Culture

A Brief History of 'Cursive Singing', From Amy Winehouse to TikTok

Characterised by stretching vowel sounds way beyond what is necessary, the last decade has given us a bounty of "cursive singers", AKA vocalists doing the most.
21 July 2020, 11:10am
Amy Winehouse, Halsey, TikTok user cursive singing
Photos: YouTube and TikTok

There are certain vocalists whose distinct style has been era defining. To this day you can’t reach the end of April without “It's Gonna Be May" memes inspired by a nasal Justin Timberlake circa 2000, “Baby One More Time” would be nothing without Britney’s signature bleating of “Oh baybin, baybin”, and the dulcet tones of Barry at Wednesday night karaoke at The Fox and Hound are pure Tom Waits. In more recent years, we have been bearing witness to a new generation of singers whose vocal delivery has proven to be nothing short of iconic. We are now firmly in the era of cursive singing.

First coined by Twitter user @TRACKDROPPA back in 2009, writing “Voice so smooth its [sic] like I'm singing in cursive..”, the term was interpreted to be in reference to Corinne Bailey Rae and Amy Winehouse, whose nostalgic but modern combination of jazz and vocal fry dominated the late 00s and has dominated pop music over the years since (think Sia, Lorde, Shawn Mendes and Billie Eilish). The final result is what we now know to be cursive singing or "indie singing" – a style characterised by diphthongisation, wherein vowel sounds are stretched beyond what is necessary. The typical cursive vocal will resemble a child mid-tantrum trying to articulate their distress but ever so slightly missing the mark, with many phrases being incomprehensible. For example, "flood" becomes "floyuid", "time" becomes "toyiuem" and so on. In layman's terms, these singers are doing the most.

Perhaps best exhibited in this iconic Vine by user Chrish, in which he walks through his kitchen, crooning the seminal line, “Wåhlcüm to myee keetchén. We háhve bäniyneuhhz and âyvacahdûhz”, cursive singing is now firmly mainstream. This video is arguably the moment that the style entered the realm of parody – so much so that there are now reams of TikTok jokes and challenges where people sing words in exaggerated cursive while their friends try to guess what the fuck they're saying.

While cursive singing is by no means indicative of a bad singer, it does seem to highlight a more recent trend of artists relying on vocal trickery and trend-based singing as opposed to technique. Quite simply, these are not sounds that would naturally come out of your mouth. But if you’re still unsure what cursive singing actually is then fear not! I’ve put together a quintessential guide to some of the peak examples of the style – the gôïúd, the båyyd and the ügláy.

SELENA GOMEZ

For some reason Selena Gomez is one of the most popular pop singers in recent years, and I can’t help but think this could be partly due to her dalliance with the ever-popular cursive singing. Sonically reminiscent of someone accidentally swallowing their tongue for a few seconds, Gomez’s vocal delivery in “Good for You” is textbook cursive, with her pronunciation of the word "good" as "gouid" pointed out as being a little strange. It’s not abundantly clear why Gomez sings like this but once you’re aware, you can’t un-hear it. While it’s a less prominent example than those to come in this guide, it’s no less bizarre. Although I don’t actively choose to listen to Gomez’s music on a daily basis, the word "good" will never be the same to me again.

JORJA SMITH

As someone who has been quoted as being “obsessed” with Amy Winehouse growing up, it’s no surprise that Jorja Smith drew influence from her vocal delivery. Her homage to Winehouse is apparent in many performances, but this particular performance of “Teenage Fantasy” has cursive written all over it. Smith is by no means a bad singer, but this performance drew particular criticism due to the often nonsensical delivery – a drawl that screams "I just shoved one of my mum’s roast potatoes in my mouth straight out of the oven and I’m seriously regretting it."

HALSEY

The poster child of cursive singing, you simply can’t talk about it without mentioning Halsey. The world is very much my oyster when it comes to picking a stand-out Halsey performance, but this cover of Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself”, which she creatively reframes as “Fuck Yourself’”, just edged out the competition. With many cursive singers such as the aforementioned Jorja Smith remaining in a lower vocal register, Halsey takes a leaf out of pop-punk vocalist Tom DeLonge’s book and mixes cursive with smashed-together vowels and over-extended words that absolutely no one asked to be emphasised. Incidentally, an honourable mention in Halsey’s history of cursive singing goes to the time she performed Blink-182’s “I Miss You” in a mall.

JESSIE REYEZ

Remember when you were in school and you first started learning how to write with fountain pens instead of biro? There was always that one kid who jumped the gun and graduated onto using big boy pens when they clearly weren’t ready. That kid is Jessie Reyez during her Genius appearance in 2017. It’s something that should come with a disclaimer or at least some sort of explanation for why it sounds like "that". Your throat will feel sore just from watching it. Another case of someone who isn’t actually a bad singer but is overly reliant on the cursive style. Think of it as the sonic equivalent of Microsoft Word’s Gigi font. It just does far too much.

TONES AND I

Without a shadow of a doubt, the final boss of cursive singing is Tones and I’s “Dance Monkey”. Despite only being three and a half minutes long, this track is an ordeal that has it all. Indistinguishable vocals? Check. Growling? Check. Slight yodelling? You bet your arse it does! A masterclass in the art of cursive singing and indicative of the style being formidably Marmite, the idiosyncrasy of her vocal delivery might think that she is simply trying to clear her throat, but the only things trapped in there are "vibes". Unique to the point where at times, she could be singing in Simlish, “Dance Monkey” is Script MT through and through and there quite simply isn’t a finer example of cursive singing to be found.

@jumiaa