October 24, 2018

Dialect Dissection: Indie Girl Voice

Have you ever heard anybody complain about “Indie Voice”? That “indie singers all sound alike”? Have you ever seen a vine called "Indie girl introduces us to her kitchen" where a man wails “walcome to my keetchen; we have banahnies and avocadies”? All of these are related to the topic of this Dialect Dissection: Indie Girl Voice.

Indie Voice, also known as “Indie Girl Voice,” is not really one thing, but rather a series of interrelated phenomena that occur in different genres of music that have at one time or another been called “indie.” Since the aforementioned “bananhnies and avocadies” clip became popular, people have really started paying attention to it. Some good articles have been written on the subject by Kelly Hoppenjans, MTV, and most famously Buzzfeed. However, I wanted to go more in-depth into what the linguistic features that make up indie voice are, where they came from, and how artists as different as Joanna Newsom, Adele, and Selena Gomez can be accused of having “indie voice.”

Defining Indie Voice

Indie Voice can be broadly defined as a style of singing that is associated with several genres that have, at some point or another, been called "indie." Indie Voice is also known as "indie girl voice" because most of the people who use it are women. This is not surprising, as women tend to be on the vanguard of language innovation. The earliest reference online to "indie girl voice" that I could find was this thread from the Straight Dope, posted January 2, 2014.

Is there a name for this hyper-annoying singing style? I'd like to be able to more easily dismiss it.
It seems every indie/faux-indie singer-songwriter girl under the age of 30 is singing with a remarkably annoying, breathy voice with an unnecessary twang in it that is at times punctuated with scratchiness. They sing softly and every vowel sounds like "ow," as though the singer is suffering as much as I am every time I hear it. - MeanOldLady
Meiko wearing a ruffled blouse and playing a guitar

The poster gives some examples, almost all of them leading to folk pop songs. Other posters start replying, giving their agreement on how “annoying” the singing style is, and listing songs that they found to have this same style. Almost all of the songs linked to in this thread for the first year are folk songs. Many of these songs were released around 2013, and many of the posters report hearing these types of songs in commercials. This suggests that this Indie Voice was at peak saturation by 2013, but was likely swirling around for years before appearing in cat commercials aimed at baby boomers. We are going to call this variety of Indie Voice "Folk Indie Voice."

This type of indie girl voice doesn't seem to be quite what the "banahnies and avocadies" vine is making fun of. That vine came out in 2015, the same year that Buzzfeed wrote its own article explaining indie voice. Almost all the examples in the Buzzfeed article came out in 2015, but none of them sound like the soft, waifish folk songs that you hear about in the Straight Dope thread. They are instead more pop-oriented songs, with a stronger electronic influence. We are going to call this one "Pop Indie Voice."

Now that we've laid out the general boundaries of what Indie Girl Voice is, what are the specifics? There are multiple criteria that go into determining whether a given singer demonstrates "indie voice." You do not need to have all the criteria, and indeed very few singers will demonstrate all the features. The following are the most important. One of the features is musical: indie voice is associated with a limited tessitura. You do not get incredibly feats of vocal acrobatic with indie voice. Another clue is phonetic. Both types of Indie Voice make careful use of two types of phonation - creaky voice (also known as vocal fry), which results in a crackling noise, and murmur (also known as breathy voice), where the extra air results in an airy sighing sound. These two phonation types are located closer to the extremes of glottal closure (creaky voice) and glottal opening (breathy voice). You can hear both creaky and breathy voice at play in this relative latecomer to the indie voice game, Billie Eilish.

Billie Eilish - you should see me in a crown (2018)

"Count my cards, watch them fall, blood on a marble wall."

For the most part, the above features are sufficient to get someone accused of having "indie voice." Of course, the context of indie voice is important. Mariah Carey may sing with a breathy voice and limited tessitura on songs like "Touch My Body," but the genre of the song is r&b. Nevertheless, we could stop here and probably round up a lot of people who are considered to have Indie Voice.

However, there is an additional quirk to Indie Voice that makes it of interest to a linguist: both versions of Indie Voice have some particular recurring pronunciations. The most notable of these is diphthongization, which is when a single vowel is pronounced as having two vowels. The Buzzfeed article pays a lot of attention to this diphthongization. Moreover, people notice these pronunciations and post about it. That means this isn't some microphonetic detail you can only find with an acoustic analysis, but something that laymen listeners are pointing out on social media! We're going to dive into these pronunciations and see if we can't explain where they came from.

