Music

What is cursive singing? The divisive vocal trend, explained

A linguist, an opera singer and a historian examine the style used by Tate McRae, Shawn Mendes and more.

A linguist, an opera singer and a historian examine the style used by Tate McRae, Shawn Mendes and more

Tate McRae performs in a red outfit holding her arm raised while singing into a mic, Jessie Reyez wears a white dress while singing and Shawn Mendes points to the sky while singing in an orange tee.
Tate McRae, left, Jessie Reyez, middle, and Shawn Mendes, right, are a few of the singers associated with the phenomenon. (Getty Images; graphic by CBC Music)

Pop singer Tate McRae's hit "Greedy" is arguably one of the biggest songs of 2023, climbing the Billboard Hot 100 chart and amassing millions of streams on Spotify (over 300 million and counting). Released in September, the catchy empowerment anthem possesses the key ingredients of a chart-topper: an infectious melody, a slick beat and an earworm-y chorus:

I would want myself, 
Baby, please believe me,
I'll put you through hell,
Just to know me, yeah, yeah.

Of the song's playful elements — there's cheeky lyricism and a sampling of "Promiscuous" — one thing stands out: McRae's pronunciation. "Want myself" sounds like "wan myself," and at the end of the chorus when she sings, "That shit won't end well/ no, it won't end well," the "well" trails off, with a slight "uh" being sung at the end.

WATCH | The official music video for 'Greedy':  

The unusual enunciation is a recent example of cursive singing: a style of vocalizing that can be classified by "elongated vowels, clipped consonants and run-on phrasing," according to musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding, the hosts of the podcast Switched on Pop.

It's a style that's divided listeners — some love it, others detest it. But fundamentally, cursive singing is "a texture or inflection," according to opera singer and University of Toronto voice instructor Frédérique Vézina. 

"It's simply a choice and it's a style," she says.

Robert Toft, a music professor at the University of Western Ontario who teaches the history of singing, calls cursive singing an umbrella term. Within it are two main types: the regional accent style and intimate, vulnerable head-voice singing.

He says the number of genres and singers that the term applies to are all over the map, ranging from Billie Holiday in the late '40s, to '60s soul singers including Nina Simone and Etta James, to seven-time Grammy winner Billie Eilish.

An X search or TikTok scroll shows some of the current artists associated with the trend: in addition to Eilish and McRae, there's Halsey, SZA, Gracie Abrams, Jessie Reyez, Shawn Mendes and Jorja Smith — all with monthly Spotify listeners in the millions, and most either Grammy nominees or winners. Smith, according to Toft, falls into the category of a singer whose regional accent gives her a cursive-like quality.

"[With her], you recognize her [Walsall, England] accent in her singing," he says. "So when people talk about the cursive style and [the] sort of distorted diphthongs and vowels, the problem with all that is it's not distorted to people with that accent."

WATCH | The music video for Jorja Smith's song 'Go Go Go':  

Toft adds that certain singers emulate accents that differ from their native ones. One such example, he says, is Amy Winehouse. The English soul singer possessed a North London accent, however, anyone who has listened to her throaty, rich vocals on "Back to Black" or "Valerie" may have found her local accent indiscernible. Winehouse was influenced and inspired by '50s Black American jazz and soul pioneers, from Dinah Washington to Sarah Vaughan, therefore it's no coincidence she sounds like them, Toft says.

"When someone is singing, it can be very hard for … the singer or the listener to put their finger on exactly what the dialect is, because there's a sense that it's just that musical genre," says Bryan Gick, a linguist and researcher in articulatory phonetics at the University of British Columbia. This is why Gick defines cursive singing as a type of singing dialect, because it doesn't belong to any specific social category. 

"It is a really distinct way of talking, but it only happens when singing," he explains. Every language or dialect has a sound, and part of that sound is a default shape, which "shapes every syllable, shapes everything."

This "shape" points to the other types of cursive singers, ones without regional accents, described by Toft as those who adopt a vocal persona of intimacy and vulnerability. He says these singers have a very light vocal quality that's breathy and airy, a style that fits the description of head voice that was used in the 19th century.

