From Beyoncé to Rosalía, what’s behind the eccentric use of capital letters in pop music?

We delve into the tangle of sizes, spacing and punctuation marks that are proliferating in popular music

From Billie Eilish to Rosalía, the eccentric use of capitularies has spread.
From Billie Eilish to Rosalía, the eccentric use of capitularies has spread.Pepa Ortiz

If you go to your favorite music streaming platform and play either of this summer’s two most played albums – Beyoncé's Renaissance and Rosalía’s Motomami – you’ll notice a significant detail: the titles of all the songs are written in capital letters. The chart’s aesthetics have mutated over the years. The official listings maintain their own writing and capitalization rules, but the song titles on Spotify’s global top 50 are enough to make you go cross-eyed. The titles are as varied as the world’s people. Neither song titles nor artist names follow the strict stylization rules of institutions or record companies.

Historically, Spanish and English have used capital letters in contrasting ways. In Spanish, the first letter of song titles is capitalized, but the rest of the letters are lowercase. English, meanwhile, capitalizes the first letter of every word, especially nouns, adjectives and verbs, a practice that apparently comes from the first version of the US Constitution. In other words, while the English-speaking world writes Don’t Cry For Me Argentina, Spanish speakers use No llores por mi Argentina. In Spain, the English language style is sometimes emulated, as with Santos Que Yo Te Pinté by Los Planetas. But it is visually exaggerated and looks artificial. The music industry has almost always followed rules and conventions of writing names and titles, whether for the physical versions of albums – CDs and vinyls – or in their digital versions.

Front page of /\/\ /\ Y /\, from M.I. A.
Front page of /\/\ /\ Y /\, from M.I. A.

In the context of streaming platforms, however, those rules no longer dominate. On illegal download programs, such as Soulseek, users write as they please. On iTunes, each person can modify an album’s content, adding and deleting songs and titling them however they want. Most significantly, though, the platforms that allow artists to upload their own music, have changed the way artists present their songs to the world. Rappers such as Travis Scott have made themselves known by uploading mixtapes to Soundcloud, a streaming platform that, unlike Spotify, has the option of being able to upload songs directly, without the need for external distributors. There, the usual capitalization conventions no longer have any relevance: the music is usually amateur work created at home without the help of record labels or professionals. Francisco Nixon, musician and content editor for the streaming platform Deezer, associates the use of capital letters specifically “with the subculture of hip hop and mixtapes. I mean CDs burnt at home, with crappy Photoshop typography and all. Its current use, I think, comes from that subculture.”

That amateurism, detached from any formal convention, as often the artist does not know if their work will reach an audience, is also reflected in the writing of titles. It is often done in a hurry, without attention to grammar, spelling or aesthetics, because what counts is immediacy: the more spontaneous, the more authentic.

What was once a spontaneous practice has now become an industry standard, a marketing strategy that allows musicians to display their personality on the market. Artists like the aforementioned Rosalía (or ROSALÍA on Spotify), Beyoncé, Bad Bunny and Lil Nas X, present the titles of their songs in capital letters (DESPECHÁ, BREAK MY SOUL), while others like Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo, FKA twigs and, in Spain, Alba Reche or daniel sabater (as written) opt for lowercase. Sometimes these same artists use capital letters to title their albums but lowercase to name the songs, as with Billie Eilish’s debut. Others choose both options at the same time, like Spanish singer Belén Aguilera. On her SUPERPOP album, each track written in uppercase is followed by another written in lowercase. And British rapper Slowthai divides his double album TYRON into two halves, the first of which features titles in uppercase, the second in lowercase. The first represents, in his words, the “mask” that he puts on in front of others, while the second denotes his “true self.”

Rosalía's page on Spotify.
Rosalía's page on Spotify.

Some artists choose an even more experimental method. All the songs in DAMN., by Kendrick Lamar are titled in capital letters followed by a period. However, others by J. Cole or Willow (daughter of Will Smith) are not only written entirely in lowercase but also with spaces between letters, such as m y l i f e or t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l. The method seems to gesture towards something so transcendent that it doesn’t fit within a song, much less within its title. (Special mention should be made of the use of emojis by groups such as Axolotes Mexicanos and even Coldplay.)

Uppercase and lowercase letters have become one more form of expression for artists, in addition to lyrics, melodies or graphic art. These artists have grown up with the Internet, sending and receiving text messages via mobile phones or computers. Playing with forms of writing has become natural to them. It is also no coincidence that artists who are presumed to be more “extroverted,” flashy or explosive, such as Rosalía or Lil Nas X, use capital letters to stand out (the titles of MOTOMAMI and MONTERO are almost hysterical). Others like girl in red or mori, who create more introspective music, opt for lowercase to create a sense of intimacy, a space where you can listen carefully to all their secrets. All of them send a clear message of what they want to convey with their art and how they want the public to perceive them. Their use of writing conventions allows them to do so. Graphic designer and art director André Gianzo believes that “on Spotify, where most of the lyrics are written in lowercase, using uppercase can be a way to attract attention, to break with the establishment. Historically, the capital letter means shouting,” so the use of lower case means the exact opposite. However, Gianzo points out that the standardization of this practice in the industry means that using capital letters “is no longer going to be a factor that is taken into account to attract attention” because the “eye gets used to absolutely everything.”

Precedents for this phenomenon go beyond rap mixtapes published on platforms like Soundcloud. In 2010, M.I.A. released the album Maya, whose title is actually written with forward slashes, /\/\ /\ Y /\, and which can only exist thanks to a modern keyboard. (Interestingly, one of the album’s tracks is titled CAPS LOCK.) Long before, Japanese pop artists such as Capsule and Ayumi Hamasaki were already messing around with uppercase and lowercase letters in song titles. It was then a purely aesthetic practice that denoted a desire to play with the norm or even transgress it. Nowadays, it is common for Japanese or Korean artists to alternate between different alphabets in their song titles. This is the case of Utada Hikaru and her 2021 single BADモード. Further back, we find the precedent of e.e. cummings, the 1940s poet who wrote in lowercase for reasons of poetic expression. In her recent folk-music stage, Taylor Swift has titled all her compositions in lowercase, presumably with the intention of projecting a sense of intimacy.

Even more curious is the so-called lowercase genre, minimalist ambient music composed of practically imperceptible sounds and noises are amplified in the recording. One of its inventors, Steve Roden, released a record featuring different ways of manipulating sheets of paper. He stated that lowercase music “carries a certain sense of calm and humility, doesn’t demand attention, must be discovered. It’s the complete opposite of capital letters, which are loud and draw attention to themselves”-- a good summary of what the strategic use of upper and lowercase means today in the world of pop music.

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