Have you ever heard the question, “Why does everyone sing with an American accent?”. Even if you haven’t, a quick search of Google will show a number of people asking the same or similar questions. It’s an interesting question, and the more you think about it, the easier it is to come up with the names of performers who sound American when they sing. So why is this?
I’ve seen numerous theories put forward, such as the tempting suggestion that different areas of the brain control speech and singing. I’m not saying that this isn’t the right answer, and I’m not going to prove or disprove it sat at a computer on my lunch break, but I have my own theory.
So what is my theory? First of all, does everyone sing with an American Accent? If you stop to think about it, the answer is clearly no. You can sometimes hear British accents in The Beatles, David Bowie and many more bands, and below are some extreme examples where regional accents could hardly be clearer:
The Streets http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=veAIHDGghP4
Goldie Lookin’ Chain http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwgUcDH2Nd8
The Proclaimers http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tM0sTNtWDiI
The problem with the theory that different parts of the brain control speech and singing, is that you would expect very few if any exceptions, but there are clearly very many exceptions.
So what about those performers who do sing with an American accent? My theory is that what is considered an American accent (there are a variety of American accents, which one are we talking about?) or a ‘neutral’ accent has, with fashion and music taste, become the ‘right’ way to sing for the current crop of performers and listeners.
Linguistic fashion changes over time, just like the shoes in your wife’s collection change, except much less frequently. In the case of singing, there might be a very good commercial reason for performers to sing in a way that is considered ‘right’, a way that will sell their records in an American market as well as a British one. I think this has become more prevalent in recent years with the advent of acts that are sneeringly deemed as manufactured. I wouldn’t be surprised if performers are coached to sing the ‘right’ way by management.
Interestingly, while the ‘right’ way to sing in a lot of modern music genres is in an American-esque way, there are other genres where this is not the case. You may have noticed that a lot of the song examples I gave earlier with youtube links were of a (sometimes satirical) rap genre, (or rap-like ‘2nd wave ska’ in the case of Madness). Another genre where a British accent is considered the ‘right’ accent is in the Brit Pop/Indie genre of the 1990’s. Examples in this genre (arguably) include:
Blur – Charmless Man http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nM8agr7_TxE
Cast – Flying http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGxlqUz2cgU
Bluetones – Slight Return http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIzcRqyXGdk
Oasis – Don’t Look Back In Anger http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjkMsJhdgw4
Wannadies – You And Me Song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c7M8gxNGDRU (Wannadies are Swedish, thanks Phil).
Ocean Colour Scene – The Day We Caught The Train http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uf5gGwGVaTk
All of these have blatantly British accents and I’m sure there are examples I’m less familiar with coming from all over the world. Presumably Spanish music does not have an American accent. So in summary? My theory is that people simply sing with an ‘accent’ that is perceived to be ‘right’. What is ‘right’ is what is fashionable or commercially successful.
For the good of mankind, singing is not something I would normally engage in too much, but since my wife and I purchased Rock Band (and then Rock Band 2 and then, more recently, Rock Band 3) I have been occasionally known to… dare I say it as a Brit when it doesn’t seem quite ‘right’?… ‘hit the mic’. My wife commented that I enunciate more than most people when I’m singing. I think this comes from a concious decision to not lose my accent when singing the mostly American songs. I’m pretty sure that before I made this decision, I would have mimed the style of the original singer. Having said all that, I tend to be the default choice of singer when it comes to performing Cool For Cats by Squeeze: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JAk_UZ7xF8
My colleague, Penny, is Canadian. She has a copy of Rock Band: Beatles. It might be worth asking her about her singing pronunciation of the Fab Four’s lyrics.