The Indie Pop Voice Phenomenon, Part 2: So What Do We Do Now?

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To read part 1 of The Indie Pop Voice Phenomenon, click here!

Okay, so here’s the big question—what do we do about indie pop voice? The trend is clearly very popular and not showing signs of letting up anytime soon, and as such exerts a huge influence on young singers and their vocal habits. As singers, should we use it? And as voice teachers, should we encourage it in our students or quash it? You’re about to hear my opinion, so I’ll openly admit my bias—I’m not really a fan of the accent in its current form, especially when I hear certain words, like “one” or “just,” repeatedly getting the exact same strange treatment from singers. So I came at this article fully expecting to condemn it. But I won’t, at least not completely—and here’s why.

As a voice teacher, I like to let my students craft their own sound as naturally as possible. So, I don’t really impose a lot of value judgements on them, but I let them make their own decisions about how they sound, provided they do three things:

  • Sing healthily—meaning without extra tension and with adequate breath support. Pretty much everything else is not really considered health for my students and me, but style/aesthetic.
  • Allow the way they speak to influence the way they sing—usually in terms of pronunciation and phrasing. From there, if they’d like, they can change things up and experiment to find the sounds they like best and that they feel are most beautiful and evocative in their voices.
  • Eschew imitation at all costs—a singer’s bread and butter is her uniqueness, which usually springs from allowing her speaking voice, which is uniquely her, to be slightly heightened to become singing.

So let’s examine indie pop voice using each of the above points—I can’t find any signs that it’s unhealthy, as it’s purely a pronunciation/resonance issue. It may not comport to the classical-derived standards of singing on the purest, most open vowels possible, but we’re not singing classically, so we’re good there. As to the second point, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence that we speak this way—except there MIGHT BE. It’s tough to find recordings of people speaking and pinpoint examples, so this is purely anecdotal evidence, but I have noticed lately that when I ask people how they’re doing, sometimes they say, “guoid!” just like Selena Gomez. What if we do talk this way? Who am I to say we don’t? And if you talk this way, sing this way, by all means!

The third point is the most important—if you sing this way in order to sound like someone else, or because it’s becoming so popular, you should stop. Your voice is your honesty, your point of view—your voice is you, and it’s not believable coming from you if it sounds like somebody else. And maybe you’re subconsciously employing indie pop voice, possibly because you’ve heard it so much, and there’s nothing exactly wrong with that… except now you know. So notice whether you employ this accent, and if you do, ask yourself why! Do you do it because you talk that way and it feels very you? If so, great. Do you do it because it’s kinda fun and you can honestly say you do it differently than everyone else? That’s cool too. Do you do it because you’re trying to sound like Adele or Amy Winehouse, or because you think it makes you unique? If you sound like any of the above people, it certainly does not make you unique, and that should give you pause.

There’s another major reason that I won’t issue a blanket statement that people should stop using indie pop voice, and it’s that there is inherent sexism in the way a lot of people talk about this trend. The mere fact that so many people online call it “indie girl voice” is a clear indicator of that, but that’s just the beginning. Except for the Buzzfeed article, I’ve only seen discussions of women using the trend with no mention of any men. I’ve seen it condemned as annoying, fake, and often babyish in various message boards; even Carson Daly said it reminded him of baby talk. I can’t decide if he’s reacting to the treatment of vowels or to the prevalence of breathiness and head voice in this style; it might be a combination. But I’ll point out that baby talk can be consciously done and a powerful, influential tool, as Paris Hilton will tell you. Some commenters even say indie pop voice reminds them of vocal fry—I’m honestly not sure how that could be possible, unless they’re getting it mixed up with another technique like breathiness or rasp. Vocal fry is a register that occurs below chest voice, and though some voice teachers use it as an exercise to combat hyperfunctional singing, I really can’t think of any singers that actually use vocal fry when they perform. The only link I can see is that it’s another speech trend that people condemn women for using and not men. So yes, indie pop voice is more prevalent among women than men, and yes, it is everywhere—but if those facts alone make it more annoying than, say, every male punk singer trying to sound like Billie Joe Armstrong, who was trying to sound like Joe Strummer, then that’s probably caused by a sexist undercurrent, because they’re very similar phenomena.

In short, I really hate to be another person telling women how they should speak/sing—between uptalking, vocal fry, and now “indie girl voice,” we really get harped at from all sides. So I won’t tell you, if you sing this way, whether you should continue or not; as with all my students, I leave it to you to craft your own sound. Clearly, indie pop voice comes from a long line of employment by incredible singers, so if you use it, you’re in good company. Bottom line: you should be do what feels the most naturally, honestly YOU. If that’s indie pop voice, well I think that’s all “guoid!”

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

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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.”

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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!