When Adele first came on the scene about 5 years ago, I remember being captivated by the way she seemed to glide through different vowels on the same syllable. Linguists and classical singers call this a “diphthong,” or
a vowel sound, occupying a single syllable, during the articulation of which the tongue moves from one position to another, causing a continual change in vowel quality
‘Fine’ is a combination of (lacking the IPA fonts here to do this correctly) AH + EE (or IH)
‘Boil’ is a combination of OH + IH + UH (technically a triphthong).
Pop singers may sing all of these vowel sounds to a varying degree, but Adele does this odd vowel maneuver to a much larger degree than most, on words you wouldn’t expect. Take “Daydreamer” from her debut album 19. She sings the chorus
You can find him sittin’ on your doorstAY-EEEEEEEp
Waiting for a surprAH-EEEEEEEse
And he will feel like he’s been there for hAH-WERRR-OOOOOOOOs
And you can tell that he’ll be there for lAH-EEE-EEEEEf
It’s an interesting sound that some have passed off as part of her accent, but I think it’s something different. Singers who can’t access their head voice well for whatever reason often use closed vowels EE or OO as an easy way to focus their head voice. The end of each phrase in this chorus also includes a register change, where Adele lightens up and this funny vowel combination is the result.
I especially began to pay attention to this overuse of the diphthong as my students began to use them in their own singing. This was not just part of Adele’s accent. Was it part of her appeal? A new stylism? Check out the talented sisters Lennon and Maisy Stella in their most famous cover: “Call Your Girlfriend.” She uses the same vowel modification to aid her in her head voice. At :41, “only” begins with a much more closed [u] vowel, which allows her to focus her head voice. Time will tell if she learns to carry her pop belt higher with less tension and make her head voice stronger.
However, the vowel modification that happens three seconds earlier is even more interesting to me. “Never meant to hurt no one” becomes WUH-EH-EEEn. This is not a natural diphthong in the word that just gets a little more stress here. Neither is it a case where the vowel modification helps to flip registers. Many other singers are picking up this affectation as well, though to a lesser degree. Check out the higher line in the chorus to Anna Kendrick’s Cups, where “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone” has a light “GAW-EH-EEN”. Even Ray Dalton ever so slightly sings “Like the ceiling can’t hold UHHHH-EHS” in Macklemore’s Can’t Hold Us. It’s as if consonants that use the tip of the tongue (N and S) are pulling the entire tongue upward to modify the vowel.
I was sure ZZ Ward was from England after hearing her single Put the Gun Down, especially with the twinge of English accent scattered throughout the first verse. “E” vowels sneak into several words in the chorus, including “don’t” (DUH-EEENT), “car (CAH-IHHHH-uh), and “know” (NUH-EEE). This singer was raised in Pennsylvania and Oregon, however. Her passion for the blues and knowledge of Son House may explain some of the mystery vowels. The line right before the chorus goes, “I think I’m cursed (CUH-EEESD), I had him first (FUH-EEESD), which reminds me of Son House, who sings “join the Baptist church (CHUH-EEECH)” and “won’t have to work (WUH-EEEK) in Preachin’ the Blues.
But the influence of the blues or of British singers can’t explain all of these occurrences, can they? Maybe it’s a New Zealand thing. FSU’s AcaBelles do a cover of Lorde’s “Royals” that includes several diphthongs on the words “blood” (BLUH-EEEED), “us” (AH-EEEEES), and “buzz” (BUH-EEEZ). Nope. Not a New Zealand thing. There are faint traces of Lorde’s accent in her original, but no trace of these diphthongs. The AcaBelles’ performance is not about a blues influence, regional accent, or vocal need because of range/register. It’s just… there… as something we pop singers do now.
Where am I going with all of this? As a teacher who coaches singers in all styles, I have several students who use this sound, some of them gratuitously. I have to help them at least identify what it is they are doing if not also help them choose between when it is effective and when it is too much. Finally, as someone who tries not to be too snobby about language, who recognizes that accents, pronunciations, and slang change over time, I have to at least wonder: where did this come from? Where is it going?