Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Singing Accent

When I was in grade three I noticed that the children around me sang with a subtle British accent. This was strange because none of us had British accents otherwise, but somehow, when we sang in music class, our vowels would warp until we became distinctly...British.

I was probably sensitized to this because I was listening to Pink Floyd's "The Wall" at the time, which contains that "Hey teacher" children's chorus on "Another Brick in the Wall." THOSE kids sounded British too, but they actually WERE British, and I'd somehow picked up on the fact that when WE sang, WE sounded like THEM.

Around this time my father started insisting that us Southern Ontario people didn't HAVE accents; he believed -- and still believes -- that we have become the lowest common denominator of English speech, a mix of all possible accents together until we don't HAVE one anymore. He justifies this by claiming that when people sing they always sound like US, and therefore singing must somehow REMOVE accents, resulting (I suppose) in some sort of pure, undiluted English.

As a child I could never put my objections to this theory into words, but now I suspect that my father was analyzing a certain subset of music, probably bands subsequent to the British Invasion. And it's true, when you listen to bands from England during that period -- Led Zeppelin, say -- many of them DON'T sound British.

But something I realized while listening to my classmates sing was that singing is not something "pure" that releases us from our speech patterns...at the very least it is just another type of affectation. If Julie Andrews could sing in a Cockney accent during "My Fair Lady" even though she wasn't actually British, it's obvious that a British singer could sound North American in exactly the same way...which stands to reason, considering many of those British Invasion bands were emulating American blues and skiffle musicians, and many of them craved acceptance on the Billboard charts.

If you listen to a British band that is NOT trying to be self-consciously American, however, you hear a very thick accent. It might not sound EXACTLY regional -- because, as I said, singing involves affectation and imitation just as much as any other activity does -- but a band like "The Pipettes" certainly doesn't sound like they come from Southern Ontario, that's for sure.

None of this explains why us little Canadian kids sounded British when we sang, however, but I've noticed that it isn't just children who do this...a subset of Canadian artists sound self-consciously British when they sing. Maybe, as kids, we were imitating British new wave bands? Maybe it just seemed like the best way to sing? Or maybe there's some germ of British inflection that comes out when we let our guard down?


Eli McIlveen said...

I've been jotting down a sort of map of pop vocal styles but I hadn't considered accent before now...

Among other things, I think a lot of people find the North American "rhotic" R sound less sonorous than the open-ended vowels you get in most English accents... if you're after a certain purity of tone it's more satisfying to sing it that way, which is part of the appeal of, say, Italian in opera.

I used to sing with that sort of mid-Atlanticky accent too - it was something I arrived at without thinking. Then I started getting self-conscious about it, and lately I've been singing in something much closer to my own speaking accent.

"Magical Mystery Tour" was playing in a shop today, and I remembered how that song always puzzled me as a kid because I'd never heard anyone speak with that sort of Northern accent.

jj said...

Hmm, having listened to you once, I would say that spoken "Canadian" definitely has a twinge of the "British" in it. Certainly it is different from "American".

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Definitely, the open-ended R sound is a big part of it. I'm going to have to pay more attention to American singers, see what they do about their Rs. I think some Canadian singers tend to "twang" their Rs in an almost country/western way.

Interestingly, Edward Ka-Spel from The Legendary Pink Dots had an odd sort of "uh"-sounding R through most of his career, which was apparently regional but sounded a bit like a speech defect to some listeners. During the last five years he's suddenly started making rhotic Rs, without any transition. I'm wondering if it's a conscious change or if he's just spending a lot of time with Canadians.

I wish I had "Magical Mystery Tour" around so I could have a listen...

Muffy St. Bernard said...

JJ, I tend to only notice it when people make fun of it, or when I'm watching a Canadian movie. I think a lot of Canadian artists cultivate a more American accent -- similar maybe to the BBC's "received English" -- so when you hear one who doesn't, you're shocked.

Kimber said...

Julie Andrews isn't British???? Blimey!

I like to try and infuse some songs with a British accent just for fun. It's kind of interesting to hear yourself sound sloppily Brit, like the guys from Blur or Oasis or that Duffy gal. Try singing "'Appy Burfday" as though you're Ringo Starr and trust me, you'll get a thrill.

Gary said...

Alright, mates, Muffy said: "...a British singer could sound North American..." Probably so.

But nowhere here (in the Lower 48) is there a greater Americanization of a Brit (and suppression of a British accent) that that accomplished by actor Hugh Laurie. True, his “Dr. House” does not sound like a New Jersey-ite. But American, yes.

It’s unnerving to hear Laurie interviewed in his “native” accent (a skit on Mad TV made fun of that – a goofball in the skit thought that Laurie was an American imitating a Brit). Even more amusing is realizing how funny he really is (he plays a curmudgeon physician on the Fox show).

So, Mr. Laurie simultaneously conceals both his British speech and his humorous nature. Now, that’s acting.

Note: Not intended as a slight to Canadians, but down here it seems as though Americans (American television writers, anyway) think that they can make anyone sound Canadian merely by adding an “Eh?” or two into the dialogue. It sort of works, because I know that I’m supposed to consider the character Canadian. But it seems a little undignified. Thoughts?

Wot’s all this, then?

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Kimber, remind me to come to YOUR parties. I DO want to sing "Appy Birfday!"

Muffy St. Bernard said...

I actually hear more AMERICANS say "eh" than Canadians, maybe we had it burned out of us by Bob and Doug MacKenzie?

I think we've been so exposed to American TV and movies that we've lost many characteristic speech mannerisms, though we still have our local lingos (and, of course, THE ACCENTS).

My favourite not-so-subtle characterization of Canadians was in Michael Moore's "Canadian Bacon," where the heroes bash their way through a huge crowd, and everybody in the crowd keeps saying "sorry, sorry, sorry." Many of us really do that, say sorry when somebody bumps into us even though it's not our fault.

I find that whenever I'm nice to employees in American convenience stores -- saying "please" and "thank you" -- they get really rude in return, like they think I'm making fun of them.

I'm not so familiar with Hugh Laurie's work, but there does seem to be an increasing trend of Australian actors and actresses doing a totally convincing American accent in films. Whenever I watch a movie and then watch the featurette, I'm amazed to hear a minority of the characters suddenly talking "aussie."