The Indie Pop Voice Phenomenon, Part 1: Where Did It Come From?

adele

Pop music vocalists have always had their share of unusual pronunciation and accents, and the most recent trend is so-called “indie girl voice,” or more generally, “indie pop voice.” This vine star parodies it, and even Buzzfeed has noticed it. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, definitely check out the above links—I think you’ll recognize it once you hear it. I notice this accent A LOT in artists like Taylor Swift, ZZ Ward, Halsey, and Adele, as well as in the young singers I teach. All this leads me to ask: where did this trend come from? What should we call it? And what should we, as singers and/or teachers of singing, do about it?

I first noticed the trend a couple of years ago, and it seemed to only affect certain words. Notice the way Kesha and Joy Williams of the Civil Wars each say “one” in the following, each from 2013:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHUbLv4ThOo (start at about 0:18)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MnkM_ebv9BI (start at about 0:56)

What you’re hearing is a diphthong, which is essentially two vowels one right after the other within the same syllable. There are lots of diphthongs that occur naturally in the English language, like the “ah-ee” of the word “I” or “oh-ee” of the word “boy.” In fact, most American English speakers would treat the vowel “oh” as a diphthong of “oh-oo,” especially at the end of a word (say the word “hello” while looking in a mirror, and notice how your lips close to an “oo” shape at the very end).

But the word “one” as sung above contains what you might call a manufactured diphthong, or one that doesn’t occur naturally in our language. A lot of diphthongs may be brought on by accent, a southern twang or a Cockney clip. This accent, the “indie pop voice,” is a product not of a geographic region, but of the virtual, musical region of “indie.” Mostly, indie pop voice is characterized by sustaining the second vowel of an existing diphthong as opposed to the first (the way Adele says the word “hello” in her recent hit of the same name), and also by adding an “ee” or “ih” sound to the end of pure vowels like “oh,” “uh,” or even “ae” like “back.” This would explain words like “good,” “just,” and “touch” mentioned in the Buzzfeed article above; “good” becomes “guoid,” “just becomes “juist,” and “touch” turns to “touich.” The accent also calls for closure to “ee” before and after singable consonants like “n” and “r,” which explains the words “one” that I noticed or the “stare” and “care” examples in the Buzzfeed article. Adele also exemplifies the “ee and r” phenomenon in “Hello:” listen to the way she sings the very last word of the song, “anymore,” and it’s almost “anymoreeeeeeeeee.”

amywinehouse

As for the origins of this trendy accent, there are a few good theories that I’ve mostly culled from other voice professionals and random commenters online—it’s not a well-researched topic thus far, to be honest (by the way, it seems most people online are calling it “indie girl” as opposed to “indie pop”). The one that pinpoints the most recent possible origin is the Adele/Amy Winehouse theory, and it makes sense. Those two singers cropped up late in the last decade, when the singers who are coming up now would have probably been in middle or high school. Thus their popularity may have profoundly influenced the next generation’s singing style. Adele’s recent use of the accent is well documented above, and you can hear it in her earliest hit, “Chasing Pavements” and throughout her work (start at 0:20 and listen to “lust” and “I”).

Amy Winehouse preceded Adele, and uses indie pop voice in early hits like “Stronger than Me” (start at 0:33 and listen to “through” and “care”) and later ones like “Back to Black” (start at 0:15 and listen to “regret,” “wet,” and “bet”).

Others claim Regina Spektor, Bjork, or Kate Bush are the cause of the accent’s inception, and I think it’s important to note that all these women have very particular natural accents in their speech that may influence their singing (Adele, Winehouse, and Bush are all British, while Spektor is Russian American and Bjork is Icelandic). But perhaps the most important similarity to note between these women is that they all count jazz among their main influences, especially Winehouse and Spektor. Indeed, I hear little evidence of the “indie pop voice” as it exists today in Bjork’s sound except in her version of “It’s Oh So Quiet,” a Betty Hutton cover. So are these more current singers the originators of the totally invented “indie girl voice” accent, or did they adapt it from the jazz/big band singers who influenced them? Listening to Betty Hutton’s version of “It’s Oh So Quiet” lends credence to the idea that she influenced Bjork’s pronunciation, and the way the White Christmas crew sings the word “snow” is a toned-down version of the current accent. Even Ella, in the way she closes to the “ee” in “skies” and the “r” in birds, seems to have been an inspiration for this trend, along with Billie Holiday, with her long “l” on “I’ll” and her “ih” at the ends of “you” and “through.”

So it’s most likely that this is less of a current trend and more of an evolution, through jazz and blues to singer-songwriter through the years and now, to so-called indie girls. At this point, I think it’s important to note that the trend is not limited to women; Shawn Mendes, mentioned in the Buzzfeed article, has maybe the most exaggerated version of this accent I’ve ever heard, and Great Big World (starting at 2:26) does the same thing to “one” that the female artists do. But it does seem particularly prevalent in women, perhaps because of the Adele/Amy Winehouse influence. Still, I’d really prefer not to call it the “indie girl voice,” since guys can and do use it. “Indie pop voice” seems like a slightly better, or at least more PC, term for it. The term still doesn’t really acknowledge the trend’s likely jazz origins, but it speaks to both to the fact that this is an accent, rather than a vocal technique like vibrato or voice breaks, and the accent’s main current use in indie pop.

There’s the origin story of indie pop voice—stay tuned next week as I discuss how we handle the phenomenon as singers and voice teachers!

To read Part 2 of The Indie Pop Voice Phenomenon, click here!

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