657. [1/2] Why do Brits sing with American accents?

Have you ever wondered why British people sometimes change their accent when they sing? This episode explores the question of why this happens, with various examples and some (dodgy) singing by me. Notes, videos and transcripts available on the page below.

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Notes & Transcriptions

Hello listeners,

This is episode 657 and it’s called “Why do Brits sing with American accents?”

Essentially this episode is about accents in English, and how our accents sometimes change when we sing.

This is all based on an email I got from a listener recently. Here is that email.
I’m curious to see if you have ever wondered the same thing.

An email from a listener, with a question about accents

Name: János Bernhardt /jænɒʃ bɜːnhɑːt//

Janos gave me the OK to read this out, and I’ll make some corrections as we go.

Message:

Dear Luke,

I have just watched this video (attached) and one question came to my mind about the british english accent.

A couple of corrections from Luke

“British English” should have a capital B and a capital E (British English) because we capitalise the first letters of nationality adjectives and the names of languages in English. Also, I’d avoid saying “The British accent” or “The British English accent” because there are lots of British accents, and this often annoys British people, who often get a bit offended by other people writing “the British accent” and they say “There’s no such thing as The British Accent!”. So, I suggest that instead you should say “British accents”, just “British English” or maybe “a British accent”.

Let’s rephrase Janos’s sentence like this:

I’ve just watched this video and one question came to my mind about British accents…

The video in question is of a British singer called Charlotte Awbery who became a sensation (in February) due to a viral Instagram and YouTube video in which she was randomly asked to sing in a Tube station in London.

In the video sent by Janos, we see that she sings Lady Gaga’s song “Shallow” from the film A Star Is Born really well, just like Lady Gaga, but when she speaks she does so in a completely different accent to the one she was singing in.

We’ll listen to the video in a moment, but let’s continue Janos’ email.

In the video Charlotte clearly loses her accent when she sings, but when she speaks I can hear her beautiful british accent. Is this a normal thing or she has to pay close attention to this during singing? Does she have to…

Sorry for disturbing you if it is a stupid question and also sorry for my bad english.

By the way I love your podcast. I just discovered it recently but I really try to relisten as much episodes as I can.

I am really trying to relisten to as many episodes as I can.

Thanks a lot Luke!
Kind Regards,
János Bernhardt

This is an example of an email from a listener which immediately sent me down a huge rabbit hole (a complicated journey in which you get lost looking for an answer).

That doesn’t always happen when listeners send me questions, but it did with this one. To be honest, I should have been working on other things but when I received this email it caught my attention and then I got sucked in! I thought it would make a perfect episode of the podcast because it’s about accents in English, it’s about American and British English, it’s about music, it’s about culture, it’s about identity and I am certain this is a question that a lot of you have thought of → Why is it that British singers often sing with American accents?

Brits don’t always sing with American accents (there are plenty of cases when this doesn’t happen, as we will see later in the episode), but they often do.

This is the stuff I’m interested in. Also it gives me a chance to play a bit of guitar and do some singing on the podcast too, which I will probably do a bit later when we get stuck into this properly.

God knows how long this episode will be, because there’s a lot to unpack here. It might be a double episode. We’ll see.

Before we go any further, we should check out that clip that Janos sent to me, so we know what he was talking about.

Let’s listen to the video that he mentioned.

Charlotte Awbrey on The Ellen Show

This is a clip from the Ellen show (an American chat show), and you’ll hear various people speaking including chat show host Ellen Degeneres, and also some other people. I won’t explain any more. Let’s just listen to the clip and your job is to work out what is going on, who is speaking and where they are from.

Comprehension Questions

  1. What’s happening?
  2. Who is talking?
  3. Where are they from?
  4. What accent does Charlotte have?
    Don’t just say “British”. Can you be more specific?

In summary…

Charlotte Awbery: 5 Things To Know About The Subway Singer Who Nailed Lady Gaga’s ‘Shallow’ 

Charlotte Awbery is an internet sensation after a video of her showcasing her incredible singing voice went viral on February 20. Just four days prior, a content creator named Kevin Freshwater shared a video of a segment he hosted called, “Finish the Lyrics.” In the video, Freshwater can be seen traveling through the streets and subways, asking random people to finish the lyrics of popular songs. And, that’s where he came across Charlotte, who was making her way to a train in the subway. [The Underground!]

Freshwater approached Charlotte who was visibly caught off guard, and began singing the lyrics to “Shallow” — Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper‘s Oscar-winning hit from the film, A Star Is Born. Charlotte began singing the lyrics quietly, but just enough for Freshwater to recognize how talented she is. When he kept asking her to sing more, Charlotte went all out and it took the internet by storm.“

Then she was invited onto the Ellen show with Ellen Degeneres, to sing the song and then be interviewed.

The thing is, she sang with an American accent but then spoke with a really broad Estuary English accent (some call it cockney, some call it Essex – basically it’s a strong local accent from the area to the east of London.)

So, going back to Janos’ original question then:

Why did Charlotte Awbery switch from an American accent when singing, to a British accent when talking?

Is this normal?
Do British people normally do that when they sing?
Do they/we have to make special effort to do it?
What’s going on?

