When did the idea of ‘good singing’ go from Céline-style belting to a Selena-esque whisper? Peter Robinson investigates
Why pop stars are choosing breathy intensity over vocal paint-stripping.
Singing. It’s nice to listen to, isn’t it? But since modern TV talent shows shrieked their way into view at the turn of the millennium, the message to audiences has been clear: if your vocal runs won’t make Nicole Scherzinger punch the air, or if your ability to sing eight notes where one would suffice can’t prompt a wink of approval from Simon Cowell, your journey ends here.
A generation has grown up on narrow, conservative notions of what constitutes good singing but, in recent years, pop has moved from the theatrical vocal pyrotechnics of peak-era X Factor to a less bombastic style: from a scream to a whisper. Traditionally exceptional vocalists such as Ariana Grande and Sia still abound, of course, but elsewhere a refreshingly subdued vocal stance has become unavoidable. It’s there in Calvin Harris’s Funk Wav Bounces Vol 1, and it’s there in the non-woodwork output of Frank Ocean. Even Jessie J, a woman whose lungs’ output could flatten a herd of cows and in 2013 sent a coastal guest house toppling into the sea, has calmed things down on her last two songs.
Most striking is the rise of what we will call “whisperpop”, which hit its apotheosis in Selena Gomez sleeper hits such as Good for You and Bad Liar, tracks with deceptively understated, intricate vocal performances that turn melismafavouring X Factor logic on its head but are easily as compelling as anything from a Mariah-style, window-rattling chanteuse. Such careful whispers aren’t going away any time soon.
“So many songwriting briefs are wanting that Selena whisper sound,” confirms one artist and songwriter who asks not to be named. “It’s dry as fuck,” she says of the vocal style. “People are going mad over that. When Good for You came out I was like: ‘Oh my God, she’s literally whispering.’ I think it’s all come from that song so, really, it’s all come from Julia Michaels.”
Michaels, whose whisperpopreferencing triumph Issues became 2017’s biggest single by a new artist, co-wrote Good for You with her “songwriting husband” Justin Tranter. They went on to co-write the similarly muted Selena track Hands to Myself as well as songs with low-key vocals for Britney Spears (Slumber Party) and, on Sorry, Justin Bieber. Michaels is naturally very busy with her solo pop career so let’s ask Tranter, former frontman of preposterous electro-glam outfit Semi-Precious Weapons, if his songwriting wife is at the epicentre of whisperpop. “Well,” he laughs down the line from LA, “Julia’s at the heart of all pop for the last five years. You’ve heard
Even Jessie J, who could send a coastal guest house toppling into the sea, has calmed things down
my old music – whisperpop is not where I come from – but Julia has very hip, futuristic instincts. And there’s definitely a trend now, with Selena at the forefront, for putting the focus on storytelling and tone, rather than American Idol-style singing.”
For the trend’s real genesis we probably need to look back to 2010 and the arrival of Lana Del Rey with a style that combined the delivery of dark, expressive storytelling with a sense that she might be wondering whether she’d remembered to lock the bathroom window. Between them, Lana and Lorde, who appeared a few years later, inspired a raft of major signings, including the nameless artist we met two paragraphs ago. Was she basically attempting to copy Lana? “Oh God,” laughs the unnamed source, “that’s a completely fair thing to say. When I was signed it was just after Lorde too, so labels were wanking over trying to get loads of girls who were like her.”
She adds that the trend for under-singing conflicted with vocal advice she was still being given by her music teacher. “They’d say: ‘You don’t sing loud enough, you don’t project your voice.’ That ruined me for a while, and at my first ever live performances I was, basically, just shouting.”
It wasn’t just the tutors attempting to put the kibosh on whisperpop. Artists from Madonna and John Lydon to Bob Dylan and Neil Tennant have shown throughout pop history that there’s a difference between being a technically capable singer and a great emotional vocalist but, as previously mentioned, talent-show viewers are now conditioned to equate farcically over-the-top vocal runs with singing talent.
