If you go to your favorite music streaming platform and listen to one of the two most listened to albums of this summer, Renaissance by Beyoncé and Motomami by Rosalía, you will notice an important detail: the titles of all the songs are written in capital letters. The aesthetics of the card have changed over the years. The official lists keep their own writing and capitalization rules, but Spotify’s global top 50 tracks are enough to make your eyes spin. The titles are as varied as the peoples of the world. Neither song titles nor artist names follow strict institution or record label stylization rules.
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, on the other hand, 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. That is to say, where the Anglos write “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, the Spanish uses “No llores por mi Argentina”. In Spain, the Anglo-Saxon style is sometimes emulated, as with “Santos Que Yo Te Pinté” by Los Planetas. But it’s visually overdone and looks contrived. The music industry has almost always followed rules and conventions for writing names and titles, whether for the physical versions of albums – CDs and vinyls – or in their digital versions.
In the context of streaming platforms, however, these rules no longer dominate. On illegal download programs, such as Soulseek, users write as they please. On iTunes, where anyone can modify the contents of an album, adding and removing songs and naming them as they see fit. More importantly, however, platforms that allow artists to upload their own music have changed the way artists present their songs to the world. Rappers like Travis Scott have made a name for themselves by uploading mixtapes to Soundcloud, a streaming platform which, unlike Spotify, has the option of being able to upload songs directly, without the need for external distributors. There, the usual conventions of capitalization no longer have any relevance: the music is generally an amateur work created at home without the help of record companies or professionals. Francisco Nixon, musician and content editor for streaming platform Deezer, specifically associates the use of capital letters “with the subculture of hip hop and mixtapes. I mean home-burned CDs, with shitty Photoshop typography and all. Its current use, I think, comes from that subculture.
This amateurism, detached from any formal convention, because the artist often does not know if his work will reach an audience, is also found in the writing of the titles. It’s often done in a hurry, without worrying about grammar, spelling or aesthetics, because what counts is immediacy: the more spontaneous it is, the more authentic it is.
What was once a spontaneous practice has now become an industry standard, a marketing strategy that allows musicians to display their personality in the market. Artists like the aforementioned Rosalía (or ROSALÍA on Spotify), Beyoncé, Bad Bunny and Lil Nas X feature their song titles in all caps (“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 capitals to title their albums but lowercase to name songs, as with the debut of Billie Eilish. Others choose both options at the same time, like Belén Aguilera. On his album SUPERPOP, each piece written in capital letters is followed by another written in lower case. And British rapper Slowthai splits 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” he puts on in front of others, while the second designates his “true self”.
Some artists choose an even more experimental method. All songs on DAMN., by Kendrick Lamar are titled in all caps 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 the letters, such as “mylife” or “transparentsou l”. The method seems to nod towards something so transcendent that it doesn’t fit into a song, let alone its title. (Special mention should be made of the use of emojis by bands 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 grew up with the Internet, sending and receiving text messages via cell phones or computers. Playing with the forms of writing has become natural to them. It’s no coincidence that supposedly more “extroverted”, flashy or explosive artists, 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 one can listen carefully to all their secrets. All of them send a clear message about 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 this. Graphic designer and artistic director André Gianzo believes that “on Spotify, where most of the lyrics are written in lower case, using capital letters can be a way of attracting attention, of breaking with the establishment. Historically, uppercase means to shout”, so using lowercase means the exact opposite. However, Gianzo points out that the standardization of this practice in the industry means that the use of capital letters “will no longer be a factor in attracting attention” because “the eye gets used to absolutely everything”.
The precedents for this phenomenon go beyond rap mixtapes released on platforms like Soundcloud. In 2010, MIA released the album Maya, whose title is actually written with slashes, // / Y /, and which can only exist thanks to a modern keyboard. (Interestingly, one of the tracks on the album is titled “CAPS LOCK.”) Long before that, Japanese pop artists such as Capsule and Ayumi Hamasaki were already having fun with upper and lower case 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 his 2021 single “BADモード”. Further on, we find the precedent of ee cummings, the 1940s poet who wrote in lowercase for the sake of poetic expression. In her recent folk music scene, Taylor Swift titled all of her compositions in lowercase, presumably in an effort to project a sense of intimacy.
Even more curious is the so-called miniscule genre, a minimalist ambient music composed of practically imperceptible sounds and noises which are amplified in the recording. One of its inventors, Steve Roden, released a disc showing different ways to manipulate sheets of paper. He said lowercase music “brings a certain sense of calm and humility, doesn’t demand attention, needs to 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 lower case means in the world of pop music today.