WATCH | Billie Eilish is a singer that Toft says falls into this category:  

"All of these things that fall under the cursive singing style, people were doing centuries ago," Toft adds. "What happens is there's new applications of old principles."

Vézina agrees: she uses the term portamento — the 17th-century classical music term for sliding from one note to another — to describe cursive singing.

She adds that the cursive style is rooted in expressivity because it includes things such as "affecting the way you treat diction, so softening it, or using vocal fry to onset a note, or inflection [and] sliding between notes." 

It's "not derogatory or negative in any way," she says.

Due to the use of vocal fry, the phenomenon of cursive singing is also sometimes referred to as indie pop voice or indie girl voice, as Sloan and Harding pointed out on their podcast: "Whenever young women — who are always the innovators of vocal style and language — create a new sound, whether it's the valley girl [dialect] of the 1980s or the cursive singing of the 2000s, there's always a resistance to it, right?" Sloan said.

If there is an association with women, that ties to the case of what we know about innovation in language: it's that women tend to be the innovators.- Bryan Gick

It's partly due to misogyny: "There's a sense that this is not the proper way to speak because these people are not serious members of society, and this represents some kind of degradation of the standards of language," he added.

Vézina, Toft and Gick all say indie girl is an inaccurate descriptor, as men (think: Shawn Mendes and John Legend) also participate in the trend.

"If there is an association with women, that ties to the case of what we know about innovation in language: it's that women tend to be the innovators," Gick says, echoing Sloan. Gick cites research from sociolinguist William Labov, who states that in the majority of cases regarding linguistic changes, women are usually a full generation ahead of men, as well as other sound change experts who have widely asserted women drive shifts in language

In pop music, the use of vocal fry can give a song texture that translates to sexiness or roughness, says Vézina. However, because some women singers do it repetitively, it can become "a generic sexy 'girl' sound" that she finds annoying, "because why do [these] singers have to sound like little children?" Vézina says.

It would be like having a great instrument, a piano, and just using four keys.- Frederique Vezina

Gick says that if people hear similarities to children, it is likely because kids have shorter vocal tracts. "There's some basis to people's conjecture about the kind of childlikeness of it, in that I think some of the features that were drawn on to build this sound are ones that we would associate with children's speech."

"The [idea that] girls need to be nice and non-threatening then, to me, sticks out in those singers, because I know they have a voice behind there but they're using a fifth of it," Vézina says. "It would be like having a great instrument, a piano, and just using four keys."

Vocal constriction was a finding in Gick's 2017 study on indie pop voice. When speaking, humans can change the shape of their vocal tracts, and cursive singers often shorten theirs when performing the dialect style.

"Indie voice tends to be heavily pharyngealized," Gick says, explaining that these types of artists typically constrict the back of their throats when singing. 

While the cursive style is polarizing, Toft, Gick and Vézina each say that there's nothing inherently wrong with it. Toft loves Eilish's music; Gick says whether you're a fan or not, it's an innovation; and Vézina says that like paintings, cursive singing should not be overanalyzed.

"[Artists] who decided to just do splatters of colour, singers can do that too, with their voices," she says. "And who are we to say that's incorrect?" In comparing a John Legend song done both with and without cursive singing, Vézina noticed a flatness.

"In a way, the version without cursive was kind of a little boring," she explains. "Like it was missing the artist's perspective on, 'How do I feel about what I'm saying and how do I bring it into music,' right? If you're just going to be straight and clean, then you're missing a part of your artistry."

"There are millions of opinions that get thrown at you all the time. Art is so subjective," McRae told People when "Greedy" was released. "No one's going to like the same thing."

Whether you love it or hate it, cursive singing has been inextricable from popular music for decades.

"Wouldn't it be a boring world if we didn't have cursive singing?" Toft asks with a smile. "If everybody sang in the same way?"

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Natalie Harmsen

Associate producer, CBC Music

Natalie is a Toronto-based journalist with a passion for arts and culture. You can find her on Twitter @natharmsen.

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