“Indie Girl Singer Voice” has its origins as a joke in comedian Chrish’s Vine, “Indie Girl singer introduces us to her kitchen” — a six-second clip that found Chrish singing, in a soft yet shrill, breathy voice: “Welcome to my keetchen. We have bananies … and avercahdaes.”
A mere 35 million loops later, the video continues to be the most succinct encapsulation of the vocal affect that has launched a thousand Halseys: the phenomenon of “indie girl singing voice,” which has been used to describe the weird “accent” that indie pop vocalists like Lana Del Rey, Selena Gomez, Halsey, Sia, and countless other radio-made “indie” acts seem to take on when singing. Chrish’s hyper-twee pronunciation of the words “kitchen” [keetch-en], “bananies” [ba-NA-neez], and “avocados” [the endlessly hilarious “avercahdoes”] seems to have hit the nail on the head. The phenomenon of “indie girl singer voice” isn’t new — Chrish was just the first person to give it a name, and that was part of the appeal. The idea seems obvious in hindsight — indie girl singer voice is such a thing that it is a little bizarre we hadn't already given it a name.
As BuzzFeed's Reggie Ugwu reported last fall, Selena Gomez’s “Good for You” is the song that catalyzed our latter-day awareness of the trend. The way Gomez sings the word “good,” which sounds like “guoid,” perfectly demonstrates what is called in linguistics a “diphthongization,” or “vowel breaking,” as linguist Gretchen McCulloch told Ugwu — a turn of phrase that results in the stretching out of a word into more syllables than it actually has when properly pronounced. Singers have invoked this syllable-based stylization for years — think of Christina Aguilera’s iconic vocal runs or the way Alanis Morissette sings “Bay-BEYaHhhh!” on “One Hand in My Pocket.” But there’s a deliberateness to Gomez’s cloying enunciation, one that’s predated by Lana Del Rey and Ellie Goulding, and postdated by Halsey, who brings it to mind in the way she sings the word “chest” on “Drive,” and the word “Bottles” in her more notable hit “New Americana.”
Though contemporary female pop stars seem to be driving “indie girl singing voice,” they are certainly not its origin. The underside of this trend is one that we often fail to acknowledge: “Indie boy voice” predates “indie girl voice,” and in fact might be the origin of the phenomenon. By this I mean that “indie girl voice” is just the next generation of “emo boy voice,” the vocal stylings of which were pioneered by the likes of Say Anything, Coheed and Cambria, Taking Back Sunday, Jack’s Mannequin, and countless other alternative- and third-wave emo boy bands, most of whom distill it from emo OG Jeremy Enigk of Sunny Day Real Estate.
Many “indie boy” and “emo” acts of the mid-2000s adhered to the same diphthongized language — they featured male voices that were often just as fractured, breathy, and drawn-out in each of their songs. The first time I saw Chrish’s Vine, I actually thought of Coheed and Cambria’s “A Favor House Atlantic” and the hyper-twee way that singer Claudio Sanchez pronounces the words “write” and “run.” Say Anything’s “The Bret Easton Ellis School of Witchcraft and Wizardry” and its consciously languorous lyric, “Is this what you waaaunnnnteddd/ did you get what you waaaunntted,” or the way that All Time Low say “count” [key-ount] on “Dear Maria, Count Me In” also came to mind. When thinking about “indie girl voice,” I also often recall bands like Something Corporate (“If You C Jordan”; “Konstantine”) and the hyper-stylized, almost foreign-sounding lilt that Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump invokes on “Sugar, We’re Goin' Down.”
By dragging out his vowels, Stump, like Gomez and Halsey, has a tendency to omit the consonants that often come at the end of his words. This is why the way Chrish says “Kitchen” is so funny — because the “n” is more of an exhale. (This is the same vocal elision that caused the Internet to allege that Stump, when singing the national anthem at an NFL game in 2014, uttered the line, “GAY PROOF THROUGH THE NIGHT.”)
Today there’s a long-standing acknowledgement of the “baby voice” phenomenon (largely associated with indie acts like Joanna Newsom, who sings in a high and girly voice) that lends itself to this kind of breathiness. But really, “twee” vocal culture and “indie girl voice” have their hearts in the emo bands of a previous decade — we just didn’t have Vine back then to mock them.
Contemporary male artists like One Direction and Justin Bieber invoke this indie pronunciation to a lesser extent all the time, especially when singing words like “me” and “you,” which frequently sound like “may” and “yee-oo.” Shawn Mendes’s cloying syllabication of “touch” on the megahit “Stitches” (“touch” sounds like “toych,” and “stitches” sounds like “steetchez”) is one current example. “Indie Girl Voice” — like “Indie Boy Voice” before it — lives in the prepubescent yearning for cool that many artists strive for with distant, fractured vocals. As a result, many pop acts that aim to sound easygoing strive too hard for that, coming off instead as cloying and contrived.
Editor's note: The original version of this story failed to credit reporting and ideas that first appeared in an earlier story by Reggie Ugwu, "Selena Gomez's 'Good For You' And The Rise Of 'Indie Pop Voice,'" which BuzzFeed published in October 2015. It was updated on 7/20/2016. MTV News regrets the error.