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May 3, 2021

Dialect Dissection: Indie Voice/Cursive Singing - The Definitive Post

Language in music does not just reflect spoken speech, but actually creates new forms that exist mostly in music. One of the most well-known examples of a music-locked language variety is "Indie Voice," also called "Cursive Singing," "Indie (Girl) Voice" or "hip singing." The style has disparate roots, but began to crystallize and gain media attention in the 2010s. It has proven to have staying power, both as a musical tool for singers to draw on, and as a distinct entity that lay people can point out and imitate.

Cursive singing is a huge topic I have attempted to cover before. I want to revisit it because cursive singing still has a lot of staying power in music fans' imaginations, and the history of cursive singing demonstrates sociolinguistic concepts far better than a dry lecture would.

What is Cursive Singing or Indie Voice?

Cursive singing is a name for a style of singing that has also been called "indie girl/boy voice," "indie pop voice," and "hip singing." It is associated with a breathy voice, vocal fry, distinct vowel choices, and a thin, delicate style of singing. We are going to be focusing on the linguistic aspects of cursive singing. We won't be approaching cursive singing from a vocal pedagogy or music theory standpoint because each one of those could probably take up their own article!

The earliest example I can find online to any sort of 'indie voice' is this 2009 (archived) review:

The record's spare production helps keep it from dating, but what really works today is Bunyan's soft, fragile Peter Pan voice. I imagine her understated whisper sounded out of step in its own time but now it sounds like a founding document of a certain school of indie singing. [NOTE - the album they're reviewing came out 2005]

After 2009, the topic of 'indie voice' lays dormant until 2013, when we start getting attempts to definitively name this vocal style. One of the earliest to gain traction is "hip singing." "Hip singing" was coined by YouTuber Madeline Roberts in her video "How to Hip-Sing." This term is not as popular anymore, but you can still hear some people refer to cursive singing as a "hip style" of singing.

"Indie girl voice" was an explicitly gendered way to refer to this style of singing. It alternated with "indie girl singing" and "indie girl style," all centering the idea that this style is particular to "indie girls." There are gender neutral and male-coded versions as well, like "indie voice," "indie boy voice," and (rarely) "indie guy voice." There is no one originator for this term, but an early online reference comes from a Straight Dope thread (archive), showing it was familiar to users by 2014. The association with "indie girls" was strengthened by a famous 2015 vine of Chrish imitating an "indie girl" welcoming the viewer to her kitchen. MTV journalist Molly Beauchemin gave the term a boost in 2016 when she compared it to "emo boy voice."

"Indie pop voice" appears to have been coined by Buzzfeed journalist Reggie Ugwu, referring to a particular version of "indie voice" that affected not just underground singers, but mainstream pop stars. His term was adopted by others looking into this phenomenon afterwards, like musician and blogger Kelly Hoppenjam.

"Cursive singing" is the newest to the game. The origin of this dates to fans typing out lyrics in "indie voice" using italics, an overabundance of diacritics, or a cursive font.

bæheby yöu should go and fõåucck yôhuorsęælf (Source)

This typographical convention was reinforced by the fact that cursive can be extremely ornate, delicate, and hard to understand - characteristics that people associated with "indie voice." We can see how the typography began to evolve from merely denoting indie girl voice to becoming the very name of it in the following examples (documented on Know Your Meme):

On July 8th, 2018, Redditor barihakiim posted "The SZA jokes where people say she sings in hieroglyphics and italics will forever be funny to me. No matter how much of a fan I am.😂" to r/sza. Redditor FKAnugs91 responded by saying, "When TDE first released that she lost her voice someone commented 'well if she stopped singing in cursive maybe she’d still have her voice' I died." On September 13th, Aries672 asked a LipstickAlley forum "Why Are Singers Singing In Cursive Now? What is this new style that Jorja Smith, SZA, FKA Twigs and etc sing in and what is the purpose?.

"Singing in cursive" overtook "indie voice" as a search term in 2019, when "singing in cursive" became a popular challenge on the app TikTok. I'll be using both "indie voice" and "cursive singing" to discuss this style of singing, since they are both very popular and neither is explicitly gendered.

Why do people sound different when they sing?