Quote from the Straight Dope member Wile E. It's not so much the breathiness but the mispronounciation of words that drives me nuts. Here's the lyrics. I must confess when I wear this dress, I feel like dancing the whole night with you, 'Cause you are the one I could see having fun with, Not just for the night but for the rest of my life,Doo doo doo... On 'confess' and 'this' she stretches out the 's' sounds so it sounds like she's a singing snake. Then 'dress' which normally rhymes with 'confess' is pronounced 'drey-ess'

If you want to get straight to the good stuff, scroll past this paragraph. For those of you who want the boring nerd details, my methodology was as follows: I listened to as many of the songs on the Straight Dope thread as I could, and also listened to the songs from the Buzzfeed and Kelly Hoppenjams article. If someone noted that a song had a distinct pronunciation, I tried to listen for that pronunciation in the song; if I heard it myself, I included it and if I did not, I left it out. I also included some songs that some informants told me were examples of indie voice (such as Halsey's cover of "Love Yourself") or potential progenitors of indie voice that I found shared characteristics with the other songs (Adele and Amy Winehouse). I also included a song that I do not consider to have "indie voice" overall but had a notable pronunciation that was very similar to another "indie voice" pronunciation ("What Kind of Man" by Florence + the Machine).

ADDENDUM: A lot of people have asked why most of these examples are of women. I have written a post explaining why most of the examples are women, even though there are men who do Indie Voice as well. If you are interested in learning more about the methodology and how it ended up biasing the result, please read the addendum and let me know your examples of men who have linguistic Indie Voice.

Features of Indie Voice

The transcriptions below will include both ad hoc spellings (e.g. "cheIst") and International Phonetic Alphabet transcriptions ([tʃɛɪst]).

