Reader Pamela Ross, from Toronto asks: Why do British singers, like Mick Jagger, sing with American accents rather than the accents they have when they speak? I think they put on an accent when they sing, but husband thinks it’s natural. Globe Arts reporter Brad Wheeler has your answer:
The short answer is, of course, “A whop bop a-loo mop, a-lop bom bom.” Could you imagine anyone singing the Little Richard’s emphatic Tutti Frutti scat with a cockney accent or an Irish lilt? Absolutely not.
The conventional wisdom when it comes to British singers losing their accents while singing is that the Mick Jaggers and Rod Stewarts and Elton Johns and Paul McCartneys of the world were heavily influenced by pioneering American blues, rock and R&B artists such as Big Bill Broonzy, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Eddie Cochran. As such, it’s socially only natural that they would abandon their native enunciations in favour of their heroes’ iconic styles.
So, while Broonzy himself once said that “a cry’s a cry in any language,” it’s hard to imagine Robert Plant wailing “Oh child, the way you shake that thing,” with his West Bromwich inflection attached.
Somewhere along the way, from the American singers of 1950s to the British Invasion singers and U.S. soulsters who came later, the American voice became pop music’s voice – i.e., the standard. It carries on to this day, as witnessed by Adele: She speaks cockney and sings American, and probably doesn’t even give it a thought.
Doesn’t give it a thought because it’s probably also true that singing with a flat or neutral American accent is easier than singing any other way, modern linguists would argue. So, while an inherited American vocal aesthetic a social tick to a degree, more decisively it is an instinctive phonetic habit.
A 2010 study by New Zealand researcher Andy Gibson suggests there wasn’t any imitation typically involved when his Kiwi subjects sang American. “We do it automatically,” Gibson has said. “It doesn’t require any effort to sing with an American-influenced accent.”
In contrast, the vocalists with the affectations are typically the British ones trying to sound British – looking at you Arctic Monkeys, Kate Nash, Lily Allen and, yes, Manchester’s Peter Noone, who went all cockney for the Herman’s Hermits hits I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am and Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter
In his blog entry, the linguist David Crystal explains that key identifying features of a regional accent tend to disappear when singing: the intonation (as a melody replaces it), vowel length (for many syllables are elongated) and the vocal cadence. Crystal goes on to say that vowel quality is also often affected, “especially in classical singing, where vowels are articulated with greater openness than in everyday speech.”
For elucidation, Crystal cites a quote from the English troubadour and activist Billy Bragg, who said “You can’t sing something like TheTracks of My Tears in a London accent. The cadences are all wrong. It’s also difficult to sing harmonies in a London accent. And you can’t sustain syllables for long.”
So, in answer to your question, Pamela Ross of Toronto, it would appear that your husband is probably more right than wrong when he argues for the naturalness of American accents while singing. For his win, perhaps you could take him out for a dish of ice cream – a tutti–frutti flavour, if available.