Women Turn The Volume Back Down On Pop in 2019

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Less than a week after Billie Eilish released her debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, a full-length tribute to the album appeared on one of the most popular ASMR YouTube channels. A relatively recent cultural phenomenon, ASMR refers to that shivery feeling of euphoria that can be induced in certain people by gentle whispering and quiet tapping sounds. The ASMR version of the record, produced by a performer known mononymously as Gibi, is not strictly music: She whispers rather than sings and manipulates objects near her microphone in lieu of playing instruments. But it’s a faithful enough tribute. Eilish’s music already gets listeners most of the way to ASMR bliss.

“Eilish, like most ASMR creators, records in her bedroom, giving her work an emotional and sonic intimacy,” writes Zach Schonfeld in a recent Pitchfork piece about the 17-year-old singer’s appeal to tingle-seekers. “She is young and female, as are the vast majority of leading ASMR YouTubers. And her approach to pop production is hushed and slightly dreamlike; the songs, while catchy, do not have blaring, screamable hooks.”

The consistently quiet tone of Eilish’s music represents something of a sea change in pop, which until recently favored the brash and the loud. On “Bad Guy,” she opts for finger snaps over hi hats, funneling the intimacy of the body into a space normally reserved for machines. The single “Bury A Friend” recreates the drum pattern from Gary Glitter’s runaway sports anthem “Rock And Roll Part 2,” only it sounds like it’s slapped out on a tabletop by a pair of idle hands instead of hammered on an amplified drum kit by a session musician. Several songs on the album omit percussion altogether. Most striking is Eilish’s voice, which she never raises much past a murmur. Like ASMR artists, she tends to clinch the ends of words. She trails off, as if deep in thought or just distracted. She sings, but always stops far short of belting, that time-honored tradition that until recently stood as a benchmark for a female musician’s talent.

Eilish is hardly the first pop star to employ a hushed vocal mode. Her debut album, where she never so much as gestures toward a belt or a shout, calls back to a turn-of-the-millennium vocal trend. Singers with low-decibel voices seared the charts in the nineties and early aughts with R&B-inflected pop hits. “Try Again,” Aaliyah’s best-selling single, broke the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 2000. A year later, Janet Jackson, whose delicate voice ruled over the eighties and nineties, shot the irresistibly breathy hook of “All For You” to the top of the same chart, where it reigned for seven weeks. Tweet’s “Oops (Oh My)” peaked at No. 7 in 2002. And in 2004, Ciara held the top spot with “Goodies,” a song that suspended her soprano in a high whisper.

After its 2002 debut, American Idol rewarded a specific type of singing that bled into the charts, encouraging a proliferation of women artists who all seemed to try to out-shout each other. Before the reign of the televised singing competition, Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, and Jessica Simpson all rode up the pop charts on the strength of their robust multi-octave runs; American Idol encouraged other women to emulate them, favoring power and risky runs over the subtle intonations of more nuanced singers.

By 2009, the pop charts favored a loud and brash register. Lady Gaga, currently holding ground in the top 10 with her A Star Is Born duet “Shallow,” had a No. 1 hit in the robotically catchy “Poker Face.” So did Fergie with the Black Eyed Peas on “Boom Boom Pow.” Miley Cyrus, pre-rebellion, blared out that indelible “yeeaaa-eaaa-eahh” on “Party In The USA.” Beyonce had “Halo” and “Single Ladies”; Katy Perry had “Hot N Cold” and “Teenage Dream” not long after it. Kesha broke through with “Tik Tok,” a song about living loud that now shares its name with a video-sharing platform. Kelly Clarkson was still a No. 1 artist, a distinction she hasn’t enjoyed since 2012.

To sing successfully as a female pop star for most of the aughts was to sing with volume and power, to make stadium-sized songs for the broadest possible audience. This technique powered Adele’s career years after its peak; she might be its youngest current beneficiary, the last of the pure belters. In this decade, it has dwindled. Listeners are less receptive to a typhoon of a voice and a blaring beat, and more interested in having their ears tickled by a delicate, breathy whisper over spacious, uncluttered production.

In the past few years, pop’s volume dial has inched back down. Selena Gomez’s 2016 single “Kill ‘Em With Kindness” paired a whispered vocal tone with a gently whistled hook, while Beyonce’s Lemonade spaced out its full-volume triumphs with serene moments of quiet., Taylor Swift previewed her album Reputation with”Look What You Made Me Do,” a dark and sneering number that boasted a blase, half-spoken chorus instead of a sung-through hook. Carly Rae Jepsen, one of pop’s most charismatic vocalists, wove breathy intonations into her 2015 cult hit Emotion. Janelle Monae’s most recent album Dirty Computer included the light, breathy ode to queer love “PYNK.” Until she was unseated recently by Lil Nas X, former virtuosic belter Ariana Grande held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 with the (arguably pilfered) whispered bragathon “7 Rings.” Even Halsey, known for blowing out her vocal cords on The Chainsmokers’ “Closer,” opts for a more restrained delivery on her current hit “Without Me.”

If women and teen girls have recently earned chart success with vocal modes that echo ASMR performances, then boys are playing a different game. The current crop of male pop stars sound more like the current crop of male YouTube stars: loud and obnoxious, playing around in public for laughs. While megastreamers like PewDiePie, Ice Poseidon, and the brothers Paul leverage a narcissistic irreverence toward good money on camera, Post Malone, 6ix9ine, and tweetdecker-turned-pop icon Lil Nas X do the same in music. On the pop charts and in the tangle of YouTube algorithms, girls earn status by simulating intimacy via close whispering, while boys hoot and holler their way to the top.

Maybe it seems like this dichotomy spells a raw deal for female musicians, who must shrink their voices and their presence in order to secure a bigger share of the streaming market. But quiet as Eilish is, she has not made herself small. One of her singles is called “You Should See Me In A Crown.” “Wait ’til the world is mine,” she warns in the first verse, barely audible over a murk of synthesizers. “Your silence is my favorite sound,” she asserts at the chorus over a buzz of EDM bass.

In theater and movies, the character who does not need to shout is often the one holding the most power. Consider the tempered voice of the villain in contrast to the hero’s impotent screech. Eilish exploits this dynamic to an extreme. She does not hold back in order to make room for someone with more power; she’s restrained because she knows she already has the room at her mercy. In the stunning “Bury A Friend,” a song in which she plays the monster under your bed, her whispers pile up. They cascade, filtered and pitch-shifted, texturing each other. There are actual rests in the song, moments of silence, a rarity in pop. And every time Eilish breaks her own silence it’s a thrill. She’s quiet enough that I have to lean in to hear her, hanging on her words, hypnotized. She’s the pop star who does not need to bowl you over, the pop star who leaves her music full of black holes so as to draw you in.

This article has been revised to more accurately reflect the historical contributions of Black vocalists.

When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is out now via Darkroom/Interscope Records. Get it here.

Some of the artists mentioned are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.