It got serious with Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next”. Somewhat reflecting her pint-sized, commercially viable femininity, stylising the title of her 2018 song in lowercase was an apt choice for an emotionally frank, tongue-in-cheek song that documents the artist’s journey towards self-love.
Fast-forward to 2020 and lowercasing in music is ubiquitous. With young millennials and Gen-Z’ers – true digital natives – dominating the music industry, it’s a natural evolution, reflecting the way grammar is used fluidly online, and the way music is now almost exclusively streamed through online platforms. In research by Quartz that analyses Spotify’s top 200 playlists from 2017 to 2019, songs with irregularly capitalised song titles in a given week have risen from an average of five to almost 40.
While artists using full caps are largely male (Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, Tyler the Creator), it tends to be female performers who use lowercase. Soon after Grande, Billie Eilish filled her brooding (admittedly all-caps titled) Grammy-winning album WHERE DO WE GO TO WHEN WE FALL ASLEEP? with a full listing of lowercase tracks. In the past year, artists including Lana del Rey, Charli XCX, Marika Hackman, Little Simz, Shura – and most recently Taylor Swift with folklore – have all released songs and even full albums stylised in lowercase.
In a world where Trump capitalises words like a sci-fi villain, lowercase might well be shorthand for authenticity and vulnerability. “Anti-caps communication is being used in peer-to-peer conversations and a part of the movement for ‘real talk’,” says Hannah Craggs, senior editor at trend forecasting agency WGSN. “Realness and the appetite for truth is now a mainstream trend with social media users craving actual authentic and vulnerable information in an age when it’s complex to know who to trust.”
The use of lowercase then is a way for artists to connect with and be authentic to their audiences. Created entirely from her LA home over three weeks in lockdown, Charli XCX meticulously diarised the process of making how i’m feeling now via her Instagram, posting videos of herself crying under mental health strain and fear she had taken on too much by agreeing to make the album, and even “going live” to collaborate with fans on lyric writing.
Pre-internet, decapitalisation has a radical history. The poet e.e cummings, invariably stylised his name (as well as “I”) in lower case order to allow the reader a more fluid reading process and show his disavowal of hierarchy. The feminist theorist bell hooks decapitalises her name (itself borrowed from her grandmother) in order to decentre herself so that her readers focus on her ideas instead.
This upturning of grammatical norms is a means of questioning the status quo. “There is a prescriptivist attitude to capitalisation you learn in English classes,” says deandre miles-hercules, a PhD researcher in sociolinguistics at the University California Santa Barbara. “We can use language to reflect on and push back against systems and create new stylistic practises that bring attention to the systems by which we mean to deconstruct racism and sexism […] When [hooks] writes ‘imperialist’, ‘capitalist’, ‘white supremacist’, ‘patriarchy’ she is linking all these things together in a way that is fundamentally inseparable and rejecting conventional forms of writing that are embedded in that system.”
Interpreted literally, capitalisation might also be used to interrogate ideas of capital and capitalism. “Why do I capitalise ‘Black’, for example?” asks miles-hercules. “It is related to the fact that Blackness in its inception as a racialising category was actually about capital, turning people who came to be known as black into literal capital – property – in order to generate profit.”
While miles-hercules believes that artists tend to be at the forefront of cultural trends, they feel somewhat sceptical about the co-option of lowercasing by the mainstream: “There is a way in which these writing systems and orthography have taken on trendy or artsy connotations, without particular attention to its history. As soon as you might see someone using unconventional capitalisation on their single you see it on commercials for Target. It has become a way for brands to be relevant and connected to their audiences. It appeals to folks for the sake of profit rather than being actually disruptive.”
This could be argued of Swift’s folklore. Praised for its more “stripped back” sound, her choice to use lowercase is a timely riffing on Tumblr-era aesthetics, with an album whose lyrics create a snapshot of a cutesy Americana. What the internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch calls “minimalist typography” (such as lowercasing) was popularised through the website in its noughties heyday – an era that many young adults are feeling nostalgic for as a simpler, less complicated time. The black-and-white, sylvan cover of folklore and the album’s references to cosy knitwear has turned Swift into the poster girl for the escapist #cottagecore TikTok trend that surged in popularity over the lockdown period.
Yet while the cuteness of lowercasing can imply commodification, it can also suggest an insidious kind of strength that embraces feminine “weakness”. Insta-poet Rupi Kaur’s de-capitalised poetry – which has garnered her over 4 million followers – is diminutive in length, but emotionally explosive. Rebecca Watson’s recently published little scratch is a stream-of-consciousness novel about a young woman undergoing sexual trauma.
“There’s definitely an intended irony: in taking up space whilst the lowercase acted as an underhand entrance, like a false meekness,” she explains of her decision to decapitalise her title. “It tapped into the phrase ‘little scratch’ itself, emphasising its littleness – its slightness, which, when you read the book, you see to be a blatant understatement: trauma is not slight.”
Much like the era that gave birth to it, the lowercase trend is anything but predictable.