  • /ʌ/ 🔊 → [a] 🔊 . The vowel in words like butt and STRUT is pronounced higher, like 'a' in Spanish. This is found in older varieties of Received Pronunciation (Wells 1982:291-292).
    • "This is lav [lav] bat [bat]" (love [lʌv] but [bʌt]) Adele – Chasing Pavements (2008)
    • "Acting ap [ap]" (up [ʌp]) PomplamooseMusic – Single Ladies (2009)
    • "Lacky [laki], lucky me" (lucky [lʌki]) Kat Edmonson – Lucky (2012)
    • "You are not abav me" (above [əbʌv]) Allie Goertz – The Room Song (2013)
    • "You still hit my phone ap [ap]" (up [ʌp]) Halsey - Love Yourself (2016)
  • Dipthongization. This is one of the most distinctive features of Indie Voice – turning monophthongs into diphthongs. These diphthongs are closing diphthongs – they go from a low vowel to a high vowel. The one exception is /ʊ/ → [ʊɪ].
      /ɛ/ 🔊 → [ɛɪ] 🔊 . The vowel in words like "dress" has a short 'ih' added to it at the end.
    • "nearly put to deIth [dɛɪθ]" (death [dɛθ]) CocoRosie – Lemonade (live) (2010)
    • "I must confeiss [kənfɛɪs], when I wear this dreiss [drɛɪs]" (confess [kənfɛs] dress [drɛs]) Meiko – Stuck On You (2013)
    • "I don't ever think about deIth [dɛɪθ]" (death [dɛθ]) Lorde – Glory & Gore (2013)
    • "Carves into my hollow cheIst [tʃɛɪst]" (chest [tʃɛst]) Halsey – Drive (2015)
    • "...My freIndz [frɛɪnz]" (friends [frɛnds]) Halsey - Love Yourself (2016)
      /ʌ/ 🔊 → [ʌɪ] 🔊 . The vowel in words like "just" has a short 'ih' added to it at the end.
    • "Buit [bʌɪt] ships are fallible, I say" (but [bʌt]) Joanna Newsom – Bridges and Balloons (2004)
    • "I cannot ruh-in [rʌɪn] now" (run [rʌn]) Amy Winehouse – Wake Up Alone (2006)
    • "She's up all night for good fuIn [fʌɪn]" (fun [fʌn]) Daughter – Get Lucky (2013)
    • "I’ll be the wuIn [wʌɪn]" (one [wʌn]) Pitbull ft Kesha – Timber (2013)
    • "JuIst [dʒʌɪst] let me be" (just [dʒʌst]) Bebe Rexha – I Don’t Wanna Grow Up (2015)
    • "...cold to the tuItch [tʌɪtʃ]" (touch [tʌtʃ]) Shawn Mendes – Stitches (2015)
    • "...you look that muitch [mʌɪtʃ]" (much [mʌtʃ]) Halsey - Love Yourself (2016)
      Other: /ʊ/ 🔊 → [ʊɪ] 🔊 , /ɑ/ 🔊 → [ɑɪ] 🔊 , /ɔ/ 🔊 → [ɔɪ] 🔊 . The vowels in "book," "spa," and "caught" respectively have a short 'ih' added on to them at the end. Note that "on" appears here with two different representations because the singers have different pronunciations.
    • "I just wanna look guid [gʊɪd] for you" (good [gʊd]) Selena Gomez – Good For You (2015)
    • "then you swore oIn [ɑɪn]" (on [ɑn]) MisterWives – Our Own House (2015)
    • "If you think that I'm still holding oIn [ɔɪn] [...] and baby I be moving oIn [ɔɪn]" (on [ɔn]) Halsey – Love Yourself (2016)
  • /eɪ/ 🔊 → [æɪ] 🔊 . This feature is also found in Cockney English (Wells 1982:307) and some Southern American accents.
    • "They were inflAEimed [flæɪmz]" (flames [fleɪmz]) CocoRosie – Lemonade (live) (2010)
    • "That boy's got my heart in a silver cAEige [kæɪdʒ]" (cage [keɪdʒ]) Flight Facilities – Crave you ft. Giselle (2010)
    • "The rules of the gAEime [gæɪm]" (game [geɪm]) Grace Vanderwaal – I Don't Know My Name (2016)
  • R-Vocalization. Here, the r sound is replaced with an 'ee' [i] or 'ih' [ɪ] sound. This is unusual and not found in any accent that I am aware of.
    • "Even if it leads no-wey [noʊwɛi]" (nowhere [noʊwɛə]) Adele – Chasing Pavements (2008)
    • "Never saw you befoi [bəfɔɪ] [...] let me show you the doi [dɔɪ]" Allie Goertz (before [bəfɔ:] door [dɔ:]) – The Room Song (2013)
  • /ɪ/ 🔊 -> [i] 🔊 . The lax 'ih' sound is turned into the tense 'ee' sound, so that words like "kit" sound more like "keet." This is a curious one: these singers do not have Indie Voice, but you can hear the Chrish vine has "keechen" as pronunciation of "kitchen," which suggests it is part of the Indie Voice.
    • "Moon speelin' [spilɪn] in" (spillin' [spɪlɪn]) Amy Winehouse - Wake Up Alone (2006)
    • "Thees [ðis] is love [...] I am in love weeth [wiθ] you" (this [ðɪs] with [wɪθ]) Adele - Chasing Pavements (2008)
    • "What kind of man loves like thees [ðis]?" (this [ðɪs]) Florence + the Machine - What Kind of Man (2015)
  • /aɪ/ 🔊 -> [ɑɪ] 🔊 . The first element in the diphthong in words like RIDE is pronounced lower. This can be found in London English (Wells 1982:308) and some New York accents.
    • "I've been so caught up in mah-y [mɑɪ] job" (my) Halsey - Love Yourself (2016)
    • "If love is a lie [lɑɪ]" (lie [laɪ]) Bebe Rexha - I Don't Wanna Grow Up (2015)
    • "Mai [mɑɪ] sister's friend" (my [maɪ]) Grace Vanderwaal – I Don't Know My Name (2016)

Origins of Indie Voice

Who started indie voice? I've seen a lot of people say that artists as diverse as Regina Spektor, Bjork, Kate Bush, and Connie Rae Bailey were the inspiration. These are post-hoc explanations by people on the outside talking about indie voice. I've done a cursory look at the musicians mentioned in this article to see if there was some musician that they all say influenced them, but there were no real recurring names. There are examples of indie voice without the distinct sound changes in 2005, which suggests that the singing style itself dates back to that time.

As for the sound changes, the earliest example of diphthongization happening in Folk Indie Voice back in 2004. This is a pretty isolated example - I had a hard time finding pre-2010 examples of Indie Voice sound changes, so these pronunciations may not have yet been common at the time. Some examples that do not have the Indie voice but do demonstrate the sound changes are from this period: Amy Winehouse and Adele. Taken as a whole, this period of Indie Voice has a lot less diphthongization, more STRUT-raising, and more /eɪ/ → [æɪ].

