Whis­per pop

When did the idea of ‘good singing’ go from Cé­line-style belt­ing to a Se­lena-es­que whis­per? Peter Robin­son in­ves­ti­gates

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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

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