The Rise of the “Indie Pop Voice”

I’ll admit it: I have a hard time telling a lot of pop singers apart. And this isn’t a new thing; I started having trouble around the time the bombardment of Britney and X-tina began about fifteen years ago. They all sound so…generic.

I know, I know. The next thing you expect out of my mouth is “Get off my lawn!” But when a trend in vocal delivery catches on, it’s hard to shake–especially if the songs that follow that sound become hits. Success breeds imitation. Imitation results in widespread homogeneity.

There is a new set of pop vocal affections taking hold, too. If you listen carefully to songs by artists as varied as Selena Gomez, Halsey, Purity Ring and Lorde, you can hear them take some real liberties with the way they pronounce vowels.

I’m warning you: if you proceed beyond this point, you will never hear songs like “Royals” and “Good for You” the same way again.  You fine with that? Then continue. This is from Buzzfeed.

Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist and writer, says there is a common thread making all of these singers’ pronunciation unusual: the transformation of simple vowels into complex ones.

“They’re turning monophthongs, or pure vowels that are associated with only one sound, into diphthongs, which are two vowel sounds that are kind of smushed together,” McCulloch says. “The ‘uh’ sound in ‘good’ as you or I would probably say it, is a monophthong. Whereas ‘oi’ in ‘boy’ or Selena Gomez’s ‘guoid’ is a diphthong.”

In linguistic parlance, this transformation is called “diphthongization,” or, more reasonably, “vowel breaking.” And it’s not the only thing making indie pop singers’ pronunciation distinct.

“The other thing I think they’re doing is pronouncing the vowel a little bit further forward in the mouth, which can change the sound of it like moving between buttons on a saxophone,” McCulloch says. “The diphthongs in Selena’s ‘guoid’ or MisterWives’ ‘oin’ start in the back of the mouth and end up in the front. Like how if you say the word ‘boy’ really slowly, you can feel your tongue moving forward a little bit.”

As for the “r” sounds in words like “stare” and “care,” they’re being partially “elided” or omitted — collateral damage of the broken vowels that precede them. In singing, r’s often get neglected, according to Siu-Lan Tan, a psychologist and music researcher at Kalamazoo College.

Continue reading. Thanks to Shane for the tip.


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38319 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

One thought on “The Rise of the “Indie Pop Voice”

  • This is really cool!!! I have noticed the trend myself but it,s never been explained.
    I guess whatever it takes to make it funky.
    But I,m ok never being able to hear these songs the same way as before.


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