In Billie Eilish’s recent interview with Vanity Fair, a continuation of a series that memorializes Eilish’s astonishing ascent to fame and her character evolution, she acknowledges criticism of her music: “Like my voice is really soft,” she said, “and it’s not belty […] and people think I whisper in all my songs […] my belt is not even close to a [expletive] Adele belt.” More recently, Selena Gomez has been heavily scrutinized for her less-than-stellar performance at the 2019 American Music Awards. Many attribute it to her alleged panic attack backstage, and others scathingly point out that it wasn’t much different from her normal voice — which is, similarly to Eilish, not given to drawn-out runs.
The speculation circulating about Selena Gomez isn’t surprising, given the microscopic attention we listeners pay to celebrities in their live performances. We meticulously gauge their vocal skills and leap out of our seats when they can’t meet the bar (Mariah Carey’s infamous performance of “All I Want For Christmas” is indelibly seared into our public consciousness). However, Eilish’s recognition of negative assessments of her music is both surprising, since artists tend to claim they steer clear of such negativity, and intuitive, revealing a change in the music industry that is slowly becoming realized.
The rise of Whisperpop, a new phenomenon
Whisperpop, a concept first coined by an article from The Guardian in 2017, traces its inception all the way to Lana Del Rey’s debut into the music industry in 2010. Her style harnessed its beauty through subtlety, dreamily subdued instead of exerting outright power, and immediately captivated her audience. Then came Lorde with her velvety voice and finger-snapping “Royals,” which became a viral hit and launched her to stardom. Ever since, the prevalence of this understated style has spread, various singers adopting and adjusting it to suit their tastes.
Ariana Grande’s hugely successful albums sweetener and thank u, next deviate noticeably from her previous creations, such as “Dangerous Woman” and “Break Free.” Now, it seems she’s matured from constantly attempting to channel her voice’s full capacity, preferring instead to emanate tenderness. Flow with the music, rather than overpower. Be airy and more intimate, rather than rich and grandiose. Julia Michaels, a singer-songwriter and close friend of Selena Gomez, released a collaboration with her earlier this year that captures the essence of whisperpop, “Anxiety.” Moreover, Michaels’ influence is still evident in Selena Gomez’s most recent songs, “Lose You To Love Me” and “Look At Her Now,” featuring the breathy tunes and skipping beats typical of whisperpop.
Last, but certainly not least, Taylor Swift’s Lover is on the same but opposite spectrum as Lana Del Rey, catchy in a light-hearted way that captures the versatility of whisperpop. This trend indicates a counter to previous eras that capitalized on momentum — birthing singers that are idolized today for their exceptional vocal prowess, such as Christina Aguilera and Adele. As we progress sluggishly from one dominant style to the next, the hues of whisperpop and shrieking belts making for a stark contrast.
What is its relevance?
Music traditionalists may wonder, where is the soul-wrenching emotion? Where is the technical skill and the grandeur that has preserved Whitney Houston in amber for the rest of posterity? Is whisperpop another sad confirmation of America’s downward spiral into vapid consumerism?
Whisperpop may sadly be an indication of that, or it may also be an empowering declaration to embrace change. Many of the aforementioned singers who now dabble in whisperpop have experienced evolutions in their style: Ariana Grande’s fame came from the strength of her voice, which was often likened to Mariah Carey herself. Taylor Swift began singing with a country music influence, and at the 2019 AMAs she even paid homage to all her albums, acknowledging the development of her illustrious career. Selena Gomez’s earlier songs, too, feature theatrics that align with standard notions of what pop should be. Each of their shifts accompany titanic changes in their lives, whether it be traumatic events or enlightening experiences — Ariana Grande, certainly, with the loss of her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller in 2018.
The implications of whisperpop
America, despite all our self-flagellation on social media, has a history rife with social and political upheaval. The resistance of the old has always clashed with the determination of the new, and the latter has almost always prevailed, bringing out new periods of flourishing and conflict. Music plays an integral role in influencing society — the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, for instance, was an artistic movement that shone light on the experiences of African-American culture and was grounded in jazz.
What does the birth of whisperpop communicate about us, now? A clinging on to hope, on the possibility that our current circumstances will eventually lead to peace. The 2020 election is fast-approaching. Citizens are outraged by the failures and corruptness of the government, especially in matters such as gun control. The media is abundant with celebrity drama, conspiracies, controversies. Yet, Taylor Swift’s realization of love as gold instead of red — trivial as it may be — stands out against all this turbulence, steady, devoid of all our destructive passions.
While there will be critics who denigrate whisperpop, still adhering to obsolete notions of what makes a singer talented, its emergence is a fitting representation of what we all need: Change, as is weaved into our past, for stability.
Photo Courtesy of Billie Eilish