658. [2/2] Why do Brits sing with American accents?

This is part 2 of a double episode exploring the question of why British people often change their accent when they sing. This episode contains more examples, including some (dodgy) singing from me in order to hear how it sounds when different songs are sung in different accents. Notes, lyrics and transcriptions available on the page below.

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Notes & Transcriptions

Introduction

Hello, welcome back to the podcast. I hope you’re doing ok out there in podcastland during this difficult period.

It’s necessary to say that isn’t it these days. You have to acknowledge the fact that everyone’s struggling, or you have to explain that things are perhaps not happening normally because of the coronavirus and there are various ways of saying it – both informal and formal, perhaps in a work email or something. I saw something on Twitter which made me laugh and I retweeted it. If you follow me on Twitter you might have seen that. My Twitter handle is @EnglishPodcast by the way. So the thing I saw on Twitter was just a little meme about how in normal English we say “because of the coronavirus” but in  formal writing (like in a work email) we have to dress that up in more fancy language, like “due to the ongoing situation regarding covid-19”.

So I hope that you are not having too much of a bad time because of the coronavirus, or perhaps I should say “I trust that you are managing to maintain your working routines effectively in the context of the current situation regarding covid-19.” 

This is episode 658 and it’s part 2 of a double episode. This is part 2. Don’t listen to this, until you’ve heard part 1. Seems obvious, doesn’t it, but I just want to make it clear. Part 1 contains loads of context and details which I think you should hear before listening to this.

In part 1 I started answering a question from a listener, and the question is “Why do British people sound American when they sing?” It’s actually a bit complicated. It’s all about the conventions of modern pop music which has its roots in the USA. But there are also plenty of examples of British singers singing in British accents. It’s a mix of language, identity, music and phonology. In part 1 I answer the question in some detail and also point out some features of what I’m calling the American Singing Accent, including things like the way certain words which I pronounce with diphthongs (that’s double vowel sounds) become ‘flattened’ to single long vowel sounds, like in the words I, find, time, mine in the line “I need to find my time to get what’s mine”.

So let’s continue and in this part, which is part 2 I’m going to continue to explore this whole area by singing some songs in different accents and by listening to some samples of music. I hope you enjoy it and find it interesting. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section or perhaps links to YouTube videos with other examples that you can think of – examples of British artists singing with American accents, or perhaps British artists singing with British accents, or artists from anywhere else for that matter, singing in any other accent. It’s not just British and American of course, there are so many other accents that you might hear in English language songs. Reggae music from Jamaica for example is usually sung with a Jamaican accent of course.

Anyway, let’s carry on with part 2 and here we go…


Singing songs in different accents

I want to experiment with this by singing some well-known songs in either an American accent (The American Singing Accent as defined above) or a British accent (again, which one? Probably my own standard British RP but also I might try some cockney or maybe Liverpool or something).

Brits singing with American accents

What happens when you sing certain American songs in a British accent (let’s be more specific, let’s say my British RP)

If you sing some songs in a British accent they usually sound weird and wrong. You might disagree, because you might have a soft spot for British accents (and in fact more recently there have been some very successful artists who seem to sing in British RP as a stylistic choice) but I think overall, most people would think it sounded wrong, like my previous example with “Shallow”.

My Girl by The Temptations

Tell the story (briefly) of someone who sang “My girl” at a party once. It was ridiculous.

I’m now going to sing the songs in their normal American voice, then in a British accent.

“My Girl, talking about, my girl!”

Lyrics: tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/tab/the-temptations/my-girl-chords-86366

Take it Easy by Eagles

Eagles’ “Take it Easy” in a British accent (especially the 2nd verse)

Lyrics: tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/tab/eagles/take-it-easy-chords-14322

Hit me Baby One More Time by Britney Spears

Lyrics: tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/tab/britney-spears/baby-one-more-time-chords-279810

Under The Bridge by Red Hot Chili Peppers

Lyrics: tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/tab/red-hot-chili-peppers/under-the-bridge-chords-44981

Songs by British artists sung in an American accent

I could pick almost any song by a British pop artist and the chances are that it’ll be sung in an American singing accent.

Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin

We Are the Champions by Queen

Weirdly, Freddie seems to drift from an English sounding voice in the verse to an American one in the chorus. Listen to how he sings “time” (Time after time) in the verse and then “time” in the chorus (No time for losers).

This is so tricky! The accents seem to drift around while people sing.

Ultimately, I think this shows that when people sing they change their voice to suit the music. Freddie Mercury wasn’t just a rock singer, he was also quite operatic and theatrical and I think he probably chose to sing in different ways depending on the feeling he was choosing, including some bits where he sings with a more English sounding voice and some bits where he’s in full-on rock mode and sounds American.

British bands/singers singing with British accents

Let’s consider some songs which are clearly sung in British accents, or moments where British accents are more obvious. 

There will be billions of examples of great British bands who sing in British accents. Here are some ones which I can think of right now.

The Beatles

They’re a difficult case because it’s quite hard to tell when they’re singing with American accents, when they’re singing with Liverpool accents but there are definitely times when their Liverpool accents came through.

It seems to me that their accents became a bit more English as they went on because in the early days they were (to an extent) imitating American artists they loved like Elvis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry & so on (especially when doing cover versions like “Long Tall Sally” (“Oh baby, some fun tonight”) and “Twist & Shout” (“And let me know that you’re mine”).

But later as they wrote more of their own music and became more original, their own accents came in. They also used to make a point of singing in a Liverpool accent sometimes.

Penny Lane by The Beatles

“In Penny Lane the barber shaves another customer” 2:00

Lennon singing Polythene Pam (intentionally putting on a strong Scouse accent)

John Lennon – Norwegian Wood “I once had a girl” – the “I” is rounded like Lennon would say it.

Paul McCartney – I’m Looking Through You

Paul McCartney’s English accent is quite recognisable in “I’m Looking Through You”
“I thought I knew you… what did I know?”
“Why tell me why did you not treat me right?”

Although some bits still sound a bit American – “You’re naaat the same”

Steve Earle – I’m Looking Through You

But when US country singer Steve Earle did a cover version of it, he did it in a Southern sounding American accent.

“Aaah thought aaah knew yewwww whut did aaaaah know?”
“Yurrr voice eis soootheuyin , but the wrrrrrds arrrrnt clearrrr”
“Whaaaaa tell me whaaa did you naaat treat me right?”

The Smiths – Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now

“Why do I give valuable time” –all with rounded diphthongs

The Undertones – My Perfect Cousin

The Undertones were from Northern Ireland and you could hear it in some of their songs, like this one.

“He’s sure to go to heaven”
“He thinks that I’m a cabbage because I hate university challenge”

A lot of Britpop bands sang with British accents, because it was Britpop. BRITpop, you see.

Blur – Parklife (they were making a point of singing in a British accent)

There are billions of other examples, I’m sure.

But it’s weird and not black and white.

It’s not like all punk bands or all Britpop bands sang with their local accents. Sometimes they did, sometimes it was definitely American.

There’s no escaping that rock & roll is basically American.

Singing in an American accent when it should be British, and people get annoyed

Alesha Dixon sings the national anthem in a “soul” voice. Basically, she sang the word “god” in an American accent, which pissed off the Daily Mail readers.

She got quite harshly criticised for this. She said she did it on purpose because it was a “soul” version of the anthem. Naturally a lot of Brits were triggered by this.

What’s the conclusion?

  • Singing is different to speaking.
  • Accents change to suit the music and the social rules are a bit different when people sing.
  • Singing is a more open and free form of expression than speaking. Our accent when we speak is completely tied to our identity. But when we sing it’s more tied to the feeling we are trying to create or express.
  • Some types of music or some songs just have to be sung in an American accent and it’s usually not a big deal.
  • Some artists sing with British accents because they are expressing something uniquely British, like a folk singer such as Billy Bragg or a rapper like Stormzy.
  • It’s also interesting to note that a lot of non-native speakers of English can sing in a native-like accent, but when they speak English it’s not the same story.

    For example: Paul Taylor’s bit about his wife saying “Hello how are you?” –> His wife can sing “Hello” when she’s singing along with Adele’s song but when she has to say it, she says “‘ello ‘ow ‘are you?”

Leave your comments, thoughts and video suggestions below