  • "Buit ships are fallible, I say, " Joanna Newsom – Bridges and Balloons (2004)
  • "moon speeling in / I cannot ruin now" Amy Winehouse – Wake Up Alone (2006)
  • "Thees is lav bat /no wey" Adele – Chasing Pavements (2008)
  • "Acting ap, drink in my cup" PomplamooseMusic – Single Ladies (2009)
  • "They were in flAEims / nearly put to deIth" CocoRosie – Lemonade (live) (2010)
  • "In a silver cAEige [AEi]" Flight Facilities – Crave you ft. Giselle (2010)
  • "Lacky lucky me" Kat Edmonson – Lucky (2012)
  • "Never saw you befoi/let me show you the doi/you are not abav me" Allie Goertz – The Room Song (2013)
  • "ɑi started to cry" Nataly Dawn and Lauren O’Connell – I Started A Joke (2013)
  • “I must confeIss, when I wear this dreIss” Meiko – Stuck On You (2013)
  • "Good fuIn" Daughter – Get Lucky (2013)

Around 2013 seems to be when Folk Indie Voice starts crossing over to pop music and creating its own thing, the Pop Indie Voice. As mentioned above, the voice becomes thinner and more spread out compared to the breathy, waifish Folk Indie Voice.

  • "I’ll be the wuIn" Pitbull ft Kesha – Timber (2013)
  • "Guid for you" Selena Gomez – Good For You (2015)
  • "Hollow cheIst" Halsey – Drive (2015)
  • "JuIst let me be" Bebe Rexha – I Don’t Wanna Grow Up (2015)
  • "Then you swore oIn" MisterWives – Our Own House (2015)
  • "TuItch" Shawn Mendes – Stitches (2015)
  • "What kind of man loves like thees?" Florence + the Machine - What Kind of Man (2015)
  • "Rules of the gaeim/mai sister's friend" Grace Vanderwaal - I Don't Know My Name (2016)

Explaining Indie Voice

Linguistically, there is no singular source of Indie Voice. A handful of these changes (/aɪ/ -> ɑɪ, /eɪ/ → [æɪ], /ʌ/ → [a]) appear in London English or Received Pronunciation. It is therefore possible that many indie singers were influenced by some earlier singer(s) from England who sang with their native accent. This explanation is complicated by the fact that these sound changes aren't unique to London English. /aɪ/ -> ɑɪ also appears in New York City English, and /eɪ/ → [æɪ] appears in Southern American English. The simpler explanation is that there was a single source for all three instead of each pronunciation coming from a different source.

The most distinctive feature of indie voice, the diphthongization, has no ready analogue in varieties of English. It does have an interesting pattern: diphthongization often happens when a single-syllable word is being sung in two syllables, and the second syllable is higher in pitch. Moreover, the consonants following the diphthongized vowel are alveolar consonants, near the alveolar ridge. The ‘i’ in these diphthongs is a close front vowel, meaning it’s near the alveolar ridge. It’s possible that this diphthongization developed as a side effect of trying to reach the higher note while staying on the same word and then moving to an alveolar consonants. The starting point of the diphthongs are almost all low in the mouth, meaning that the tongue would have to travel farther to get to the alveolar consonant. This may also explain the very unusual R-vocalization found in the “The Room Song” and “Chasing Pavements.”

It is notable that the diphthongization found in folk indie songs and early pop songs, to my ears, sounds subtler compared to the diphthongization found in the later pop indie songs. The "buit" from Joanna Newsom and "deith" from Lorde sound much less pronounced next to the "tuitch" of Shawn Mendes and the "guid" of Selena Gomez. The diphthongization may be something that became more exaggerated with time.

As for /ɪ/ -> [i], your guess is as good as mine.

Why Did Indie Voice Develop?

It's all good and well to document the history of indie voice and to note the sound changes associated with it. But I am certain many of you are still left with the question of why Indie Voice exists in the first place. Why do singers continue to sing in this style?

Some commenters, such as Kelly Hoppenjams and Rachael Lawrence, have suggested that Indie Voice is a matter of “trying to sound different” – the idea being that pronouncing things a little unusually will cause people to remember you, even if it is as “that singer who says guId.” The problem is that, as demonstrated by the fact that we can identify all these singers as Indie Voice singers, it doesn’t really help them stand out as much as it helps them blend into a style that already exists.

Perhaps the best way to understand Indie Voice is that it's really about fitting into the requirements of a musical genre. As mentioned above, some of the characteristics do appear in English English - we can speculate that some of these pronunciations may have originated with an English English singer, and then other singers copied that singing style. It bears repeating that the indie girl voice is a phenomenon restricted to singing, not speaking. Grace Vanderwaal, who was 12 at the time of this recording, can be heard speaking in General American before launching into her song.

