Culture

Millennials, NPR, and Omnipresent 'Baby Up-Talk'

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Many people, most notably left progressives, believe that one of the best things somebody with an inquiring mind can do is listen to NPR — especially Terry Gross’ award-winning show, Fresh Air. As a second-best listening alternative, one could also listen to NPR’s Radio Times with Marty-Moss Coane.

In the not-so-recent past, Fresh Air was noted for its interviews with mental heavyweights like Susan Sontag, Molly Ivins, Christopher Hitchens, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, Richard Clarke, and Al Franken. This was when the typical Fresh Air guest was often the type of person overlooked by the mainstream media.

But listening to Fresh Air today, one is struck by the preponderance of cable TV star guests, often vapid twenty- or thirty-something actors from obscure but popular cable TV shows. Here’s a sampling of some recent Fresh Air guests: A young, well-known actor (“The elusive actor tells Fresh Air about his new film”); a Broadway actor not known to the general public but advertised as a guest “from the Broadway stage”; and a visit by Seth Meyers, who “talks about leaving Saturday Night Live.”

Fresh Air’s acting guest stars are presented to us as if they are known far and wide, when the truth is that they are only known to people who are chronic cable TV watchers.

Radio Times, on the other hand, seems to have taken up where Fresh Air has left off. Guests on Radio Times were originally Philadelphia-based politicians, authors, activists, etc., while Fresh Air’s guests were predominately notables with national reputations. When Radio Times ditched the local angle and began booking guests like Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens, and Billie Jean King — but of course no Ann Coulter, Jordan Peterson, Milo Yiannopoulos, Katie Hopkins, or Ben Shapiro — it seemed at times to surpass Fresh Air in seriousness.

All of this has me thinking: Has Fresh Air become a pale imitation of that Hollywood crown of celebrity babble, TMZ? It’s not unreasonable to ask such a question, especially when so many of Gross’ guests are actors and actresses who seem to discuss nothing but their latest filmed project.

What happened to the esoteric Terry Gross of old? Has she turned into a cable TV couch potato?

Most people would agree that there’s nothing more banal than listening to an actor talk about taking on a new role. While an actor may excel in a role, there’s often “no there there” when it comes to “offstage” intelligence. Granted, some interviews with authentic Hollywood legends can be fun, but they become senseless drivel when the subject is a 23-year-old experiencing their first movie or theatrical success.

This is compounded by the fact that, lately, such guests often speak in “baby up-talk.”

What’s baby up-talk? That’s when the tones that come out of the speaker’s mouth have an upward tilt, as if the speaker was intentionally raising the conversational pitch above the normal speaking range. We’ve all heard somebody talk this way. Listening to this speaking style becomes an even worse experience when those same high-pitched sentences ascend higher and higher on the tonal scale, like an out of control hot air balloon, and then end with a question mark.

Thirty years ago, this was generally referred to as — and limited to — “Valley Girl” talk.

I got a big dose of baby up-talk when the son of a former colleague of mine was being interviewed on Radio Times. The son, whom I’ll call Z, was being interviewed along with a local filmmaker who had completed a film on the life of the son’s famous mother. While I have had several conversations with my former colleague’s son in years past, I had never known him to speak like this.

But here he was on Radio Times, pushing every declarative sentence into those high tonal regions (where hot air balloons go), and then ending every sentence with a question mark.

What, in the name of God, had happened to him? As the show progressed, I wondered whether speaking this way was a requirement in order to be a guest on Radio Times.

Just like tattoos, body piercings, beards, fedora hats, tight plaid shirts, and skinny jeans, has this manner of speech become yet another addition to the list of things that millennials — and people wanting to sound like millennials — feel obligated to adopt?

Could NPR’s handlers have a baby up-talk test they administer to potential guests?

A speaker has to practice to get that updraft cadence right. I compare it to mantras and chants sung in mosques or old Byzantine churches that, to untrained ears, sound off-key.

A key component of baby up-talk is the chronic, repetitive use of the word “so.” Repetitive use of the word “so” can also be heard elsewhere on NPR on a regular basis. (I’ve heard it said this began with software engineers in the Silicon Valley. The engineers, it seemed, saw “so” as a connective, logical word that seems to suggest a further explanation is on the way.)

I used to have a stutter when I was a boy, and one of the words I used to say a lot was “um.” I would punctuate every sentence with so many “um’s” that my teachers would take me aside and ask if I needed speech lessons. My father would often count the number of times I repeated “um,” and then give me the tally at the end of a sentence. The numbers were scandalous. “See if you can re-say the sentence without saying ‘um,’” he’d say, but most often I could not. For me, saying “um” was not a fixation on the word or a device I used in order to collect my thoughts, but a way-station while making my way through a sentence because I didn’t know how to breathe while speaking. A succession of speech tutors had no luck with me until one very talented tutor eventually got to the root of the problem. Now I never say “um” — although when I read recently that “so” is the new “um,” my ears perked up.

“So,” just as “um,” is a muted pause, maybe even a substitute for “ah” or a short silence. Most language experts consider “um” to be a normal part of speech, while they take a very dim view of “so” used in the place of an “um.” That’s because “so” stands out more as a word rather than any kind of pause.

All of which leads me to conclude, perhaps unfairly, that NPR is now as commercial as CNN, and that speaking in tongues is not what it used to mean, and that to be considered cool you have to go back to talking like a fake baby.