careers of four iconic Puerto Rican singers—Myrta Silva, Ruth Fernández, Ernestina Reyes, and Lucecita Benítez—to explore how their voices and performance style transform the possibilities for comprehending the figure of the woman singer. Fiol-Matta shows how these musicians, despite seemingly intractable demands to represent gender norms, exercised their artistic and political agency by challenging expectations of how they should look, sound, and act. Fiol-Matta also breaks with conceptualizations of the female pop voice as spontaneous and intuitive, interrogating the notion of "the great woman singer" to deploy her concept of the "thinking voice"—an event of music, voice, and listening that rewrites dominant narratives. Anchored in the work of Lacan, Foucault, and others, Fiol-Matta's theorization of voice and gender in The Great Woman Singer makes accessible the singing voice's conceptual dimensions while revealing a dynamic archive of Puerto Rican and Latin American popular music.


"A welcome addition to the growing field of Latina/o sound studies. . . . [The Great Woman Singer] provides us with a guide to listen anew and in new ways." — Iván Ramos, Sounding Out!

"Something resonates and pulses throughout Licia Fiol-Matta’s The Great Woman Singer. . . . Fiol-Matta’s attention to the gendering and racialization of the voice in Puerto Rican popular music makes crucial interventions within Latin American and Caribbean studies." — Summer Kim Lee, Women & Performance

“Privileging vocality, the sonic over the scopic, Fiol-Matta guides us through a series of questions the very performers spur as social subjects. She also provides a heuristic through which we might listen with more care to glean an understanding of the social web within which 'great’ cultural producers operate.” — Leticia Alvarado, Latino Studies

"A brilliant analysis of performance and embodied experience . . . Troubling the once fixed paradigms of music studies that rendered female singers within heterosexual fantasies and narratives of failed romances, Fiol-Matta uses the method of critical biography to open up new histories as presented through an archive of the voice. . . . Brilliantly develops a unique archival reading practice that disturbs dominant representations and narratives . . . The Great Woman Singer is a lucid contribution to sound studies, gender studies, the critical humanities, Puerto Rican studies, and studies of the Americas, foregrounding new ways to constitute, situate, and analyze musical and performance archives." — Macarena Gomez-Barris, e-misférica

"This new book makes a number of important interventions into the gendered history of music and performance and, in the process, offers some new and potentially deeply influential formulations. . . . Fiol-Matta changes completely the way we read 'great female singers' but in the process she questions the value of 'greatness,' 'femaleness,' and 'singing.'" — Jack Halberstam, Current Musicology

"An investigation that doesn’t refuse that wonder of childhood . . . The Great Woman Singer gives us the ample material evidence and imaginative know-how to extend women’s vocal influence to record all kinds of different stories." — Alexandra T. Vazquez, Current Musicology

"Fiol-Matta models for us a mode of both listening and looking with deep care. . . . She expertly weaves the archival excavation of the lives and artistic output of each of the four figures in the book with a critical theorization of voice and gender, but she does this so seamlessly that we may fail initially to apprehend just how difficult this archival labor must have been." — Gayatri Gopinath, Current Musicology

“Rich in detail and theoretically sound . . . the paradigmatic nature of the biographies offered within makes Fiol Matta’s work vital not only to students of Puerto Rican music, but to scholars of Latin American and (non-Latina/o/x) US popular music as a whole." — María Elena Cepeda, Centro

"This book brings to light four artists whose careers have much to say about race and gender in the music industry, vocal ingenuity, and the construct of female celerity; moreover, it models a kind of productive, critical listening that could meaningfully recover other lost voices from the past." — Ruth E. Rosenberg, Notes

"The Great Woman Singer is a brilliant intervention in Puerto Rican studies that contributes to our knowledge about Puerto Rican culture through gender, voice, and music." — Frances R. Aparicio, Studies in Latin American Popular Culture

"Popular music scholarship has sometimes shown a tendency to eschew cultural theory in favor of either archival heft, formal analysis, or colorful anecdote. In her work, Fiol-Matta defiantly bucks this trend, showing theoretical sophistication without abandoning either historiographical rigor or novel appeal." — Jason Borge, Revista de Estudios Hispanicos

"By repositioning their stories and their voices, this unique and original contribution by Fiol-Matta is itself a thinking voice that will surely resonate across fields." — Ana Cecilia Calle-Poveda, Latin American Literary Review

"The Great Woman Singer pushes gender, sexuality, and queer studies forward considerably and is a welcome addition to the recent surge of research by female scholars focusing on women’s voices in music." — Jessica C. Hajek, Women and Music

"Licia Fiol-Matta has written a marvelous exploration of the voice. In the process, she assembles a vocal archive of Puerto Rican performers whose labor is usually relegated to footnotes or cursory mentions. She demonstrates the ways these singers worked through, with and against the nothingness they were assigned." — Lorena Alvarado, Journal of Popular Music Studies

"The Great Woman Singer provides a splendid biographical picture of these four performers while developing the notion of the 'thinking voice' which challenges dominant narratives." — Gavin O'Toole, Latin American Review of Books

"In this rigorous and original read, Licia Fiol-Matta puts a welcome nail in the masculine script dominating conversations about 'Latin' popular music and Puerto Rico’s musical history. Her critical biographical approach and her archive of the voice provide new standards for interdisciplinary research, while her treatment of female pop stars such as the giant, but largely obviated Lucecita Benítez, is simply moving and beautiful." — Arlene Dávila, New York University


Availability: In stock
Price: $27.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Licia Fiol-Matta teaches in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at New York University. She is the author of A Queer Mother for the Nation: The State and Gabriela Mistral.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  ix

Introduction. I Am Nothing  1

1. Getting Off . . . the Nation  16

2. So What If She's Black?  67

3. Techne and the Lady  121

4. The Thinking Voice  172

Epilogue. Nothing Is Something  226

Notes  233

Bibliography  269

Index  279
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Winner of the 2018 Frank Bonilla Book Award, presented by the Puerto Rican Studies Association

Co-Winner of the 2019 United States Latina and Latino and Chicana and Chicano Literary and Cultural Studies, awarded by the Modern Language Association

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-6293-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-6282-1
Publicity material