We don't speak exactly the same way in every situation. Image you're giving a very important presentation to some very important people. You will likely use different vocabulary, grammar, and even tone of voice compared to when you're hanging out with friends. These two different ways of speaking can be called registers. A single person will use many registers throughout their lives as they encounter different situations.

Registers can also exist in music. You use very different vowels for classical operatic singing than you do when singing a bluesy rock song. Think of how unusual it would sound if you used your operatic vowels to sing the blues, and vice versa. We can say that musical genre and register reinforce each other.

Cursive singing is a register of sung speech used in a variety of musical genres, such as folk, rock, pop. The overall goal is a feeling of intimacy and vulnerability, which is why it's often paired with breathy voice and glottal fry. There are other registers that make use of these vocal techniques: r&b and pop singers use breathy voice and glottal fry to create an intimate scene with the listener (think of Mariah Carey on 'Touch My Body') or to sound vulnerable (Britney Spears in 'Oops! I Did It Again').

But the r&b and pop registers draw heavily from African American Vernacular English and Southern American English. They also, musically, tend towards pomp, bombast, and virtuosity. Cursive singing does not take from the Mississippi Delta in such a literal way, and it's much more conservative in its vocal range.

Now that we know what registers are, and how indie voice is no different from 'blues voice' or 'opera voice', let's talk about the qualities that actually make up indie voice.

The sounds

There are many different features that make up indie voice, and not every 'indie voice'-using singer uses all of them! Some of these features group together, so that you can talk about using a certain bundle of sounds.

We're going to talk about these bundles of sounds, where they came from, and who has them. And a note - this list covers a lot of features of cursive singing, but it is not exhaustive. Don't be surprised if future cursive-ologists find even more features and make even more fine-tuned distinctions!

The English/Aussie Bundle

This first bundle is going to sound very familiar to any readers from Southern England or Australia. Indeed, a lot of these are just straight-up features of Australian and Southern English English:

  • /aɪ/ 🔊 -> [ɑɪ] 🔊 The first element in the diphthong in words like RIDE is pronounced lower, sounding like 'royd'. This feature appears in London English (Wells 1982:308), as well as Australian, New Zealand, and some New York accents.
    Hide/show examples
    • "Caught up in m[ɑɪ] job." - Love Yourself (live), Halsey (2016)
    • "If love is a l[ɑɪ]." - I Don't Wanna Grow Up, Bebe Rexha (2015)
    • "So I heard you are m[ɑɪ] sister's friend." – I Don't Know My Name, Grace Vanderwaal (2016)
  • /ʌ/ 🔊 → [a] 🔊 The vowel in words like STRUT is pronounced higher, like 'a' in Spanish. This is a feature of older varieties of Received Pronunciation (Wells 1982:291-292) and Australian English.
    Hide/show examples
    • "This is l[a]ve b[a]t" – Chasing Pavements, Adele (2008)
    • "Acting [a]p" – Single Ladies, PomplamooseMusic (2009)
    • "L[a]cky, lucky me" – Lucky, Kat Edmonson (2012)
    • "You are not ab[a]ve me" – The Room Song, Allie Goertz (2013)
    • "You still hit my phone [a]p" - Love Yourself, Halsey (2016)
  • /eɪ/ 🔊 → [æɪ] 🔊 The vowel in FACE is lowered to sound more like FAEICE, or even "FICE." This Australian feature (source) is also found in New Zealand English, Cockney English (Wells 1982:307) and some Southern American accents.
    Hide/show examples
    • "They were infl[æɪ]med" – Lemonade, CocoRosie (live) (2010)
    • "That boy's got my heart in a silver c[æɪ]ge" – Crave you, Flight Facilities ft. Giselle (2010)
    • "The rules of the g[æɪ]me" – I Don't Know My Name, Grace Vanderwaal (2016)

How did these features become associated with indie voice? We can trace part of it back to England in the 70s and 80s. While there had been successful English acts before then, many of them totally Americanized their accents, like the Rolling Stones, or only kept some of their features, like the Beatles. Starting in the 70s, English punk rock bands took a different approach by embracing working class Southern English accents completely. Peter Trudgill famously wrote about this in "Acts of Conflicting Identity:"

'Punk-rock' singers, like their antecedents, modify their pronunciation when singing. Analysis of their pronunciation, however, shows that there has been a reduction in the use of the 'American' features discussed above [flapping words with 't', using a flat 'æ' in words like dance, pronouncing 'r's after vowels], although they are still used, and an introduction of features associated with low-prestige south of England accents.

