Why do you have to go and make things so complicated?
March 9, 2009 10:43 AM   Subscribe

I like to gripe about Top 40 radio, but I don't have much of a technical music vocabulary. Are there names for the vocal styles of Avril Lavigne, Taylor Swift, et al.?

Recently I found myself trying to articulate the particular way that these singers deliver lines, and I quickly ended up using unsatisfactory phenomenological language to describe it ("they, um, kind of curl their words in this irritating way...and it's kind of nasal and groany...does anybody know what I'm talking about?").

It got me thinking that I'd like to know more about the technical names for the vocal styles that are commonly used in the music they tend to play at my gym, in the grocery store, and so on. Avril and Taylor were the first to come to mind, but I'm interested in all of it, including, say, that heaving, ogre-ish singing in Nickelback. So: is there any go-to resource for this kind of information, or any informed criticism you can point me to? Or is it really as ineffable as my poor attempts to describe Avril Lavigne would suggest?

(Note: I realize that the most obvious thing to say about vocals in contemporary Top 40 is that they're autotuned to hell and back, but I'm asking about the styles of singing, not vocal production. So the fact that Nickelback typically builds a wall of sound out of vocal overdubs alone isn't what I'm after.)
posted by Beardman to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Are you looking for like music nerd terms or pop critic terms? The difference being that like, what you call "ogre" singing is what music nerds call "using the vocal fry register" but everyone else calls "Cookie Monster vocals".
posted by jeb at 10:49 AM on March 9, 2009

Response by poster: Both would be welcome, though I'm more interested in music nerd terms.

Not sure I'd class Nickelback's vocals with Napalm Death's vocals, but thanks for the "Cookie Monster" term nonetheless!
posted by Beardman at 10:51 AM on March 9, 2009

I'm not well versed in vocal technicalities either, but I just read this NPR article the other day about Melisma (many notes per syllable). They basically blamed Mariah Carey for the copying/abuse of her melismatic style by lesser singers.
posted by phrygius at 10:58 AM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I got this link from a previos AskMe thread, but it's not the one that pops up in search. Anyway, some have defined it as Yarling.
posted by studentbaker at 10:59 AM on March 9, 2009

This was the previous (not 'previos') thread I was thinking about.
posted by studentbaker at 11:18 AM on March 9, 2009

There's really no "standard" terms for this sort of thing. Music critics just make them up as they go along, that's their job, to convey things like this in words. I've always called the horrible many-notes-per-syllable style "vocal gymnastics", but someone else might call it something different. As long as people understand what the term means, it's a useful term.
posted by DecemberBoy at 11:18 AM on March 9, 2009

Yeah, I have a friend who calls Eddie Vedder-influenced male singing "chin rock" but I wonder what a scientific description would be like.
posted by Kirklander at 11:19 AM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Can you give a specific example or line from a song?
posted by PFL at 11:25 AM on March 9, 2009

Lavigne and Nickleback are examples of what could be called Can-con poppunk or popmetal.

Also, Canada apologizes for, 54-40, Bryan Adams, Concrete Blonde, Our Lady Peace, Alannah Myles, Honeymoon Suite, and Moxy Fruvus, etc...
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:38 AM on March 9, 2009

Response by poster: PFL, take the way Avril sings "turn it into" at 1:27 of the chorus of "Complicated." And at 1:50, where she says something like "laugh out." What IS that? I realize that a second later she's using a fake accent for kicks, but that's not what's going on there.

As for Taylor, the horror starts right in the first line of "Love Story", when she sings "saw you" (0:19). Then, around the 1:00 minute mark, it starts shifting into high gear. Words like "prince," "princess," and the "say" in "say yes" all have this weird quality. Side note: that counts as country music now? The banjo, I guess? Or perhaps the very problem I'm talking about is, precisely, a hint of affected twang?
posted by Beardman at 11:45 AM on March 9, 2009

It could be called "scooping" -- which is a carry-over from my youth choir days. Basically, you can either hit the note square and proper or take a sloppy swing at it, usually approaching from a lower key. In choral work, this sounds awful and untrained. But in pop or country music, this is an affectation that works with varying results.
posted by grabbingsand at 12:00 PM on March 9, 2009

FWIW, I've heard Nickelback's style referred to as yarling.
From the article:
To sing melodramatically with a sort of barely suppressed letter "r" sound lurking beneath every other syllable.
posted by Hutch at 12:11 PM on March 9, 2009 [5 favorites]

Finally, someone else has picked up on this! Everyone I've mentioned it to has thought I was crazy.

