Things in my downtown apartment that just make sense...
My friends and I threw a party, and this is how it went...
Welcome to a day in my life in the fabulous New York City…
If you are among the 2.5 million Australian users to have opened TikTok at any point in the past year you will undoubtedly read the above in a specific tone of voice: an affected, theatrical drawl that’s half-English, half-American and entirely put on.
TikTok is a playground for accents, home to millions of voiceover challenges, accent swap games and audio remixes. Many TikTokers opt to use the platform’s robotic text-to-speech function for their videos but among those who don’t, a particular stylised cadence has begun to emerge.
"Who decided this is how we were going to talk on TikTok?" asks creator @itsmejadeb in a video with 1.7m views. "LMAO THE WAY I HEARD NOTHING BC THAT’S ALL I HEAR," agrees one commenter. The more videos I watched, the more I wondered: why are TikTokers all starting to sound the same?
'TikTalk' aka 'TikTok voice' or 'influencer drawl' is a specific register commonly used to narrate front-facing camera storytelling videos, filmed predominantly by young women. It was popularised by influential users like @glamdemon2004, Audrey Peters and Musings of a Crouton aka Sara Nahusenay. Though many of its most popular creators are American, putting on or emphasising a 'bougie' voice is just as popular over here — see London-based @maybetamsin or Russian-inflected @olgaunleashed — and a quick scroll of 'TikTok voice' audio reveals that it has been repurposed by users from locations as diverse as Belgium, Glasgow and Paris.
TikTok voice is probably more useful as a vocal vibe than a specific set of linguistic characteristics. The sound itself contains variations, from vlogger vocal fry through theatre kid melodrama to full-blown retro mid-Atlantic accent. "What they have in common is that they’re doing various strategies for attention/floor-holding, which is particularly important for influencers given how easy it is to skip past TikTok videos," explains Professor Nicole Holliday, sociolinguist at the University of Pennsylvania and co-host of the Spectacular Vernacular podcast. (Separate but related: the 'annoying explanation voice' so many 'TikTok facts' videos use.) She outlines some common features including macroprosody (moving your voice up and down more), atypical voice qualities such as breathiness and falsetto, open vowels and rhoticity (the pronunciation of the consonant 'r').
Technically, TikTok voice is not an accent but a 'registered style', Nicole explains, as users on the platform have 'metalinguistic awareness' that they’re speaking a certain way. Nicole describes the use of TikTok voice as a kind of collective linguistic costuming: "It’s a way of signalling that 'I’m a certain type of person, I’m an influencer'." Sara Nahusenay agrees: "It's a heightened version of myself, it’s bougie, it’s the glitter emoji."
The voice is effective as it is simultaneously assertive and entertaining, fancy and familiar, drawing on the legacy of newsreaders and entertainment franchises like Real Housewives and the Kardashians. Kate Lee, a professional voice coach with 20 years' experience training presenters for TV and radio, notes that TikTok voice shares several techniques with traditional broadcast media. "There are certain characteristics that the human brain needs to be stimulated and to help them process what you're saying," she tells me. TikTokers "play with intonation, vary pace, lift key words, hang on vowel sounds". Just as the QVC shopping channel presenters Kate used to train employed this register to sell products, TikTok stars are using their voice to sell themselves. Sara concurs: "It was necessary for me to put on a voice that just grabbed you by the neck and was like, you're gonna listen to me." The first video she posted using the voice blew up. "I was like, okay, this works."
TikTok voice is also a product of the platform and its technology. Audrey Peters tells me that she doesn’t deliberately emphasise her voice; TikTok does it for her. "You know how the camera adds 10 pounds? The microphone does the same thing. It exaggerates your vocal fry." I think this argument extends even further, to the homogenising influence of the algorithm itself.
Instagram created the phenomenon of 'Instagram face' — a homogenous, Kardashianesque visage of contour, filters, fillers and FaceTune that renders influencers from around the world identical in appearance – and TikTok voice appears to be its audio equivalent. TikTalk has become a standard for successful videos. Given that mimicry is built into the platform’s dynamics — "Basically all the trends on TikTok involve copying each other," says Audrey — the natural next step from using other users’ audio is to adopt a similar accent yourself.
The fact that it’s an American-sounding version of ‘the voice’ that has become so dominant speaks to the extent to which global influencer culture is dominated by American tastes and aesthetics. The post-Valley Girl YouTube beauty guru and LA-based, hype-house-dwelling TikToker are still, in many ways, unconscious internet standards for users around the world to emulate.
And so over time, thanks to the conditioning effects of the algorithm and the prerogative to self-optimise towards virality, TikTok users all end up sounding the same. "The way you speak is how you fit in, how you become part of the crowd," says Kate. "And nowadays, of course, we’re part of the crowd anywhere in the world." If everyone is now a broadcaster, everyone now has 'broadcast voice'. Audrey agrees: "Just like I'm getting fillers to emulate [Instagram influencers’] cheekbones, they are altering their pitch so that they can sound similar to me." Perhaps, she muses, "people have been scrolling for so long, they don't even realise they're starting to talk like that."
Creator @taryntino21 adopts a stylised drawl in her video about living on New York's Upper East Side "not as a squillionaire", regaling viewers with tales of her lukewarm shower and lack of cupboard space in a voice that drips with privilege. "For people like me who aren’t wealthy, [TikTok voice is] fun. I’m poking fun at traditional influencers," she tells me. "It’s satire."
The old-world, mid-Atlantic accent she adopts is inherently associated with aspiration and influence. Nicole elaborates on this connection: just as ‘posh’ accents have traditionally been viewed as a cultural and commercial standard, "the people that created the [influencer] mould are white women. So everybody is incentivised to sound like that." For some TikTokers, TikTalk is subversive, appropriating the aesthetics of power and wealth for social commentary.
For it to be effective, not everyone can be in on the joke. "People meet me and they're so disappointed to find out that that's not really how I speak," laughs Taryn. "It's funny when people say 'Your content is relatable'," she comments, "because really, how can you relate to a transatlantic accent? Nobody actually speaks this way." Sara has an answer. She thinks that in an age of faux-relatable influencers posting 'unedited' #nomakeup selfies and 'candid' Instagram stories claiming to be 100% 'authentic', there’s an honesty to using a fake voice that resonates with her audience: "This voice is so clearly performative and theatrical that it just kind of cuts right through that."
TikTalk is also a way of regaining some autonomy, whether the user is doing the American, British or Russian iteration of the voice. Given that being an influencer is a commonly delegitimised occupation — with many quick to sneer that content creation isn’t a 'real job' — experimenting with accents offers creators a means to interrogate their position within the class system. "The illusion of the American dream and upward mobility is shattered. Gen Z does not subscribe to this anymore," Sara continues. "People have accepted the fact that they're not ever going to be materially wealthy but they can sound rich because that's actually an attainable goal." She relates the feeling of emancipation that TikTok voice gives her to her specific status as a Black woman in America. "It's almost like you're saying: 'I deserve to be listened to in the same way that these people are talking.' Anyone can take on this voice. No one has to give you permission to talk with this sort of authority. Me doing this voice but in a comedic manner delegitimises the elite and showcases that these accents don't mean anything. It shows it's all a performance."
Unlike other forms of social media before it, TikTok embraces its own artificiality and enables users to play with aspects of their identity without the risk of seeming inauthentic. Recognising that everything online is performance is what gives TikTok — and TikTok voice — its power.