Many of these punk rock and new wave bands went on to be successful internationally, with recognizable hit songs. The Sex Pistols and the Human League, for instance, both sang with unapologetically English accents. The American music machine was ultimately able to reclaim its crown, but the result was that there were now three available model for global pop music: white standard American English, Black American English, and 'low-prestige south of England accents.' These English accents were then imitated by people from outside of England, and other people began to imitate those imitators. One such imitator is Billie Joe from Green Day, who undoubtedly became imitated by his own fans in the future:

Delivered in a halting Joe Strummer-like baritone (“I’m an American guy faking an English accent faking an American accent,” Billie Joe jokes) and framed by lean guitar parts and melodic bass lines, Green Day’s songs are the polar opposite of the fuzz-toned Seattle sound. (Source 1, Source 2)

You don't have to be directly influenced by punk rockers to be influenced by what they ultimately stood for. They believed that you didn't need to sand down the corners of your accent to fit into a corporate, cosmopolitan box, and if you're gonna speak the truth, everyone better be prepared to listen regardless of what accent it's delivered in. Doubtless these bands inspired future English rock and pop acts to feel more comfortable using the more English parts of their speech in song. Meanwhile, there were non-English folks listening who were inspired by these sounds, and borrowed features.

For example, some commenters informed me that there were a number of Australian indie bands in the 90s that found some worldwide popularity. The most mentioned one was Frente!, a band which found popularity in the early 1990s. The frontwoman of the band, Angie Hart, was influenced by English New Wave band, the Cure. While it probably wasn't a straightforward thing, listening to a rock frontman sing in an English accent probably didn't hurt her choice to sing in her Australian accent. You can hear her and a bandmate using some of these features here.

  • "And all the t[ɑɪ]mes you've been alone" - No Time, Frente (1992)
  • "Somebody's ch[æɪ]nged the deal" - Dangerous, Frente (1992)
  • "Don't sm[ɑɪ]le... don't tr[ɑɪ]... One-nine-oh then m[a]ch too low" - 1.9.0, Frente (1992)

If cursive singing is supposedly influenced by English or even Australian bands, then why does it only have some features occasionally, and not just sound like a straight imitation of them?

Let's pretend you're a singer, and you're a huge fan of Frente! and you're trying to imitate them. Most people can't reproduce another accent perfectly, so you, hypothetical Frente! fan, only copy some of the more salient features, like PRICE-backing, STRUT-centering, and FACE-lowering. Now let's say you got real popular, and you have fans that try to copy the way you sing. Those fans are also imperfect hearers and producers. Some of those fans might only pick up on PRICE-backing and FACE-lowering, and totally ignore STRUT-centering, while other fans may only pick up on FACE-lowering. Some fans may faithfully reproduce all of these features, but some may miss out on them entirely! And so the original full vowel set of Australian English becomes spread across musicians imitating musicians imperfectly, over and over.

My tentative explanation is there was a sort of diffusion happening here where English, Australian, and New Zealand-accented bands became popular, and their listeners, in trying to fit in with them, copied different parts of their accents.

The features that were most copied seem to be ones that can be found in other accents. The low FACE vowel, the backed PRICE vowel, and raised STRUT vowel can be found in multiple different and well-known varieties of English. All three of these can be found in Southern English, Australian, and New Zealand accents. Low FACE vowel is also part of Southern American English, and backed PRICE vowel can be heard in New York English. (It was much harder for me to find examples of the KIT-tensing change. The 'ih' to 'ee' change is also significantly rarer. Australian English is the only major English variety I can think of with that change - and even there, it's not that common.)

We can explain this with a concept from language contact studies: convergence. "Language convergence often results in the increased frequency of preexisting patterns in a language; if one feature is present in two languages in contact, convergence results in increased use and cross-linguistic similarity of the parallel feature" (Hickey, 2010, and the University of Manchester).

This bundle is very common in indie voice, but it's not the only one. There's another bundle, and this one is much more controversial.

