Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Singing Accents

One thing that I’ve noticed about British singers is that their accents seem much more pronounced when talking than when singing. I’ve noticed this with U2, Sting, Elton John, Keane, Garbage, and others. Especially Oasis – I never have any trouble understanding Oasis when Liam Gallagher is singing, but whenever I’ve seen him interviewed, I can barely understand a word that he (or his brother) says.

By contrast, it seems to me that plenty of country singers are able to sing with heavy Southern accents.

Here are two theories as to why this would be:

1. British singers make a particular effort to erase their accents when singing so as to be more palatable to the American market. But they don’t take such care when talking in a mere interview. Country singers, by contrast, don’t try to hide their accents when singing; that’s part of their whole act.

2. Speaking with any type of British accent requires that your mouth and tongue maintain a certain closed or tight position, whereas singing requires a open mouth/throat that naturally lessens the British accent. By contrast, a Southern accent is typically uttered with a wider mouth, and hence works better in singing.

Those are just wild guesses, of course; I have no idea what the answer is. Anyone have a clue?

12 Comments:

Blogger ed said...

Of course it IS possible to sing in a variety of British accents. Think of the songs from Mary Poppins...both Dick Van Dyke's cockney accent and the more middle class accents of the other characters are clearly discernible.

One possibility is that rock'n'roll singers learned the style from Americans, and so tended to sing like them. But some others have chosen to sing in a more british accent. Extreme examples include Herman's Hermits, or some of the more music-hall-ish offerings from the Beatles, the Who, or Queen (e.g. "When I'm sixty-four.") In fact, you can clearly hear the british accents on many of the old original "british invasion" bands, but less recognizibly on the blues-based acts like Led Zeppelin or the Stones.

I also expect that there are some country music singers who's accents are MORE pronounced when singing than talking.

2:39 PM  
Blogger Zubari Zubari said...

Perhaps it has somthing to do with them all being queer . . .

5:03 PM  
Blogger John Thacker said...

I'm fairly certain that there are Country singers who affect a Southern accent when singing it, and don't really have one when speaking normally, too. It's expected.

5:18 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

It seems that I heard once that the Beatles were advised, in order to sell records in America, that they learn to sing with American accents. I suppose, then, they were the model for all the British invasion groups, and later groups.

9:31 PM  
Blogger David Whitcomb said...

Take a listen to Billy Bragg sometime. On one of the CD's that I have, they have a pretty distinct british accent in their singing. That said, I have never heard them speak, which if it follows the line of thought presented in Stuart's ideas, means that they would be unintelligible to most Americans. I like the idea of more open mouths thought. It just makes sense.

9:07 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

Many British (and Australian, and New Zealand) singers consciously suppress their native accents to enhance their chances of Making It in America. This has been happening since the Sixties.

Not everyone does this. Here in Australia, there's an increasing tendency to "sound Australian". And it's natural that an out-and-out lefty like Billy Bragg resisted this trend. (Now I've got Waiting for the Great Leap Forward stuck in my head.)

12:55 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

(Woops, clicked the wrong button.)

So Theory 1 is correct -- which does not rule out theory 2.

There are also some issues concerning regional English accents versus Received Pronunciation which come into play here.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Wongo said...

Good singers learn to sing in any accent. Brits singing like Americans, Filipinos singing like Brits; what ever

10:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up in Florida on the ocean which means I really don't have much of a Southern accent. My parents who are from Georgia certainly do. When I sing it just comes out country. It drives me crazy, because I sing rock-n-roll. I just can't help it and have to make a concerted effort no to slip in a twang.

My parents always listened to country music when I was a child. I pretty much had to listen and today I don't hate country nor love it.

I would bet that those Brits grew up listening to alot of American singers in their youth and today it just comes out that way.

3:39 PM  
Blogger lucia said...

Robin McNeil has two PBS programs on speaking English. In the second, he interviews a country singer who is not Southern, but adopts the "country-southern" accent when performing.

The accent is definitely part of the style in Country.

10:48 PM  
Blogger Rachael said...

The odd thing is that it's not just when singing in English. I have noticed with French that it is much easier for non-native speakers and native speakers alike to sound as if they do not have an accent of any particular kind when singing in French. So perhaps it's just something about what happens vocally when singing that drops the accent for a lot of people. It is possible to sing in an accent, like "ed" said in the first comment, but in the case that he pointed out, that was not a natural accent and was obviously one which was put-on by the actor. Personally, I'd be more apt to go with your second theory, due to the issue with country singers... 'cause that's very true.

1:52 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

I cant help but believe Elton John sounds more American than English (of North West London/Middlesex) when he talks!

4:15 PM  

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