Bieber Jacked Ellie Goulding’s Vocal Style
Justin Bieber’s new trio of Dance-Anthems-with-Greg-James friendly comeback singles draw on the latest trends in British dance pop. This makes him sound, especially to US pop audiences, as really fresh, forward, and trendsetting. He totally bros it up with Diplo and Skrillex, but sonically they all avoid the most cliched brostep sounds (I guess Jack U saves those for 2 Chainz on Febreze?) and the out-of-fashion Guetta and Harris style EDM soars.
The main thing he steals from British dance pop is Ellie Goulding’s vocal style. He begins with really breathy vocals, and then uses her fully supported voice in musically climactic moments. “Lights” is the clearest example of this:
“Outside” also does this.
In Beiber, these moments of full-on vocal support usually feature two kinds of lyrics: non-verbal vocalizations, and the extra phrases inserted in the chorus as it repeats itself at the end of the song.
“Where Are U Now?” starts with breathy falsetto, making the Goulding comparison really really apparent.
The most fully supported, strongest vocals happen in two spots: “now”s right before the soar and the repetitions of the titular phrase in the last chorus. Everything else is mostly soft and breathy and/or falsetto.
In “What Do You Mean?”, the verses are all very breathy, and so are the choruses, especially at the beginning when he sings the titular phrase.* His most fully supported vocals occur on the non-verbal vocalizations at the climax of the chorus “oh-oh-OH,” on the “turn right”s, and the “I wanna kno-oo-ow!” and all the other extra lines in the last iteration of the chorus.
Like “Where Are U Now?,” “Sorry” has a falsetto hook and breathy vocals in the verse. The choruses are sung with full support.
So what does he mean by all these breathy vocals that reference EDM’s manic pixie dream girl? In part this style of singing expresses vulnerability, which is pretty central to all the songs. Perhaps presenting himself as capable of expressing actual human emotion, even weakness, makes him seem less plastic and manufactured? In Goulding’s case, her breathy vocals make her seem fragile, and, ergo, more feminine. In Bieber’s case, the vulnerability makes him seem less like a “manufactured” pop star, more like a “real artist” (lol that distinction hahah), and thus less feminized.
I think there’s something also to be said about Goulding’s influence on a certain kind of EDM pop. She’s been all over the radio and the charts, especially with her 50 Shades of Gray single, but at least in the US she’s not seen as a big pop diva: she’s not in the same league as Taylor, Katy, Rih, Bey, or Nicki. She still reads as a genre singer. Atlanta’s quasi-alternative weekly calls her “the voice of EDM.” And I wonder if that’s part of what Bieber is consciously or unconsciously tapping into here. In order to avoid sounding like the dude version of a pop diva, Biebs tries to sound like the voice of EDM…but yet he avoids the growing stigma associated with an increasingly out-of-fashion EDM sound. In part he avoids this stigma by singing over tracks that follow current trends in EDM-influenced pop. He sounds more like what you hear Friday nights on Radio 1 (i.e., less dubstep and more bits of retro house and xenomaniacal references to non-Western pop) and less like the drop and soar-filled sound that American audiences would associate with “EDM.” Kinda like Taylor Swift’s disavowal of her country roots, Biebs is disavowing his teen pop past by appealing to a more avant-garde because foreign to American audiences pop sound.
* Can we talk about how “What Do You Mean?” sounds like the producers decided to leave the click track in the final mix? Also, the video adds a drop that’s not in the song: as the instrumentals drop out Bieber’s character and his lady companion jump out of a window and land on inflated cushions just before the song comes back for its final choruses.