First off- I wouldn't call Nickelback's singing "cookie monster": Cookie monster is more like Strapping Young Lad or Deathklok. You're right though, that there's a striking similarity between Nickelback's singing and Avril Lavigne and her ilk.

I'm pretty sure most of these artists don't write their own songs- in fact, there's usually songwriting teams that write for a number of bands signed with the label at once, as well as using the same coaches and producers. These people have reduced making hit songs almost to a science: My guess is that they've figured out that using that fake 'twang' makes the vocals sound more real, more sincere, and easier to identify with: It's a generic 'back-country' accent that nobody actually speaks, but a large number of people can identify with.
posted by dunkadunc at 12:13 PM on March 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Avril Lavigne started out singing country. Her songs are basically just country songs that have been poprockified.
The problem with country and pop is that young singers now emulate the sounds of previous country and pop singers who were actually being autotuned. So basically, their singing style is that of autotune, which makes it super nasally. Then put actual autotune on top of that to help correct their lack of singing prowess, and the end result sounds like ass.
posted by fructose at 12:35 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

The technique, according to my singing teacher, is called a "pop slur" (as in "slurring the notes in the style of popular music"), or a scoop.

It's considered bad, bad, bad technique in most singing styles. Basically the singer starts a note about one semi-tone flat, then slurs up to the note they're really aiming for. In the chorus of Britney Spears' "Toxic", for instance, the lyrics are "With the taste of your lips, I'm on a ride", and she pop-slurs every second word: "with", "taste" "I'm" and "ride". The most obvious one is on the final word, "ride", where the note she should be singing is a B, but she starts on a B-flat and slurs up to the B. Plus Britney sings sort of up in her palate/back of her nose, plus there's a ton of electronic processing on her voice to give it that sort of Kermit-the-Frog tone.

The sound you linked in Avril Lavigne's "Complicated" is similar- I hear a combination of Lavigne's nasal voice, her pop-slurring technique, and lots of processing on the sound right on that specific word "complicated", hence more of that Kermit tone. Lavigne actually sings flat a lot of the time (I've heard her live), so they tweak her sound in- studio to bring her notes up to pitch. And sometimes, for good measure, they add that poppy nasal quality that we all learned to love(?) from Cher, who somehow does it naturally even before they add in tons more in post-production.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:37 PM on March 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

Taylor Swift, in the word "SAW" that you linked above, is constricting her vowels: you should sing open vowels, so "saw" should sort of sound almost like "saugh"- but she's narrowing her throat and singing "seaaaah". And she's doing a weird crescendo on that syllable, so it gets louder and harsher-sounding, too: "seaAAAAAH". To which I say, "eeeUGH".
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:45 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, pop music often whines, no matter the mood of the song or the content of the lyrics it kind of sounds like they are whining about it. French/Frith/Kaiser/Thompson did a great version of Surfing USA that highlights this to good comic effect, around the time they made Live Love Larf and Loaf but not on that album.
posted by idiopath at 1:45 PM on March 9, 2009

It sounds to me like all of the examples feature people swallowing their words, morphing them into some combination of a rhotic "r" and the Peanuts' teacher. It reminds me of a very nuanced relation to Kristen Wiig's Target employee character pronouncing "toilet" as "terlet".
posted by billtron at 3:40 PM on March 9, 2009

One "trick" I've just recently started to notice is the extra vocal track, especially for female singers, where it's unison as far as timing and melody goes, but it's a couple of ocataves higher. It's also a different voice quality, usually sounding like very LOUD singing or even screaming, but with the volume muted down to a much lower level than the main vocal track. Once I noticed that, I started noticing it everywhere. The complicated clip had some of that, but not quite - the backing track wasn't unison, but still had that 'quiet scream' quality.

I'd also like to know what little-girl-voice is really called in musical-nerd form (Frente! style.) I liked that at the time, but now I find it super-annoying. Also, I can no longer listen to Stevie Nicks or Belinda Carlisle without imagining a goat.
posted by ctmf at 12:18 AM on March 10, 2009

When I listen to the backing track of Complicated, I hear backing vocals only during the chorus. I can pick out an Avril-like voice (likely Avril herself) singing the same lyrics in the same rhythm, but pitched a perfect-third above the lead vocal. So if the lead vox is on a Do, the backing track is three steps above it on Me, and it consistently keeps that three-note distance away from each note in the lead vocal.

The Spice Girls do this kind of harmony in Wannabe (1:30 into the vid, on the line "If you wanna be my lover", and a little later at 1:49 on the line "now you know how I feel"). I wonder if the perfect-third harmony track is what you're hearing as "quiet screaming"?
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:09 AM on March 10, 2009

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