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The American Voice in Britain

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?

38 comments to The American Voice in Britain

  • Alan

    Sounds like you missed the Frank Skinner show a few years back, when he had Ozzie Osbourne as a guest and they discussed at length why Paranoid sung in a Brummie accent would be preposterous

  • Lou Gots

    Accent? Americans have no accent.

  • S. Weasel

    Actually, American pop singers affected the most peculiar pseudo-Brit accents in the immediate post-British-invasion era, most notably by refusing to pronounce their R’s.

    Either that, or they were mysteriously composing love songs to sea birds.

  • bear, the (one each)

    “Fern rum Frankair”? I am trying my damndes to figure out which US accent that might be. The closest I can figure is that grating, ever-so-annoying pseudo-rural twang in which the long “I” is never pronounced. Time is tahm, life is lahf. Uh sounds are deep down: love is “luhhv”, always with a very light intonation of the letter “L”.

    It sounds so authentic…. not.

  • S. Sputnik

    Shane Macgowan, former lead singer for the pogues, is still alive and kicking and has recently inherited the title of ugliest man in rock and roll with the passing of the great Joey Ramone.

    at least thats my view

  • Eamon Brennan

    Just a few odd points

    Shane McGowan (Still alive, even more hideous than ever, is second generation Irish, i.e, english, with a proper cockerney accent only slightly marred by his lack of teef). The girl who sang “I cant help” is Irish (Alison Marr).

    I would have thought that most current pop music sounds remarkably like Belgian sub-abba late seventies eurovision entries.

    Finally a list of English sounding pop musicians

    Elvis Costello (Despite being Irish and trying to sound American it never quite works.)

    Glen Tilbrook (Even more so for Chris Difford.)

    XTC (Swindon’s only redeeming export)

    Ian Dury (Much missed)

    David Sylvian (Posh Version)

    John Lydon (Another White Wog)

    David Bowie from time to time (Suffragette City being the best example)

    The Sisters of Mercy

    Madness (The specials, the Selecter and Bad Manners also falling into this category)

    Judge Dread

    The Jam

    The Clash

    Cockney Rebel

    and finally (totally put on accents)…

    Blur

  • I heard Billy Connelly (hilariously) making fun of this tendency once, and also the tendency of British radio DJs to talk with American accents. It presumably says something that Connelly is another Scot.

  • How refreshing to hear this topic talked about! I have often brought it up with friends, to their mild puzzlement.

    Mark E. Smith of The Fall [a right-wing punk veteran, believe it or not, so contrarian he actually moved house from near Manchester to Edinburgh to get away from the late 80s "Madchester" bubble of Happy Mondays and Stone Roses] has never sounded American at all. In fact, Smith still sings [or squeaks/rants/declaims] in the even more interesting invented-punk accent that the Sex Pistols also had – a tendency to put -ah randomly on the ends of words.

    This was modelled, I think, on the way British wrestling referees in 70s adopted to speak to speak clearly across microphone distortion. ["And-ah in the blue-ah cornah, is-ah Giant-ah Haystacks-ah..."]

    Perhaps even more to the point than the Fall is fellow Manchester band of a few years later, Joy Division, where Mancunian singer Ian Dury [up until his suicide turned the group into the blander New Order] imposed an eerily effective Obviously Fake American Accent on all their songs. This was a definite decision on his part – early songs lack the accent – and it suddenly arrives, booming with slow, pompous hollowness, clearly meant to add gloom and irony to the music.

    If you can, try Joy Division’s slow lament ballad ‘Atmosphere’ for a taste of how twenty years ago already, one British pop singer spotted this phenomenon and decided to comment on it in song.

  • Just then I meant to write Ian Curtis of course – not the Londoner Ian Dury!

  • Biased Observer

    A complementary observation is how English bands slowly transit away from their hometown sound and migrate towards an “American” accent only AFTER they hit it big.

    I was a big Rod Stewart fan when he was with the Faces when they were copying the American R&B sound. They were an English band trying to sound American, but not really succeeding. You knew they weren’t American. But try today to tell me ol’ Roddie wasn’t born and raised in Los Angeles. Same with Jagger, Ozzy etc.

    “Belgian sub-abba late seventies eurovision entries”.
    Ouch. That’s gotta hurt.

  • Germaine

    I’m an American but I love accents. American accents are funny and sometimes cute (my husband has a southern drawl) but I find foreign accents to be very sexy. (When I prayed for a husband with an accent, I should have been more specific.)

    I heard this phenomenon commented on years ago. A British singer (I forget who it was) said it didn’t sound “right” singing with a British accent. An American accent gave the sound they were trying to achieve. As previously mentioned, The Proclaimers (“I would walk five hundred miles …”) sang with accents and it added a special flavor to the song. I don’t think it would have sounded half as good without it.

    I heard that the lead singer in Godsmack is from Boston and has a heavy Bostonian accent (think John F. Kennedy) but doesn’t use it in his singing. I can see why it wouldn’t work – it wouldn’t sound right. (I think I would rather hear “I Stand Alone” sung in a Cockney accent or even a New York accent rather than Bostonian.) Perhaps there are times when a certain accent wouldn’t sound right with a certain song.