The Diphthongized Bundle

This bundle is the one where a single vowel sounds like it's had an 'ih' added afterwards. 'Good' becomes 'guid,' 'touch' becomes 'tuitch', and 'breath' becomes 'breyth'. One vowel turning into two is called diphthongization. Diphthongization can be very obvious or extremely subtle, but either way the vowels no longer sound pure. These diphthongs are closing diphthongs – they go from a low vowel to a high vowel. The one exception is /ʊ/ → [ʊɪ], where the tongue stays at the same height as it moves forward. Let's take a listen to some of these stretched-out vowels:

  • /ɛ/ 🔊 → [ɛɪ] 🔊 The vowel in words like "dress" has a short 'ih' added to it at the end.
    Hide/show examples
    • "Nearly put to d[ɛɪ]th" – Lemonade (live), CocoRosie (2010)
    • "I must conf[ɛɪ]ss, when I wear this dr[ɛɪ]ss" – Stuck On You, Meiko (2013)
    • "I don't ever think about d[ɛɪ]th" – Glory and Gore, Lorde (2013)
    • "Carves into my hollow ch[ɛɪ]st" – Drive, Halsey (2015)
  • /ʌ/ 🔊 → [ʌɪ] 🔊 The vowel in words like "just" has a short 'ih' added to it at the end.
    Hide/show examples
    • "B[ʌɪ]t ships are fallible, I say." - Bridges and Balloons, Joanna Newsom (2004)
    • "I cannot r[ʌɪ]n now." - Wake Up Alone, Amy Winehouse (2006)
    • "She's up all night for good f[ʌɪ]n." Get Lucky, Daughter (2013)
    • "I’ll be the [wʌɪ]n." - Timber, Pitbull ft. Kesha (2013)
    • "J[ʌɪ]st let me be." - I Don’t Wanna Grow Up, Bebe Rexha (2015)
    • "...cold to the t[ʌɪ]ch." - Stitches, Shawn Mendes (2015)
    • " look that m[ʌɪ]ch." - Love Yourself (live), Halsey (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.
    Hide/show examples
    • "I just wanna look g[ʊɪ]d for you." - Good For You, Selena Gomez (2015)
    • "then you swore [ɑɪ]n." - Our Own House, MisterWives (2015)
    • "If you think that I'm still holding [ɔɪ]n [...] and baby I be moving [ɔɪ]n." - Love Yourself (live), Halsey (2016)
  • R-Vocalization. Here, the r sound is replaced with an 'ee' [i] or 'ih' [ɪ] sound.
    Hide/show examples
    • "Even if it leads nowehe[i]." - Chasing Pavements, Adele (2008)
    • "Witness to the arc tow[ɔɪ]ds the sun." - Don't Carry It All, The Decembrists (2011)
    • "Never saw you befo[ɪ] [...] let me show you the do[ɪ]." – The Room Song, Allie Goertz (2013)
    • "I've never seen anybody do the things you do befo[ɪ]." - Dance Monkey, Tones and I (2019)

The diphthongized bundle has been a hot topic of discussion among people interested in indie voice. I've heard a lot of different theories of where it comes from, with one of the most popular being that it was just made up by singers to sing easier, or to stand out from the crowd in an effort at personal branding. But it turns out that there are real-world people who have this type of diphthongization. Dialect expert John Wells noticed something like this happening as far back as 1980:

The vowels /ɪ, ɛ, ʊ, ʌ/, while normally monophthongal, tend to have centring-dipthong allophones when prosodically salient and when in the environment of a following final voiced consonant, thus He's wearing a 'bib' [bɪəb]! In the east, this variant is not very widespread except in the South Midland area; in the United States as a whole it seems to grow commoner as one moves further towards the West and South. Illustrations involving /ɛ, ʊ, ʌ/ are 'bed' [bɛəd], 'good' [gʊəd], 'rub' [rʌəb]. Under the same environmental and prosodic constraints, /æ/ may be found with diphthongal realizations of the [æə] and [æɨ] types [...] Before /ʃ/ and /ʒ/, certain vowels have variants involving an assimilatory off-glide to the [ɪ] area. This particularly affects /ɛ, æ, ʊ, ɔ/ and is associated with the south midland region (and the south); it is common in the mid and far west. Examples include measure [mɛɪʒɚ], splash [splæɪʃ], push [pʊɪʃ], wosh [wɔɪʃ].

