Tahlequah Daily Press

Get the scoop!

November 21, 2012

Slate's Explainer: Why do British singers sound American?

For the newest James Bond movie, Skyfall, English singer Adele recorded a song with the same name. Though Adele speaks with a strong London accent, her singing voice sounds more American than British. Why do British vocalists often sound American when they sing?

Because that's the way everyone expects pop and rock musicians to sound. British pop singers have been imitating American pronunciations since Cliff Richard, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones began recording in the 1960s. These musicians were largely influenced by the African-American Vernacular English of black American blues and rock and roll singers like Chuck Berry, but their faux-American dialects usually comprised aspects of several American dialects. Imitating an American accent involved both the adoption of American vowel sounds and rhoticity: the pronunciation of r's wherever they appear in a word. (Nonrhoticity, by contrast, is the habit of dropping r's at the end of a syllable, as most dialects of England do.) Sometimes Brits attempting to sing in an American style went overboard with the r's, as did Paul McCartney in his cover of "Till There Was You," pronouncing saw more like sawr.

Linguist Peter Trudgill tracked rhoticity in British rock music over the years and found that the Beatles' pronunciation of r's decreased over the course of the 1960s, settling into a trans-Atlantic sound that incorporated aspects of both British and American dialects. The trend also went in the opposite direction as new genres developed: American pop-punk vocalists like Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day took on a British-tinged accent to sound more like seminal artists such as Joe Strummer of the Clash. Contemporary singers continue to adopt various accents according to their genre; Keith Urban, who is Australian, sings country music with a marked American Southern accent. A recent study suggests that the default singing accent for New Zealand pop singers utilizes American vowel sounds, even when the singers aren't trying to sound American, perhaps because today's singers were brought up listening to American (and imitation-American) pop vocals.

Even when singers aren't trying to imitate a particular vocal style associated with a genre, regional dialects tend to get lost in song: Intonation is superseded by melody, vowel length by the duration of each note, and vocal cadences by a song's rhythm. This makes vowel sounds and rhoticity all the more important in conveying accent in song.

          

 

1
Text Only
Get the scoop!
Poll

Do you believe school administrators and college presidents in Oklahoma are paid too much?

Strongly agree.
Somewhat agree.
Somewhat disagree.
Strongly disagree.
Undecided.
     View Results
Tahlequah Daily Press Twitter
Follow us on twitter
AP Video
Raw: Air Algerie Flight 5017 Wreckage Virginia Governor Tours Tornado Aftermath Judge Faces Heat Over Offer to Help Migrant Kids Kerry: No Deal Yet on 7-Day Gaza Truce Kangaroo Goes Missing in Oklahoma More M17 Bodies Return, Sanctions on Russia Grow Gaza Residents Mourn Dead Amid Airstrikes Raw: Deadly Tornado Hits Virginia Campground Ohio State Marching Band Chief Fired After Probe Raw: Big Rig Stuck in Illinois Swamp Cumberbatch Brings 'Penguins' to Comic-Con Raw: Air Algerie Crash Site in Mali Power to Be Restored After Wash. Wildfire Crashed Air Algerie Plane Found in Mali Israel Mulls Ceasefire Amid Gaza Offensive In Case of Fire, Oxygen Masks for Pets Mobile App Gives Tour of Battle of Atlanta Sites
Stocks