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Does Good Need Memorable?

Psychology Professor Siu-Lan Tan outdoors

Kalamazoo College Professor of Psychology Siu-Lan Tan

BuzzFeed’s Reggie Ugwu wrote an explication of a new vocal phenomenon he calls “Indie Pop Voice” (“Selena Gomez’s ’Good for You’ and the Rise of the ’Indie Pop Voice’”). The trend refers to many singers’ creative reshaping of vowel sounds. But why do that?

To arrive at a more comprehensive answer to that question, Reggie turned to Kalamazoo College’s Professor of Psychology Siu-Lan Tan, who also posts a blog (“What Shapes Film”) for Psychology Today online. Siu-Lan expands on Reggie’s question in her “Six Reasons Pop Singers Pronounce Some Lyrics in Odd Ways: ’Secret Asian Man’ and Other Mysteries of Song.” The reasons range from the more prosaic “making a song one’s own” to the wonderfully poetic “tightening or relaxing one’s lips or throat to change the tone color of your voice.” How cool is the fact that a voice has tone colors!

According to Siu-Lan it’s vowels that make the song, so those might be re-shaped in any number of ways for any number of reasons. Consonants, on the other hand, are flow-stoppers and are therefore emphasized…or omitted entirely…depending on the effect a singer desires. (That’s why Siu-Lan for some time thought Johnny Rivers was singing about a secret Asian man rather than a “Secret Agent Man”). Both Reggie and Siu-Lan cite the desire to be more interesting or catchy—“good” needs “memorable,” according to Reggie. Okay, agrees Siu-Lan, but be careful. Too much “capital-M Memorable” via pronunciation deviation carries some risk—such as a feeling of contrived affectation or garbled words. You especially don’t want the latter if the lyric’s magic.

Here’s another question Reggie or some other inquirer might one day ask: Why’s a top notch psychology professor weighing in on independent pop music? “Although as an academic I spend most of my time on scholarly works, I think bringing what we do to the public is also important,” says Siu-Lan. “Technical aspects of singing include articulators and resonators and formants. But when applied to Selena Gomez and Top 40 pop singers, we can make the basic ideas relevant to the general public—and perhaps make them aware of some more nuances involved in singing.”