One of the strangest things to have happened to twentieth century Britain is that pop music done by British people is almost all of it now sung in an American accent. It really is very peculiar to watch, say, the Frank Skinner TV show here in Britain, and to watch a man (Frank Skinner) as English as the House of Lords or an Ealing comedy sing the song “Fun Time Franky” as “Fern Tum Frankair”. Then he finishes singing the song, and goes back to talking in his normal midlands English voice, and no one present, not a single solitary person, thinks that this is in the slightest bit odd. Me, I find it very odd indeed.
There are a very few, very eccentric British pop singers who sing with their real accents. The Proclaimers (“I would walk five hundred miles …”) not only hailed from Scotland. You could actually tell this by listening to them sing.
Many Irish singers sound Irish, as opposed to American, although the Irish accent is well on the way to being American, to my English ears. For example that loathsome humanoid who sings at the front of The Pogues, the one whose teeth make my teeth look like Julia Roberts’ teeth – he sings like an Irishman rather than an American. Or he used to. I like to think that he’s dead now.
An English pop singer singing like an English person is even rarer. The American movie producer/director John Hughes seems to like English accented pop music. His movie Pretty in Pink was introduced with the song of that name, sung by The Psychedelic Furs, and in a definitely English – posh English in fact – accent. And in another of his movies, Some Kind of Wonderful, the track over the closing credits was “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You”, again sung, very fetchingly by a lady singer, in a totally English accent. “I carn’t help forling in luv …” etc. But such tracks are extremely rare. Mostly our English popsters do everything they can to sound like Americans. Last Saturday, for example, Michael Parkinson had a singer on his show called David Gray. Gray sang, but was not spoken to by Parky and we never heard him speak. He sounded totally American. But is he British? Or genuine American? Impossible to say. In general, if you don’t know the physical origins of some pop act, then if you want to know, you have to wait to be told. It could be Pittsburgh or Birmingham, New York or original York.
By the way, this is not a recent thing. This trend was well under way during the lounge lizard Frank Sinatra clone era, and exploded during the early days of rock and roll. First generation British Elvis fakes, like Cliff Richard and the just deceased Adam Faith, all did the American Voice, as accurately as they knew how. And it’s been like that ever since.
Weird. Very, very weird. And it’s also weird that in Britain you hardly ever hear this very, very weird phenomenon talked about or analysed or shaken about to see if it will yield cultural insights. (I can’t supply any links for this.) You hear lots of anti-American sentiments in England, nowadays involving many references to George Bush Jnr., and always to greed-is-good rampant economic individualism and selfishness, blah blah blah. Yet even when the British anti-American juices are flowing like the Niagara Falls, nobody ever seems to throw in that “Even our damn pop music is sung like it’s American!!” The American Voice thing is proof that some aspects of American culture are not just popular here, but are positively de rigeur.
So, questions. Do all you Americans know what I’m talking about? Do you realise that most Brit pop just sounds to us like pop? Or does the “British American” pop voice sound as British to Americans as it sounds American to us Brits?
What I’m really asking is: do you realise how much of us you have already conquered?