“There was a time when it was all: ‘Let’s be Mariah, let’s be Céline, let’s be Whitney,’” notes famed vocal coach Yvie Burnett, who has worked with the likes of Sam Smith and Susan Boyle, coached on The X Factor and America’s Got Talent, and recently even published a book – Yes, You Can Sing. “And then,” she continues, “it became: ‘That’s dull, we can’t have that, we need to be guitar-based.’ So everyone would come into the audition thinking they were Ed Sheeran. In spite of being nothing like Ed Sheeran, because if you don’t have the tone and you’re just standing there with a guitar, you’re going to be awful.”
On the topic of how pop vocal styles drift in and out of fashion, Burnett adds that when an original-sounding artist comes along, there are always imitators. “Everyone jumps on the bandwagon,” she warns. “It can be dull, unless you get the songs. When Amy Winehouse came on the scene she had an outstanding tone, but when people tried to copy her their version was … not good.” As for the mechanics of whisperpop, Burnett says that you’re likely to be using a falsetto, “and that uses a part of your voice that tires more quickly; the vocal folds aren’t coming properly together and it’s very drying. If you can just flip into it, great. If you’re putting it on, though, you’ll tire yourself.”
But fear not, pop stars! Elongated whispering sprees are still an option. Auto-Tune is well known for the way it allows artists to artificially manipulate pitch, but relevant to today’s
interests is that the software’s parent company Antares also produces AVOX, a suite of plugins that was revised a few years ago to include something called ASPIRE Evo.
Henrik Bridger, the company’s product specialist and tester, explains more over Skype. “ASPIRE is a fairly simple plugin with a few parameters, and a whisper-like quality is added to your own voice,” he begins. In terms of how the plugin works, Bridger says complicated things about frequencies, but the key part is that users select a frequency range they can either boost or cut. And if one wishes to sound whispery? “Boost,” Henrik says. “Absolutely.”
Before ASPIRE was released its working title was “breathiness”. As for why breathiness, whisperiness, under-singing and the rejection of Cowell-pleasing vocal runs are so appealing, you could suggest it’s pop’s subconscious attempt to counter such modern conversational tropes as vocal fry (the guttural creaking noise Britney turned into a pop phenomenon), up talk – which makes everything sound like a question? – and nasal whine. Or is it just, like so much in pop, mainly about the suggestion of sexual intercourse? Put it this way: you wouldn’t book Marilyn Monroe to sing at your kid’s birthday party.
Interestingly, Tranter says this isn’t necessarily the point at all. “It conveys intimacy, definitely, but intimacy can mean so many things,” he reasons. “Undersung vocals can be very sexy because of the intimacy but they can be just as heartbreaking for the same reason. In some of my favourite heartbreak songs ever, the singer’s fucking belting their head off and I love it, but sometimes a heartbreak song is about being intimate.”
It makes sense that in the social media era, when we each feel a growing compulsion to broadcast every thought to a potential audience of millions, and are growing to accept others’ broadcasts as a substitute for one-on-one interaction, there could be a subconscious desire to hear music that feels as if it’s intended for just one set of ears. Tranter brings up the success of Sia’s enormous vocals and the way they represent a different route to the same destination. “If you think of Chandelier, Sia’s singing her heart out about all those moments before she got sober, and that’s one way to convey emotion and make people hear every word,” he reckons. “The other way, like in Justin [Bieber]’s Sorry, is to apologise so intimately that people also hear every single word. Both approaches are effective and beautiful.”
Maybe a sense of purpose is what really makes a vocal stand out, whether that voice rattles next door’s pots and pans or feels as if it’s drifting along your auditory canal on a miniature pop cloud. And, as Tranter says, perhaps both approaches take you to the same place anyway. But in the Trump era whisperpop is, if nothing else, encouraging proof that shouting the loudest is not the only way to get people
‘There was a time when it was all: let’s be Mariah, let’s be Céline. And then it became: that’s dull’
Selena-nd not heard Selena Gomez
Stage whispers (left to right) Lana Del Rey, Julia Michaels and Justins Tranter and Bieber