October 21, 2020

Now here you go again - Stevie Nicks' Incomprehensible Singing

Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" has found new popularity with the younger generation as a popular TikTok featuring a man skateboarding, drinking cranberry juice, and lip syncing the song has gone viral.

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♬ Dreams (2004 Remaster) - Fleetwood Mac

While listening to the song, I was reminded of how I always found Stevie Nicks kind of hard to understand - I'm pretty sure I just made up half the lyrics to "Dreams" whenever I sang it.

I listened to the following three songs: Rhiannon, Dreams, and Gold Dust Woman. All three were primarily written and performed by Nicks, and are considered signature songs for her. I left out songs like "I Don't Wanna Know" and "The Chain," both of which had Nicks as writer but not as the primary vocalist. I also did not look at any post-Rumours albums because it gets weird and also I did not want to.

We are lucky enough to have studio and filtered acapella tracks, which makes it easier to tell what is her singing and what is interference from the background. I have selected clips from the below tracks to illustrate.




Stevie Nicks seems to operate on the base American Rock Register, which is influenced primarily by African American English and secondarily by white Southern English. The following features are quite common among 70s rock bands:

  • PRICE-monophthongization. Every "I" becomes an "ah" for Nicks.
    • "Who am [a] to keep you down?" (Dreams)
  • CAUGHT-diphthongization. "Want" sounds like "wa-unt."
    • "You wawnt your freedom" (Dreams)
  • TRAP-diphthongized. Nicks splits the vowel in words like "had" into two vowels.
    • "What you "he-ad and what you lost." (Dreams)
    • "Thunder only heappens when it's raining." (Dreams)
    • "Heave you any dreams you'd like to sell?" (Dreams)
    • "She's like a ceat in the dark" (Rhiannon, 0:44)
  • STRUT-centralization - the 'uh' sound in "loves" is raised to sound kind of like "lurves."
    • "See your sunrise lurves to go down." (Gold Dust Woman)
  • KIT-diphthongization. Nicks loves to split short 'ih' sounds into two vowels.
    • "Wake up ian the mornian'" (Gold Dust Woman)
    • "Neaver seen a woman taken by the wiand" (Rhiannon)
  • Non-rhoticism. Nicks pronounces 'er' sounds as 'uh.'
    • "Lousy lovas." (Gold Dust Woman)

Fleetwood Mac originated as a blues band, but Nicks's arrival in the band heralded a shift towards more lush pop material. The band still used a lot of acoustic instrumentation, and the electric instruments like guitars and keyboards were not used aggressively. Nicks' faux Southern/AAE accent jibes perfectly well with the band's musical direction, as well as the musical zeitgiest of the time.

All her Southern features are vowel-based, and most of them introduce diphthongs. The only one that reduces a diphthong, PRICE-monophthongization, has been standard in American rock for so long that it's almost not even worth mentioning. (I wonder if Lana Del Rey was influenced by Nicks - her love of diphthongizing the short 'i' KIT vowel is very Nicksian.)

Nicks also has the following features, non-consistently?

  • Consonant deletion.
    • "It's o-ly right that you should..." (Dreams)
    • "Bla[ʔ] widow." (Gold Dust Woman)
  • Consonant lenition.
    • "Pick your [f]ath and I'll p[f]ray" (Gold Dust Woman)
    • /t/s before /l/s become vocalized and flapped.
      • "Hea[r]less challenge." (Gold Dust Woman)
      • "But they never cry ou[r] loud." (Gold Dust Woman)
    • GOAT-monopthongization. "In your shad[o]" (Gold Dust Woman)
    • Lack of aspiration.
      • "Mmm [p]ale shadow, she's a dragon." (Gold Dust Woman)
      • "Women, they will [k]ome and they will go." (Dreams)
      • Very emphatic /b/. "She rings like a Bell in the night." Could be an example of cowboy (implosive) b? (Rhiannon)
      • Splitting one syllable into two: "It's only right that you should p-lay the way you feel it." (Dreams)
      • EmPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble. "When the rain wash-ES you clean, you'll know." (Dreams)

      If you're a long-time reader, you may recognize some of these features from my Ariana Grande article. These features increase singability by simplifying a more complex syllable into CVCV.

      Combined with Stevie Nick's recognizably light, breathy voice and floaty phrasing, it's clear that Stevie Nicks is not singing for comprehensibility, but for aesthetic effect. She loves to stretch out her vowels, especially in words like "cat" and "win" that would normally be harder to sing.

      Finally, it does not help that her lyrics are unusual for American rock. She uses a lot of symbolic imagery and unusual collocations, making it harder to fill in the gaps if you happen to miss a word. If the topic is "I love you, tell me it's true" you've probably heard enough variations on a lyric like that to be able to fill in what's going on if the singer slurs "I love you, tell ??? it's true." But it's harder to predict what's meant to go in "It's ??? ??? that you should play away your ???."

      "Rock on gold dust woman
      Take your silver spoon
      Dig your grave
      Heartless challenge
      Pick your path and I'll pray
      Wake up in the morning
      See your sunrise loves to go down
      Lousy lovers pick their prey
      But they never cry out loud" - Gold Dust Woman

      "Now, here I go again, I see
      The crystal vision
      I keep my visions to myself
      It's only me, who wants to
      Wrap around your dreams and
      Have you any dreams you'd like to sell" - Dreams

      "She rules her life like a fine skylark
      And when the sky is starless
      All your life you've never seen
      A woman taken by the wind
      Would you stay if she promised you heaven?" - Rhiannon

      Having listened to these songs again, Stevie Nicks is not the most incomprehensible singer. Ariana Grande is more willing to play fast and loose with consonantts than Stevie is, who is picky about when she deletes and when she stretches. Nicks is also not the most unusual vowel performer. A band like Alt-J is easily weirder than her.

      She actually reminds me a little of Fergie when she did that really weird rendition of the American National Anthem. Weird phrasing, a recognizable tonal color, and unpredictable phonetic changes. The difference is Stevie Nicks wrote these songs, and so her interpretation of them matched with the lyrics and the production - Fergie's version of the Star Spangled Banner clashes with previous renditions we've heard before by going for a weird slow sexy cabaret thing.

      What makes Stevie Nicks's performance so memorable? Perhaps when the rain wash-es us clean, we'll know.

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