Selena Gomez's "Good For You" And The Rise Of "Indie Pop Voice"
How a phenomenon called "vowel breaking" became an epidemic in pop music.
If you've turned on the radio at all over the past few months, you've probably heard the song "Good for You" by Selena Gomez. Reaching the top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100 this fall and racking up over 136 million plays on Spotify, it's the former Disney star's biggest hit to date — a slinky, coy coming-out party capped with a cameo verse from Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky, who gamely earns his appearance fee in the role of boorish Danny to Gomez's prim Sandy. The song as a whole is not especially remarkable — it echoes the spare and moody strains in R&B and hip-hop that made Tinashe a thing — but there's one part of it that is truly weird and utterly mesmerizing. Ever since I first heard it, it's haunted me. And to this day, whenever I hear this part of the song, I can't help but sing along — not because I'm moved by the lyrics or the melody, but because my mind and body are in awe of how a human being can produce the sounds. Maybe you've noticed it too.
Listen for yourself.
For Gomez, apparently, "good" is not good enough. The way she sings it, it becomes something like "guoid"; a showy outlier, like your friend who swims with dolphins on Instagram. If you don't hear it, listen again. Because if I'm dreaming this all up, I'm not the only one.
I've listened to Selena Gomez sing "guoid" more times than I can remember now. At first it was like an M.C. Escher drawing or James Franco's career — the more I thought about it, the less it made sense. But then I realized I'd actually heard "guoid" before, or something similar. In fact, if you listen to much indie or indie-leaning pop, sounds like "guoid" are kind of everywhere lately.
Here's Mandy Lee from MisterWives bending the words "swore on" into "swoire oin" on "Our Own House."
So what's going on here? Similar vocal affectations — hipster riffs on Alanis Morissette — have been bubbling up among trendy pop acts for years. Imagine vowels as just another quotidian necessity waiting to be subverted, like hair color or denim. The resulting vocal style, call it the Indie Pop Voice, seems to transcend the singer's geography and native speaking accent. And it can be especially pronounced on words where "r" is the final consonant.
Listen to the way Megan James, of the Canadian electro-pop duo Purity Ring, sings the word "stare" on the band's recent single "Push Pull."
Now listen to Lorde, the superstar from New Zealand, sing "care" on her ubiquitous 2013 hit "Royals."
Lorde speaks with a very different accent than James, but when either sings, the "a-r" pairings follow the same extraordinary course. "Styeeaare" vs. "cyeeaare."
In a totally noncomprehensive scan of recent pop history, women appeared to be early adopters of Indie Pop Voice, as they are when it comes to most shifts in language. But men may not be far behind. Exhibit A: teen pop sensation Shawn Mendes, whose new Billboard top 10 hit "Stitches" features the word "touch" whisked into a gossamer "tuh-eech."
Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist and writer, says there is a common thread making all of these singers' pronunciation unusual: the transformation of simple vowels into complex ones.
"They're turning monophthongs, or pure vowels that are associated with only one sound, into diphthongs, which are two vowel sounds that are kind of smushed together," McCulloch says. "The 'uh' sound in 'good' as you or I would probably say it, is a monophthong. Whereas 'oi' in 'boy' or Selena Gomez's 'guoid' is a diphthong."
In linguistic parlance, this transformation is called "diphthongization," or, more reasonably, "vowel breaking." And it's not the only thing making indie pop singers' pronunciation distinct.
"The other thing I think they're doing is pronouncing the vowel a little bit further forward in the mouth, which can change the sound of it like moving between buttons on a saxophone," McCulloch says. "The diphthongs in Selena's 'guoid' or MisterWives' 'oin' start in the back of the mouth and end up in the front. Like how if you say the word 'boy' really slowly, you can feel your tongue moving forward a little bit."
As for the "r" sounds in words like "stare" and "care," they're being partially "elided" or omitted — collateral damage of the broken vowels that precede them. In singing, r's often get neglected, according to Siu-Lan Tan, a psychologist and music researcher at Kalamazoo College.
"R's can cut a vowel short, so often singers will soften or omit the 'r' in the middle of a word to get a longer vowel and give it more of a singing quality," Tan says. "That's one reason why some U.S. bands sound British when they sing." (Many British accents are non-rhotic, which means r's are always omitted after a vowel.)
As with other matters of vocal style, there may be as many reasons for vowel breaking as there are singers. While some are aesthetic, others may reflect more practical needs. Bonnie Hayes, a former rock singer and current chair of the songwriting department at Berklee College of Music, can think of at least one good explanation for why a singer might nudge a vowel sound to the front of their mouth. Namely, to make sure that you can hear them.
"Just try and sing the word 'good' — it's low and closed," Hayes says. "You can't get any resonance on a vowel like that. But if you make it 'guoid' or 'geeed' there's a lot more there. It's right up in the front of your face … Singers are always trying to find ways like that to get more resonance on a closed vowel. I remember when I was learning to sing 'Blue Moon' we had to sing it like 'bleeeww' because it pushes the vowel up closer to your nose where it can travel further."
Another factor that could be facilitating Indie Pop Voice is the nature of the music itself. The sparse, soft instrumentation found in much of contemporary pop encourages a fluid, dynamic vocal performance, with a relatively high amount of pressure on the vocalist to capture the listener's attention. "Royals" is little more than finger snaps, synth buzz, and a kick drum — the payoff is all in Lorde's wildly elastic voice.
Rachael Lawrence, an L.A.-based vocal coach whose clients have included "Fight Song" singer Rachel Platten and the cast of Glee, says vocalists are often heavily influenced by the aural characteristics of their genre.
"When Steven Tyler is screaming on an Aerosmith song, he's mirroring with his voice what an electric guitar might do," Lawrence says. "Just like how when some jazz singers scat, they're emulating a trumpet solo."
The history of popular music is full of vocal stylists influencing and being influenced by others working in overlapping spheres. Hank Williams and country twang; the Go-Go's and high, flat female-fronted rock; Kurt Cobain and grunge gurgle; Tom DeLonge and emo voice; Future, Young Thug and trap yawp; and on and on. Within the genres that define any era are the idiosyncratic voices that most effectively reflected its spirit.
What Indie Pop Voice says about our current moment is debatable. But one way to understand what it is might be to consider what it's not: Classical, clean, literal. Members of this cohort seem to place a premium on individual character over established convention, a not-unreasonable position for artists at a time when competition is universal and attention spans are limited. Selena Gomez turning "good" into "guoid" isn't natural, but being natural isn't the point.
"I think a lot of these artists might come up with different affectations to promote an individual sound for themselves," says Lawrence. "The industry has created an environment where it's not enough to just be good, you have to be memorable."