If someone spoke like this, we would find it unusual because it does not correspond to any known variety of English. But when they come together in song, they form an immediately recognizable pattern that tells us what type of music the singer is trying to fit into. If you listen to and like singers with Indie Voice, you may be influenced by them and reproduce Indie Voice in your own singing. This is similar to singers who sing "babay" and "it's gonna be may". I doubt that pop singers singing "you're sweet to may" are consciously aware that they are doing these pronunciations or where they come from. It's just part of the register of pop singing at this point. The same seems to apply to Indie Voice. The exact origins of it may not be clear; trying to figure out why some changes stick and others fade away is, as John McWhorter says, the equivalent of trying to predict where bubbles appear in one’s soup.

Moving Forward from Banahnies and Avocaydies

Indie Voice is a divisive and distinctive style of singing, but it's been around in some form or other for 15 years. It would be interesting to see if this trend continues into the future, changes into something else, or disappears entirely. Moreover, what other distinctive registers can be found in music, which is more permissive of unusual pronunciations than regular speech? Understanding the trajectory of the Indie Voice helps us understand how new genre registers form in music, how quickly they are adopted, and what happens to them in the future.

Works Cited

  • Wells, John 1982. Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


  1. Wondering if there are subtle beginnings in Emily Haines (Metric) and Feist, going back to 2004.

  2. This phenomenon is something that is really interesting to me. A video I found very informative is by Aimee Nolte titled "Why Do Pop Singers Sound SO WEIRD??" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNtonlvglu8). In it she lays out the fact that singers in jazz, rock and pop have always sung vowels in odd ways. The difference in todays pop is that people are copying this much more frequently. Something I found interesting is the fact that two of the modern examples she uses are songs written by Sia, Chandelier and Diamonds (recorded by Rihanna). As a massive Sia fan I'm very much used to hearing words weirdly pronounced, but has never found it irritating or really that strange, in fact I loved it. She might also be one of the more "extreme" cases of this kind of singing, especially during her live performances.

    In a recent article on NPR "Sia Is The 21st Century's Most Resilient Songwriter" things gets even more interesting (I suggest reading the whole article for full context). The writer says this describing Sia's singing on Chandelier- "On the verses she trips across syllables like skipping stones and chews vowels like gum"- which I found to be both funny and accurate. But besides her own songs, Sia is also a very prolific songwriter who records a lot of demos, and singers have been known to completely copy the melodies and sound. In the case of "Diamonds" Sia first thought her own vocal was on the final recording by Rihanna. And personally after having listened to so much of Sia's music I can often recognize if other artists' songs are written by her. The most recent example being Rihannas Sledgehammer (a song from the Star Trek soundtrack), which I could detect was a "Sia song" after hearing just the first second of her singing.

    The most interesting part in the article (having to to with this subject) is this: "Even artists who don't record Sia demos sound like her: You hear her voice in the splayed syllables of Alessia Cara, Halsey and Julia Michaels, or non-songwriters like Selena Gomez who imitate them. And the influence goes back far. In 2008, Sia told Rolling Stone about setting up a collaboration with Amy Winehouse, she of the hundreds of blue-eyed soul imitators. "No way," Winehouse reportedly said. "I'm intimidated by you. I've been listening to you since I was a teenager."

    Could Sia be to "blame" for the indie voice? If Amy Winehouse could have been influenced by her and someone like Adele was in turn influenced by Amy, something she's spoken about several times. In a Rolling Stone article (https://bit.ly/2QwxS6I) Adele is quoted saying Amy was the reason she started writing her own songs and that she owes 90 percent of her career to Amy. Sia certainly isn't the only one "tripping across syllables" and "chewing vowels like gum" but could she have been one of the biggest influences; indirectly because of her early career in the 90's (and maybe early 2000's) that Amy was listening to and more directly after becoming a sought after songwriter in LA and then with her career exploding with 2014's Chandelier? I would love to know what you think.

    1. Sia is definitely an influence on the musical aspect of indie voice, although she is more ambitious vocally on songs like Titanium and Chandelier than most indie voice-style singers. I haven't looked into her pre-1000 Forms of Fear stuff yet, so this would definitely be an interesting place to start looking if Amy Winehouse says she's influenced by her! Thanks for the heads up.