Bring the belters back to life: why breathy-pop needs to take a breather

Fifteen years ago, Evanescence were at number one. Now the charts are dominated by hushed low-key bops. Have we reached breathy saturation point?

Now, here’s a weighty question to ponder; name the most iconically over the top song to grace the charts in the last 15 years. There are a few obvious candidates, but the winner absolutely has to be ‘Bring Me to Life’ by Evanescence.

Combining unnecessarily aggressive call-and-response vocals with gory, melodramatic decadence, this song does not fucking mess about. Aside from drunkenly screaming along to ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ after a still-raw break-up,  there is no greater legal high in life than ‘Bring Me To Life’ coming on at a club night. It’s hard to pinpoint another song in the years since that has nailed quite the same kind of bombast.

Now, we’re not explicitly arguing that when Amy Lee belted out the line “breathe into me and make me real,” she was acting as a goth oracle and predicting the future of pop music but still, ‘Bring Me To Life’ is a defining moment before a shift in pop music going forward. It represents a final marker, resetting the timer ready for a new, breathier dawn.

Take a look over the very best Number One singles of the very early noughties, and for the most part, it’s a picture comprised of dramatic fist clenching and spiralling, ridiculous key changes, the kind of key changes that soar higher and higher until reaching a pitch that’s only audible to fruit bats. From Atomic Kitten belting it out for all they’re worth on ‘Eternal Flame’ to the quite frankly preposterous ‘Lady Marmalade’, the pop landscape in the BE (that stands for Before Evanescence, by the way) era placed a great deal of worth in the art of maxed-out vocal acrobatics. Examining the post-Evanescence chart make-up, however, we can clearly see the gradual decline taking place. Leona Lewis’ ‘Bleeding Love’ bravely flew the flag in 2007, and Beyoncé and Rihanna obviously continued to steer the good ship H.M.S. Belter across the ocean of music in the face of early adversity. By the time we hit 2010, it’s left to a few pop giants to keep the massive ballad opus going; at this point in history Adele and Sia should be given the Nobel Prize for Belting Sad-Bangers.

This shift from showiness to ultra-subtle stems from the work of a clutch of artists; namely Julia Michaels, whose 2017 solo song ‘Issues’ was a masterclass in telling a emotional story without the traditional, octave-scaling vocal exertion that’s associated with great singing. Proving her talents in the field, she also co-wrote ‘Bad Liar’ with Selena Gomez, and ‘Sorry’ with Justin Bieber; two first rate songs from pop stars who make subdued, low-key bops into an art form. In the vocal coaching biz,it’s known as under-singing.

As Popjustice’s Peter Robinson points out in his detailed exploration of ‘whisper-pop’ for The Guardian, key songwriters like Michaels play a large role in the gradual shift we’re seeing, but other factors are also at play. Inevitably, modern technology makes it easy to imitate the golden formula, too – for example, the invention of vocal plug-in called ASPIRE Evo has also contributed to the trend. Adding a hushed dimension to recorded vocals, breathiness can now be accessed with a single twist of a dial. For the industry suits hoping to emulate the successes of Lana Del Rey, Lorde, Taylor Swift, and the aforementioned Selena Gomez, it’s not just tempting; it’s a cash-maker.

Breathy-pop reached its peak of brilliance last year, producing some genuinely innovative, super-sexy, and interesting pop. And as always, there are pop artists out there who consistently specialise in packing massive emotional clout without the octave-scaling vocal technical ability of, say, Whitney Houston or Christina Aguilera; take Charli XCX, queen of under-singing Britney Spears and sultry prince Troye Sivan as the current leaders in the field. These artists are not chasing a trend or riding on the coat-tails of what Julia Michaels arguably begun.

However, in breathy-pop’s wake, we’re left with a gaping void in the massive, over-sung ballad arena; and there’s a dearth of lacklustre, middle of the road, one-tone pop music that simply needs to go. Aside from Ariana Grande’s ‘No Tears Left to Cry’, the Top 40 is decidedly free of any rousingly euphoric vocal-gubbins or ludicrously dramatic ad-libbing whatsoever, and 15 years after ‘Bring Me To Life’ well and truly blew the lid off the belter-o-meter, we’re well due a comeback.

In the unlikely event that any pop stars are reading this, we of beg you; listen to the people’s pleas and quench our thirsts once and for all after 15 years of hurt. Gift us the ridiculously over the top, yowling vocal deliveries that we so crave, and feed our growing hunger for jaw-droppingly massive ballads that summon the energy of a million tear-soaked tissues plunging like gigantic, soggy hailstones. Trade in the understated bop-crafting and muster the bombastic silliness of an EastEnders storyline crammed into a lite-metal housing. In other words,  be more like Evanescence and bring the belter back to life. Call its name, and save us from the dark. Lord knows, we live in some harrowing political times, and you never know, an influx of truly melodramatic pop bangers might just be the thing that saves us.