Is this normal? Do Brits normally do this when they sing?
Yes, lots of Brits suddenly change their accent and sound American when they sing. (Why? We’ll see). I’m talking about singing pop music, which sort of covers various forms of modern music that largely originate in the USA, like jazz, blues, soul, country, rock & roll, rock, gospel –> all the main ingredients of modern pop music.

It’s not just Brits. Irish people, Australian people, people from New Zealand, people from South Africa, any English speaker, including non-native speakers of English in France, Germany, Japan, wherever! Everyone does this.

I’m sticking with Brits though because that’s what I am and that’s what I know.

Yes it is very normal and very common. There are various degrees of it – sometimes it’s just a slight American accent, sometimes it’s really strong. We’ll be looking at some examples later.

But it doesn’t happen every time. There are plenty of examples of British singers singing in their own accent too (again, more on this later).

Do British people have to make a special effort to sing in an American accent?
I would say “no”, it normally happens completely effortlessly but it does depend on the song, or the style of the song. In fact, in many cases it would take a lot of effort to sing some songs in a British accent even if that is your native accent. I’ll hopefully demonstrate this later when I try to sing some songs myself.

What’s going on?
Various things! This is a complex question to answer and that’s what the rest of this episode is about. I’m going to explore the answer to the question, although I’m not a linguist or a sociologist or anything so I’m kind of working it out myself. One thing that can help is to listen to some samples of music and also it might help if I try and sing in different accents myself and we can see what happens.

Basically, singing and speaking are different. Let’s talk about why.

Social, linguistic and musical conventions 

American accents are conventional in music which has its roots in the USA.

Certain genres of music were born in the USA, including most pop music, soul, rock, R&B, jazz, funk, hip hop → this goes back to the roots of modern pop music, American blues, gospel and country music.

Therefore, when singing pop songs an American accent is the standard and is therefore easier, more normal and more natural.

Singing those songs with an obvious RP accent (or other) just ends up being weird, unnatural and wrong sounding, mainly because it would be unconventional. It just doesn’t sound right to sing certain songs with a British accent like mine.

But there are plenty of exceptions to this too, and that’s songs, genres or bands that have something authentically British about them.

In the case of this song (Shallow) Charlotte is singing a Lady Gaga song, and Lady Gaga sings it with an American accent because she is American. It’s a cover version and it would be a bit weird if she made it sound different to the original. Also the song is in a country-rock style, and in country music it’s normal to sing with a really pronounced accent – probably a southern or mid-western drawl. “Shallow” is a song from the film “A Star is Born” which is about a country singer.

Singing “Shallow” in a British accent

Let’s play “Shallow” on the guitar and first sing it in an American accent and then in a British accent.

How does it sound in my accent?

What’s your accent Luke?
Just a reminder (and because people often ask me questions about this) My accent is basically standard RP, which is said to be not specific to any region of the UK, but to be honest it’s usually associated with educated, middle-class people, probably from the South East of England. I’m not trying to say I’m educated (and of course you can be highly-educated and everything and have a regional accent), but I’m definitely middle class and from the south east of England, but I also spent time growing up in the midlands as well as west London, so you might hear a bit of west-midlands Brummie in my voice or a bit of a London accent – if you’re listening very carefully. But basically, I speak with standard British RP from the south east of England but I’m not posh.

“Shallow” Lyrics (written by Lady Gaga with Andrew WyattAnthony Rossomando and Mark Ronson)

Lyrics: tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/tab/misc-soundtrack/a-star-is-born-shallow-chords-2488086

Shallow doesn’t really sound right in my accent.

I don’t know what you think. There’s bound to be some people who prefer my British version. It’s a question of taste, but I think overall my British RP version wouldn’t really be accepted by most audiences. It would be weird, different, unconventional. Most people in the USA would think it was weird and wrong, I reckon.

But some songs and genres are definitely British and British voices are more obvious → things like folk music, UK hip hop (does Rapping count? It’s basically talking), Britpop, merseybeat, punk – in fact any music which is uniquely or authentically British in some way, or in which the local identity is being emphasised.

Brits sing in a British accent when they’re really being themselves, when it’s traditional British folk music, or when they’re pushing the British identity in the music.

Some British musicians make an effort not to sound American. You can hear that in some of the Beatles’ output (although sometimes they’re a bit American sounding too) and definitely in punk bands, new wave bands, britpop bands and so on → any musical movements in which a British identity gets pushed to the forefront.

Some examples of British music sung in a British accent

Madness – My Girl

Original version

Me singing it with an American accent (sounds wrong!)

Lyrics: tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/tab/madness/my-girl-chords-202328

So, in summary, I’d say that although this seems a bit weird, it’s common for Brits to sing with American accents because of the conventions of pop music which has its roots in the USA, but there are also examples of Brits singing in their own accents.


There’s a lot more to talk about and to investigate here, so let’s go into a bit more detail.

