While there are still plenty of ways to stand out from today’s crowded musical landscape, it seems like artists are using unique stylization now more than ever.
In 2018 alone, Ariana Grande introduced her sweetener era with upside down text; Travis Scott made his entire ASTROWORLD track list all capitalized; Billie Eilish continued to lowercase her song titles with singles like “come out and play.” There were plenty more artists whose unusual stylization choices caught eyes this year, with acts like BTS, lovelytheband and benny blanco making major waves.
Perhaps artists are switching up the look of their text because in the streaming era, interesting capitalization and spacing helps draw attention to the music when everything is presented in the same font. “Alphabetician” and font creator Chank Diesel suggests that switching up capitalization is a rebellious — yet beneficial — move for artists of any genre: “That’s the most quintessential display of typography — when without even changing the font, you can change the type to express some personality.”
Whatever the incentive or the impact, eye-catching stylization was a 2018 trend that will seemingly continue well into the years to come, especially as long as streaming dominates music consumption. Diesel, along with type historian and typographic critic Paul Shaw, shared some insight with Billboard about how various stylization is interpreted.
Who does it: Travis Scott (ASTROWORLD), XXXTENTACION, BTS, BLACKPINK, PRETTYMUCH, THEY.
SHAW: Historically, all-caps are always used when you want to tell somebody to pay attention. All caps is not radical; doing all lowercase has a certain radical attitude to it. All-caps is much more conservative. Either you’re just yelling at people or you’re trying to be very traditionalist. There’s a certain authority and timelessness.
DIESEL: I think of all-caps as corporate and political, like in advertising and propaganda posters of the 20th century.
SHAW: The capital trend might fit in with more macho, aggressive, more boastfulness. It’s much stronger visually, projecting a bigger persona.
DIESEL: Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD all-caps titling; I see the bigness of his sound, the booming beats and low-end phase-shifted vocals. They’ve got a strength and rigidness like you see in capital letterforms — long, straight lines, which seem more striking and percussive to me.
SHAW: What they’re doing in Korea or Japan or these other countries — this is not their native alphabet to begin with, so to them, they do all sorts of weird things with English words. So maybe with the K-pop people, they like to do something totally different from what you saw from anybody in America.
With the boy band, most of these boy bands are quite young, so they’re maybe trying to show they’re more adult, more mature. Just looking for more of a “take us seriously” sort of thing.
Who does it: Billie Eilish (song titles), benny blanco, joan, nothing, nowhere.
DIESEL: I always think of all lowercase as artful and poetic because of [famed wartime poet] E.E. Cummings. I see it as representative of more melodic and softer tones, more lyrical flavor. The lowercase letters are smaller, which “sounds” softer on my eyes, but also the lowercase letterforms also have more curves and circles, which creates a more tuneful collection of shapes.
SHAW: Doing all lowercase has a certain radical attitude to it. It’s sometimes seen as an avant-garde approach. All lowercase was advocated by a couple of people at the Bauhaus. It’s always people who see themselves as modernists.
With lowercase, you’re kind of withdrawing. It makes a lot of sense for indie rockers, from what I know.
Who does it: Tory Lanez (LoVE me NOw?)
SHAW: That’s something I would expect out of an old-time rapper. I think he’s trying to suggest that he’s not so middle-of-the-road smooth R&B of the past, a little bit unpredictable. He’s trying to get a little extra cred.
DIESEL: The craziness of that kind of typographic treatment doesn’t really link up to the music very well, in Tory’s case. That kind of insane, schizophrenic kind of type treatment would work better with a more edgy, experimental kinda hardcore band, like Death Grips. Or maybe that ups-n-downs typing would represent somebody who sounds more avant-grade, like Lo-Fang or James Blake.
That looks like pure psycho stuff to me. Trying hard to be interesting, but ultimately signifying nothing, in this case.
Who does it: Ariana Grande (??u?????s)
SHAW: Ariana Grande’s upside down text is probably just a publicity ploy to make people notice it and say “What can we do to be different?” I’m suspecting that it was a simple attention-grabbing thing on her part.
DIESEL: Ariana’s the best. I think that’s so confident, when she doesn’t feel the need to use any punctuation [either]. She expects you to figure the punctuation out, because her message is so pure and direct. That’s what I see in her tweets, anyway.