Translation: some American accents add an 'uh' vowel to words with short vowels, so 'bib' becomes 'bi-uhb', and others add a short 'ih' vowel before the 'sh' and 'zh' sounds, so you get 'puish' instead of 'push' and 'may-zher' instead of 'measure.' It's not exactly what's happening with our indie singers, but it's in the same ballpark, and shows that diphthongization of these vowels has been happening for several decades in some types of American English.

This may have been happening as far back as the 1940s. Famed jazz singer Billie Holiday has this feature. Plenty of critics have noticed that indie singers sound like they may be imitating her, and this feature - while not exactly the same - may be why:

  • “Take my li[ə]ps, I want to lose the[ə]m. Take my arms, I'll ne[ə]ver use the[ə]m." - All of Me, Billie Holiday (1941)

I have found spoken examples from American English speakers, including a white Southern American man. This counters the idea that this diphthongization is limited to women only - considering the male speaker in question is a male over 30 and therefore considered less likely to use novel linguistic forms (Coates 1993, Chambers 1994).

  • "I don't think you think it's goo[ɪ]d." - Emily Procter playing Ainsley Hayes on the West Wing (2000s). Her accent on the show is her real accent too.
  • "It has cuts and nasty bits, bu[ɪ]t I used this Angelus product..." - American Duchess (2013)
  • "And I don't think anyone would wear a velvet and vinyl helmet and expect it to keep them alive in outer space... Bu[ɪ]t it was kind of closely mimicking these astronauts' pressure suits." - Sarah Jean Culbreth (2019)
  • "It's no[ɪ]t." - Contestants on 'Something Borrowed, Something New' (2014-2015)
  • "I'm hoping it's yellow pvc... bu[ɪ]t." - Roger Wakefield (2020).

Cursive diphthongization is therefore not disconnected from spoken speech - It is based on a process that does occur in spoken speech by people who are not indie singers! It is a relatively subtle sound shift, such that I would not have noticed it had I not been listening for examples of it. Perhaps that is how 'real life' examples of indie voice have gone unnoticed for so long.

There is also an interesting articulatory explanation for Indie Voice diphthongization. This paper puts forward the explanation that Indie Voice singers are using pharyngealization when singing, and that this forces them to move the tongue more when singing. This results in an 'ih' sound being produced, because the 'ih' is made close to the front of the mouht. It also explains the R-vocalization mentioned above.

Click to show/hide explanation of the paper
First, we found that front-rising diphthongs can occur after any vowel except /i/, /ɪ/, or /u/, and most occur before coronal consonants. We took this to suggest that the diphthongs are prolonged audible transitions between the tongue’s vocalic position and the articulatory target for the following consonant.

As mentioned above, the diphthongization mostly happens before a consonant that's made in the front of the mouth, but not the lips (n, l, t, d). The authors are suggesting that the diphthong is a result of the tongue taking a longer time to move from the vowel to the consonant, resulting in an "audible transition."

Second, we observed a pervasive pharyngeal sound. Reinforcing this, we observed that, in some artists, /r/ sounds were realized postvocalically as high-front vowels, which could indicate that the pharyngeal component of /r/ was not distinctive in that environment.

The authors heard that the singers had a sound that might be the result of constricting the pharynx (the part of the throat behind the mouth and nasal cavity). As evidence, they offer that some singers pronounced 'r' as 'i', which could be a result of pharyngeal constriction making 'r's sound less distinctive.

Pharyngeal constriction can be achieved via various articulations , but we interpreted these initial observations as consistent with retraction of the tongue body. In addition to reducing pharyngeal volume, this could also prolong the transitions between vowels and coronal consonants, simply by increasing the physical distance the tongue must travel.

There is more than one way to constrict the pharynx, but one way is pulling the tongue back. Pulling the tongue back has the effect of making the transition between vowels and consonants longer because the tongue has to move farther than normal. Any vocal coaches out there will also note that pulling the tongue back has an audible effect on the coloring of the voice.

The pharyngealization explanation is quite intriguing, and I'm especially interested in the way that it seems to account for the very unusual pronunciation of 'before' as 'befoy.' If pharyngealization is the root cause of these diphthongs, then maybe we should rename this bundle the pharyngealized bundle.

In models of sound change, the initial stage might be more physiologically driven, but the resulting shift is later adopted as phonology. Similarly, while indie-pop’s distinctive diphthongs may originally have been a by-product of an articulatory setting, they have since been adopted as part of a musical style. For example, one online tutorial instructs the viewer to “add the letter i... after vowels”

The authors note that what may have originally been a by-product of retracing the tongue has become noticed and adopted on purpose.