    On the other hand, you have Madonna who has begun to speak with a British accent (British “by injection”, is it?). I wouldn’t mind it if her accent sounded a little believable to even my American ears.

    Recently, I tried to find some sound files of Scottish accents (talk about *sexy*) but everything sounded British!! What’s up with that?

    You mean there is a rock ‘n’ roll singer uglier than Keith Richards? Scarey.

  • I have often overheard groups of British children take on American accents while playing together. They often do this even when their imagined drama has no reason to be set in America.

  • Germaine

    My daughter and I like to talk with a British accent when we’re goofing around. Like my daughter said, “Some people can only wish to talk with a British accent!” Some times we use French, Scottish, Jamaican, whatever. They’re all so cool!

  • Liberty Belle

    There’s nothing more skin-crawling than a Brit trying to sing in an American accent. You mention DJs who speak in American accents. But they don’t. Their “accents” sound as American as Madonna sounds as though she hails from the British Isles. The American accent(s) is as unique and genuine and as organic as any British accent. It’s not artificial or grafted on. It’s their own, developed over 250 years, which is why it’s so difficult for a foreigner to capture. Sometimes the Brits think they’re sounding like Texans, and sometimes they think they sound like blue grass and sometimes generic C&W and sometimes LA. (Who can forget Cilla Black trying to be Dionne Warwicke?) But they get them all muddled up because, they have no roots in those discrete dialects.

    The greatest emetic of all time was watching Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, on a Labour party conference platform singing, “Things can only get beddah!” and trying to look loosey-goosey. Watching someone who had just become the prime minister of a first world country and his closest henchman singing a pop song and mimicking American accents was beyond embarrassing.

    I don’t understand Germaine’s remark that she tried to find some Scottish accents but everything sounded “British”. Unhh …. ?

  • Elizabeth

    I hate it when Americans try to sound British.

    How about the agonizing sound of Michigan’s Madonna? She’s been in London now for “yea’ah’s!”

    Blech!

  • Fred Boness

    I am an American who had listened to BBC for years so, imagine my surprise when I visited Britain and found that no one actually spoke in that BBC “mid Atlantic” accent. Where does the BBC find these people? Are they grown in vats on ships circling in the mid Atlantic?

  • Germaine

    I found a site that had Scottish news but all of the accents sounded British. I had expected something more distinctly Scottish. Is the Highland Scots that much more broad than in the city? Or do the Brits have that much of an influence on the media? Like here in the States, all newscasters have midwestern accents. You don’t hear Brooklyn or Southern drawls.

  • Tim

    when i was five or six years old (26 now), i asked my mother why the beatles sounded american when they sang. she replied that it’s natural for people to lose their accents when they sing! inspired bit of yankocentrism there. the funny thing is that for the next few years i heard nothing that challenged this idea. to my ears all pop music was sung with no accent.
    others have noted that this accent thing can cut both ways. the greatest album of the 1990s, “bee thousand” by guided by voices, features the british affectations of dayton, ohio native Bob Pollard.
    to my american ears, it sometimes sounds like some british singers go too far in the opposite direction – ie over-egging the britishness, perhaps in reaction to all the american accents. paul weller comes to mind in certain jam songs. am i imagining things are is there something to this?

  • Are there British country singers, and if so, do they use Southern accents?

  • blabla

    I have often wondered about this phenomenon. I had heard it mentioned before that this is physiological in nature, i.e., that when people sing, no matter what accent they speak with, they lose their accents and sound American. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now.

    It’s funny you mention David Gray – when I first heard “Babylon” I thought he was Texan. I was shocked when I found out he was British.

    Also, Oasis sounds very American when they sing. But the VH1 Behind the Music had to be subtitled even though they were speaking English. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying without the subtitles.

  • Tim Haas

    Didn’t Herman’s Hermits sing with accents? “Om en-er-y the ayth ayem”, “Mrs. Brown, you’ve gut a luvlee dot-ter”.

    Flashing forward a few decades, Liam Gallagher of Oasis always seems to use at least some of his (Manchester?) accent — “A champagne supernova (pause), champagne supernov-er in the sky”, the vowel slides in “Wonderwall”. Never sounded American to me.

  • Big Blue Plymouth

    Oh. My. God. If our beloved cousins in the UK can’t help but cast their pop dreams in American accents*, imagine how kids must feel on Planet Islam. This is Why They Hate Us: we own their fuckin’ dreams.

    * And it’s not just “American accents” — they’re not singing in Connecticut accents — it’s gotta be Southern accents, like Elvis: “Thernk yuh furry merch.” Tupelo or Lubbock or Pascagoula… The smaller and the creepier the town, the better.

  • Big Blue Plymouth

    Oh, and thanks, Mark, for mentioning the mighty Fall, after 25 years a band that Still Matters.

  • Michael Farris

    Three bits of accent trivia:

    1. I first noticed that British pop singers tend to sing in American when I started hearing real British people. This happened in Poland, and since this is neutral ground, neither side tends to give any ground leading to frequent misunderstandings.
    That’s when I also realized the version of British English sometimes heard on American TV shows is nothing like any accent I’ve actually heard from British people.

