Pop star Billie Eilish is many things: The holder of a No. 1 Billboard album, a voice of Gen Z, a mixologist of many different genres including pop, electronic and hip-hop. But unlike singers like Ariana Grande and Whitney Houston, the 17-year-old isn’t known for her powerhouse vocals.
Rather, on her debut studio album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Eilish’s allure lies in her understated deliveries — in whispered vocals, muffled humming, and, momentarily, a removal of her Invisalign braces. Her voice is so notably soft that the album inspired an ASMR “cover” courtesy of popular YouTube personality Gibi ASMR.
Eilish, while an extreme example, isn’t the only singer to make a hushed entrance into the pop mainstream lately. Singers like Alina Baraz and Julia Michaels have made names for themselves despite — and perhaps thanks to — their understated, under-the-breath vocal deliveries.
And they aren’t anomalies, according to data from Pandora’s Music Genome Project, the largest human analysis of music ever undertaken that assigns 450 different musical attributes from genre to mood to instruments. Looking at data for vocal delivery, breathy vocals have been on the rise for the past four years, since streaming started to overtake album sales and digital downloads as the most popular way to consume music.
Breathy vocalists certainly existed pre-streaming — Julie London in the ’50s and ’60s, Janet Jackson in the ’80s and ’90s — but up until 2015, songs in this style were in a small minority. The graph above shows that about 14 percent of songs in 2018 featured vocals that were what Pandora analysts would consider very light and breathy. In the 60s and 70s, hushed vocals were present in just 1 to 2 percent of songs, while they accounted for 2 to 4 percent in the 80s and 90s. The increase is even more dramatic when you zoom in on the top 10 percent of songs on Pandora: So far in 2019, nearly 23 percent of these songs have what Pandora music analysts consider hushed and breathy vocals, compared with 3 to 5 percent from the 80s until 2015.
Looking at the trend on a genre level, R&B artists have been the biggest champions of breathy vocals. So far this year, nearly 30 percent of R&B songs analyzed on Pandora scored high in light and breathy vocals, up from 6.75 percent in 2014 and 22 percent in 2018. Pop follows, with 21 percent in 2018, followed by rap with 19 percent. The only genre that has not seen a notable increase in hushed vocals is country, which has also seen the lowest average scores over all time. Hushed vocals have historically accounted for 1 to 2 percent of songs in country, and only reached 4 percent in 2018.
So, what is it about streaming that encourages vocalists to go soft?
Tiana Lewis, head of Pop Programming at Pandora, says there are a few factors at play. Streaming encourages fans to listen via headphones, which, in turn, encourages artists to play with more intimate vocal styles. Streaming has also made the music industry “more of a creator’s landscape,” according to Lewis. Now more than ever, a kid at home tinkering on their laptop could reasonably have a Billboard hit. (We’re looking at you, Lil Nas X.) That not only encourages more lo-fi production, but it also levels the playing field a bit in terms of artists’ vocal range and power.
“You used to have to be able to shatter glass to get a record deal. You used to have to have the Whitney Houston style voice or you weren’t a singer. Unless you were a pop star like Britney, you had to have a voice,” she said. “Nowadays, you don’t have to have any of that. Not only that, but whispered vocals just sound cool.”