This article from thrillist.com has some more comments (read some extracts) 

I might be re-emphasising what I just said, but I think it’s worth reading these extracts from an article I found on a website called Thrillist.com

www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/why-do-british-singers-sound-american

One of the most prominent academics on this case is Peter Trudgill. In 1983, the man published an oft-cited study that examined the disconnect between how so many British pop singers talk in real life and how they perform. He concluded that acts like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones incorporated American phonetics because they were so influenced by Yankee musicians — particularly blues acts. (Remember, the Stones got their name from a Muddy Waters track.) It was an attempt to ape their idols and break into the U.S. market.

Rolling Stones singing “Not Fade Away”

Trudgill noted the American-ness got less aggressive as time wore on, and the British Invasion acts became more comfortable with their native speaking voices. By the time the ’70s arrived, punk bands like The Clash were turning away from American affectations.

So, basically –> In the beginning, UK singers were copying their American idols, but later this influence lessened.

Here are a couple of examples of UK punk bands singing in obvious British accents, to illustrate what Peter Tudgill said.

Sham 69 – Hurry Up Harry

Peter & The Test Tube Babies – Banned from the Pubs

That’s one explanation, but seeing as we still have modern fakers like Adele, it’s incomplete.

Adele speaks with a cockney accent like Charlotte Awbrey but sings in an American accent.

Some people argue that the phenomenon is more a matter of technique. Billy Bragg, who’s normally pretty cool with singing like a Brit, once said, “You can’t sing something like ‘Tracks of My Tears’ in a London accent… the cadences are all wrong.”

Billy Bragg singing normally

Billy Bragg singing Tracks of My Tears by Smokey and the Miracles.

So the point here is that it is just easier to sing in an American accent and sometimes an American accent is just appropriate for the song.

A recent study by Andy Gibson, a sociologist in New Zealand, would appear to back Bragg up. Gibson found that Kiwis defaulted to an American singing voice across the board, and it wasn’t a conscious choice. He surmised it was just easier to sing in that accent. That’s partially because of the way we round off certain words when we sing, and partially because the world is so used to hearing American accents in pop songs, it requires more effort and concentration to sing in a different accent. Even if that “different accent” is your default speaking voice.

Clearly, researchers are still working on a definitive answer. But people do “lose” their accents through song, and it’s not some weird conspiracy. It’s just linguistics! Or Mick Jagger’s fault. You decide.

What are the phonetic features of this “American Singing Accent”?

Let’s break down “the American singing accent” vs my British accent

I’ve decided called it “the American singing accent” because it might not match perfectly with General American or with all American accents.

America is a diverse place and there are many diverse accents there. But it seems that there is a certain kind of American accent that we can hear in a lot of music.

I get the feeling that this accent comes from the people who sang the blues and gospel (basically that means black communities in southern states) and from people who sang country (mostly white singers from southern or midwestern states) but I’m not a musicologist.

Features of The American Singing Accent (my own made-up term)

  • Diphthongs are flattened to long single vowel sounds. This can help in singing, because it allows you to hold one note for a long time.
  • Common examples:
    I (often) sounds like aaaa
    My (often) sounds like maaa
    Try sounds like traaaaa
    Life sounds like Laaaaaaaf
    Time 
    “Out” sounds like “aaaat”
    “Sight” sounds like “saaaaat”
  • /r/ sounds are often more rounded “Now you’re out of sight here” “Now yurrrraaaaatu saaaaat heRe”
  • It’s generally a bit more nasal “Tell me something girl. Are you happy in this modern world? Or do you need more?” “Tell me something boy. Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?”
  • “Baby” sounds like “Baybeeee”

I’m sure there are other features. Let me know in the comment section if you can think of others.

To be honest, the best way I can demonstrate this is to try and sing some more songs in different accents and see what happens.


Ending

That’s where we’re going to pause. This is the end of part 1, and we will continue in part 2, which will be available soon, possibly already.

In part 2 the plan is to explore this question further by doing some more singing. I’m going to take some songs which are normally sung in that American singing voice, sing them normally and then sing them in my accent and we’ll see how it sounds. 

We’ll also hear some more examples of British singers singing in American accents, and also British singers singing in British accents. 

So, a lot more examples in part 2 to illustrate what I’ve been talking about in this episode.

As ever, I’m interested in your comments. Perhaps you have examples of British singers singing in American accents, or British singers singing in British accents.

Or maybe there’s a song which you like, but you don’t really know what the accent is?

In any case, you can share your thoughts and YouTube videos in the comment section.

I hope you’re keeping well, that you’re not climbing the walls or going stir crazy if you are currently in self-isolation at home. If you’re cooped up with members of your family I hope you’re managing to make it work and that you’re not at each other’s throats. Maybe you’re a lovely lovely time, in which case I am happy for you. If you’re struggling then hang in there, this won’t last forever. And if you or anyone else you know is currently unwell, then I wish you a speedy recovery and what else can I say –> may the force be with you? Actually, that’s when the lockdown is supposed to be lifted here. May the 4th (although I suspect it will be extended) but anyway, “May the 4th be with you”.

Alright, that’s enough. I hope you have found this interesting and part 2 should be available now or very soon, so you can get stuck into that. 

So, speak to you again in part 2 but for now –> bye bye bye!

Click here for part 2