That being said, this is only one paper, and the authors suggest that further research is required before we can say with any certainty that pharyngealization is behind the distinctive Indie Voice sound. They only examined 5 artists, so clearly we would need to see if these results are reproducible in larger samples, and among different styles of cursive indie singing. Nevertheless, it is a promising line of inquiry, and hopefully one that future linguists will look into.

Diphthongization Bundle in Music History

Though this assimilatory 'ih' sound may be as old as forty years old, its musical lineage appears to be more recent. One of the earliest examples of this diphthongization that I've found is Elizabeth Fraser, the Scottish singer of the Cocteau Twins. (Fraser also has some of the other features of cursive singing, such as an [a] vowel for TRAP words, but that is not surprising since it is typical of Scottish English). She is known to have very stylized and difficult to understand singing. I found two examples of her using diphthongization:

  • "Fearless on my bre[ɪ]th" - Teardrop
  • "My dreams are erotic(?) sick and must be addre[ɪ]ssed" - Fotzepolitic

One singer who is a common example of 'indie voice' or 'cursive singing' is Australian songwriter Sia, and she does display some diphthongization. Sia had both a solo career and a well-known career as a songwriter and demo singer for other pop stars, so she is a major influence on modern pop music:

  • “You will be loved by someone goo[ɪ]d” - Sia, You Have Been Loved (2007)

Another major artist to use this diphthongization is Adele, in her 2011 album "21" and 2012 song "Skyfall."

  • “So overdue I own the[ɪ]m, swept away I’m stole[ɪ]n” - Skyfall, Adele

Lorde is another one who used it circa 2012. Lorde's debut "Pure Heroine" was culturally influential, so it's possible that she was a major vector for the spread of this pronunciation.

  • “I've never seen a diamond in the fle[ɪ]sh” - Royals
  • "I don't ever think about de[ɪ]th" - Glory & Gore

At some point, "indie voice" starts spreading from the indie pop/rock/folk scene into mainstream pop music. One notable example of this that has rarely been mentioned before is Kesha, who displays both diphthongization and some of the other features of indie voice:

  • "I feel it in my bloo[ɪ]d [...] baby when we tou[ɪ]tch" - Supernatural (Deconstructed) [Slowed Down]
  • "Let's make a n[ɑɪ]t... I'll be the wu[ɪ]n you won't forget" - Timber (noted by Nashville Pop)
  • "We're t[æɪ]king names" - Blow (Deconstructed)

By 2015, this phenomenon was reaching critical mass. Massively popular pop artists like Selena Gomez and Shawn Mendes were using it in their music, and then up-and-coming pop artists like Halsey were also using it. It's in 2015 that the Buzzfeed article is written about indie voice diphthongization, showing that it was attracting a lot of attention.

Although there are examples of the diphthongization bundle from 2017 and beyond, the style begins to attract a lot less attention. This makes sense as in 2016, the zeitgeist began to move away from the indie-pop influenced vibe that began in 2012 and moved towards tropical house, Latin music, and most importantly trap. None of these styles easily accommodate the vulnerability of indie voice, and trap has its own linguistic register.

Nevertheless, "indie voice" continues to be used in plenty of indie pop, alt-r&b, and folk music. If you go on Spotify and look any playlist that comes from keywords like "indie relaxing chill music," you'll notice that cursive singing is alive and well. "Chill pop" artists like Khalid continue to use phonetic aspects (a rare male example of cursive singing!).

  • "You know I wish I c[ʊɪ]d [...] do it all in the name of f[ʌɪ]n, f[ʌɪ]n” - Young, Dumb and Broke, Khalid (2017)

The Grab-bag Bundle

This bundle is made of features that aren't easy to trace back. They're not necessarily from one accent or other, and they can combine with the other bundles.

One example is DRESS-lowering, where 'dress' and similar words sound like 'drass': /ɛ/ to [æ]. This shift comes from California English. This one is surprisingly common, considering other aspects of the California shift aren't well-represented and it's not a common feature, either. This may be copped from "emo boy" or "pop punk voice," which is a topic for a future article.

  • /ɛ/ → [æ].
    Hide/show examples
    • "Accidently k[æ]lly street" - Accidently Kelly Street, Frente! (1992)
    • "I find it's b[æ]tter to be somebody else" - So Much To Say, Dave Matthews Band (1996)
    • "Summer has come and past, the innocent can n[æ]ver last" - Wake Me Up When September Ends (live), Green Day (2005)
    • "Your little brother n[æ]ver tells you but he loves you so" - Colors, Halsey (2015)
    • "Cuz there's a m[æ]nace in my bed" - Trouble (Stripped), Halsey (2014)
    • H[æ]llo from the outside” - Hello, Adele (2015)

Another common feature is words like 'down' being produced with a lowered vowel. In both American English and Southern English English, words with an 'ow' vowel tend to start with a sharper vowel, so you get [æʊ] or even [eʊ] in Australian and New Zealand English. But some indie singers use a softer vowel that is made with a lowered tongue, so you get [aʊ]. This pronunciation is found in some American dialects and in conservative varieties of Received Pronunciation. This may be what a Cracked article referred to as a "a really weird pseudo-Estonian affectation among female pop vocalists where they kinda slur together multiple vowel sounds and needlessly add '-ow' phonemes." (They also link to an old version of this article. Hi!)

    [æʊ] → [aʊ]
  • "When I'm d[aʊ]n, I get real d[aʊ]n. When I'm high, I don't come d[aʊ]n." - Issues, Julia Michaels (2017)
  • "It's coming d[aʊ]n d[aʊ]n, coming d[aʊ]n" - Coming Down, Halsey (2015)
  • "Thinking you could live with[aʊ]t me, thinking you could live with[aʊ]t me" - Without Me, Halsey (2018)

The third common feature is lack of aspiration. This was noted in the "How to Hip Sing" video, where Madeline Roberts explains that "hip singing" involves "soft consonants" - in linguistic terms, they are pronouncing sounds like 'p', 't', and 'k' without a puff of air afterwards. This makes them sound like 'b', 'd', and 'g'.

One of the most well-known examples I can think of is Marina and the Diamonds, who uses this feature frequently. In my earlier article, I attributed it to Marina being influenced by Greek. While I still think that is a passable interpretation, I think the wider phenomenon of unaspirated consonants in Cursive Singing is also due to influence from speakers of English as a second language (also known as L2 speakers).

Specifically, I am reminded of Astrud Gilberto, the Brazilian bossa nova singer who became famous for singing "The Girl From Ipanema" in a hushed, flat, and breathy style reminiscent of modern Indie Voice. Astrud has a noticeable Brazilian accent, and her consonants are unaspirated. I would not be surprised if bossa nova were an influence on Indie Voice, since a number of indie artists seem to be influenced by jazz.

We will note an unaspirated consonant by adding a dash - after it. So "t-all" is the word "tall" but with no aspiration in the 't'.

  • Lack of aspiration or weakened aspiration in stop consonants [p], [k]. and [t].
    Hide/show examples
    • "T-all and t-an [...] and when she p-asses, each one she p-asses goes ah." - The Girl From Ipanema, Astrud Gilberto
    • "Here c-omes the sun" - Here Comes The Sun, Nina Simone (1971)
    • "They go along to t-ake your honey" - Breezeblocks, Alt-J (2012)
    • "C-an't you see" - Salvatore, Lana Del Rey (2015)
    • "It's a p-ower, it's a p-ower, it's a p-ower move" - Better Than That, Marina and the Diamonds (2015)
    • "Somebody get the t-acos" - Drew Barrymore, SZA (2017)
    • "Now I beg to see you dance just one more t-ime" - Dance Monkey, Tones & I (2019)

Why does indie voice exist?

Let's do a summary:

  • Indie voice is a group of related registers for singing 'indie' music
  • Indie voice features come from bundles of English English, pharyngealization, and miscellaneous features that have disseminated
  • People who use indie voice use features from these bundles, but they don't use every single feature at once
  • These features all have antecedents in a variety of English or a phonological process - they were likely not independently derived

One of the most popular explanations for why cursive singing exists is that it's a way for singers to 'distinguish themselves.' But this explanation doesn't line up with the aforementioned facts. If you want to distinguish yourself, why try to sound like every other indie singer? Why use the same features they use? Why stick to sounds we're already somewhat more familiar with instead of coming up with something actually unexpected? If instead of adding an 'ih' after vowels, they turned every vowel into an 'er' sound, I would probably remember that more just because it's so unprecedented.

Instead of an attention-based explanation of indie-voice, I propose that indie voice behaves as other registers do - as a way to communicate something to the audience and to signal group membership. Contrary to sticking out, adopting indie voice means a singer is attempting to fit in to the existing crop of singers. This is neither bad nor good - it is simply the way registers work.

In my experience as a singer, singers aren't actually aware of the register they're singing with. They adopt and switch registers unconsciously, the way children pick up the rules of language without needing them explained. In my (anecdotal) experience, getting singers to even realize that they are using a linguistic register is a challenge - they just view it as 'singing in a particular style.'

This is interesting, because it suggests that the spread of indie voice may have been subconscious. It wasn't someone purposefully studying their favorite singer's vowels and then dutifully practicing. It was hours of immersing themselves in a particular register, singing along and imitating, and then continuing with that style afterwards. It's quite a fluid process, and perhaps some people are more open to picking up different linguistic registers than others. The point is that it's not really a put-on or a conscious decision.

Retroactively finding out where you picked up a linguistic style from is also a challenge. One of the artists mentioned in this article, Ally Goertz, actually responded to this article, saying her accent was a result of "copious Beatles, Sundays, and Kinks + having a So Cal dialect." I have no doubt that these artists influenced her music (and the Beatles are an interesting linguistic case all their own), but they are not direct ancestors of indie voice (perhaps there's a future topic for folks to study in the future - how far back can we trace it?). The job of a musician is to create music, not to be a linguistic anthropologist of music tracing the history of every vowel and consonant they've ever uttered. It's not surprising that after subconsciously picking something up, it's not clear where it came from.

Allie Goertz @AllieGoertz: Really interesting article about the "indie girl voice" dialect. I'm used as an example as someone who sings with this "accent." As for MY origins, I believe it's a hybrid of listening to copious Beatles, Sundays, and Kinks + having a So Cal dialect.

So what is the effect of cursive singing on an audience? What sorts of songs get the cursive treatment? If you've listened to every sound sample in this article, first of all good job, and secondly, you'll notice that the general feel is low-key. There's not a lot of upbeat dance songs or hard rock or mumbly trap. Emotional intimacy and vulnerability are recurring themes, even in the cases where the arrangement is dramatic (Adele).

Cursive singing is ornate, but it is not about swagger or braggodocio. It's an encouraging whisper, or an introvert's take on individuality. (The song 'Dance Monkey' is a curious aberration in that sense - it uses indie voice, but in a noticeably aggressive growling style. It borrows the 'phrase-final yodel' from the Daya school of singing, edging it towards the pop direction. The end result is eccentric - delightfully so, in my opinion.)

Cursive singing is supposedly hated - my last article had multiple commenters posting to inform everyone about how much they disliked the style of singing. One of the early sources was a thread about how much everyone hated it. But despite how stigmatized it seems to be, cursive singing hasn't stopped. It appears to have struck a chord with an audience that doesn't care that others find it 'affected' or 'annoying.' Perhaps this is why cursive singing, which I had thought was a dead meme when I wrote my first article, continues to get so much attention - it is striking an unmet need in audiences.


Linguistic experimentation in spoken speech usually takes place in the realm of words - they're easy to grasp, spell, use - and turn off. But the sounds themselves usually aren't played with so obviously. Real life language is heavily policed, and which accent you speak affects how the world treats you. Sung speech gives us an opportunity to witness experimentation and playfulness in the low-stakes world of music and art.

Indie voice is valuable, not least because it allows us to witness an example of a register developing and spreading. It shows how complex language change is - we used concepts from language contact, articulatory acoustics, and sociolinguistics to explain the origin of indie voice.

There is no way to tell how long indie voice. Perhaps some features of it will end up assimilated into the general pop lexicon - the backed PRICE vowel has already solidified itself as a gentler (or brattier) alternative to the monophthongized [a]. The percussive potential of de-aspiration (not to mention its appeal to English L2 speakers) might keep it around for longer, too. These aren't any weirder than pronouncing 'I' as 'ah' and 'me' as 'may', and we've been letting that into our lives for years. Who knows what new possibilities new singers will bring?

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Works Cited