    2. Not mentioned on your list was Sophie Ellis Bextor who also sings with a British accent. Not serious pop, but pleasant enough as fluff.

    3. Finally, in the US the prestige accent among the young is Black English. When I was still in the US a friend of mine was a substitute teacher and told me that was the accent to have for the kids in the public schools (including immigrant kids).
    Similarly, a white linguist was working on some details of Black English for her dissertation and was flabbergasted (after finishing her dissertation) that her teenage daughter had perfect command of Black English (she just didn’t use it at home with mom).

  • brian

    I used to watch Monty Python as a kid. Here in the US it ran on MTV I think? or PBS, or cable somewhere. All three probably. Anyway, I always thought it was funny when they tried to do an “american” accent. Never quite worked. Sounded like a cross between canadian and movie-cowboy accent.

    Speaking of english TV I used to watch as a kid. . . this still cracks me up:

    Oh, have we got a video?
    YES WE HAVE A VIDEO!!!

  • scott

    I’m from northern Missouri, where we have twangy accent that sounds vaguely southern (except to southerners). However, I’ve also noticed that folks from my area very quickly pick up accents of those they are around (unconsciously).
    So, when some other students and I took a trip to England during highschool we notice that all of us were begining to affect an English accent to some words.
    However, we were also travelling with a group of students from Tupelo, Mississippi – solid southern accents, which we also started to pick up.
    The end result was that by the end of the trip we sounded either like southerners trying to speak with a English accent, or Englishmen trying to speak with a southern accent.
    Our tour guide, a Brit son of Italian immigrant parents thought it was hilarious.

  • Germaine

    Scottish accents are British. Tony Blair, Iain Duncan Smith (Tory leader) and Charles Kennedy (LibDem leader) were all born in Scotland.

    The Highland accent is one of the least broad – Inverness folk are said to speak the clearest English anywhere. The strongest accents are in the cities, especially Glasgow and Dundee. About 40% of people in Edinburgh speak with a gentle accent because of the very high proportion educated privately here. Others in Edinburgh have a distinctive Scottish accent that is quite different from the Glasgow one (only 45 miles away). Middle class Glaswegians (Kirsty Wark – Newsnight presenter, John Smith – former Labour leader) speak a gentler version of Glaswegian that makes some English people think that they are from Edinburgh.

  • Mike Doffing

    Fascinating post and comments. A few random observations:

    I wonder if the prevalence of “American” (i.e., Midwestern American) accents in rock songs is just a special case of something broader. Most (all?) musical genres seem to have a preferred accent. All rap / hip-hop singers in the States use an inner city black accent, even if the singer grew up in Palm Beach. C/W has its western twang thing going. I suspect there’s some kind of prime mover advantage happening here where those who don’t conform to the standards of the genre sound “funny”. Soon all shows about crocodiles will have to be narrated in an Australian accent.

    In comparing the English I heard spoken on the continent in 1975 with what I’ve heard recently I’m struck at how frequently English is spoken with an American accent, even though there must be more Brits around. The irony for many Americans (I’d guess) is that most of us would prefer to listen to British accents. I can listen to a soft Scottish or RP accent for hours. If I want to hear American accents I’ll go to the grocery store.

    This is all the more surprising given the levels of anti-American background noise. Greece has some of the highest levels of anti-Americanism in Europe (mostly towards the US government) and lots of Brits, including many married to Greeks. Yet American accents all, in my experience. My guess: unlike Spain, Greece subtitles foreign movies rather than dubbing them. Since most of the English language movies are American that’s the accent that spreads.

  • jennetic

    My younger sis came over with a Manics Street Preachers CD- apparently large in the UK. Lovely, lovely, lovely Welsch accents! Mmmmmm!!!

  • Germaine

    Thank you, David, for the clarification. I would love to hear all of those variations of Scottish accents. It’s a disappointment to hear that the British accent is more prevalent in Scotland…. Maybe that is that what’s happening. A sort of verbal homoginization.

    Mike makes a very good point regarding the various music genres and preferred accent.

    A friend of mine lived in Greece for a year or so. Her husband is American but was raised in Greece and speaks Greek fluently. They returned to the states because Americans were looked upon and treated so badly.

    I’m a black American, raised in New York, but have lived in Miami for almost 30 years. I have a midwestern accent but sometimes find myself speaking with a Spanish accent. My husband laughed at me because I pronounced Wachovia as Wah-ko-VEE-ah (Spanish) instead of Wah-KO-vee-ah. Kind of ironic since my Spanish is still not very good.

  • Interesting comments!! Imagine how blown away *I* was when told that Chris Rhea was not only Irish, but had NEVER been to Texas…yet his song ‘Texas’ sounded as if he were straight from Gruene, Texas (where C&W George Straight began his career).

    But Samizdata is right…this monotanous sound we have been hearing through news broadcasts and pop music is leveling some rather fertile and interesting ground. I loved “The Proclaimers” because they made no attempt to ‘disguise’ where they were from…

    Oh, and don’t get me started on Madonna. I view her taking on a British accent as more insulting than the poor British who have to listen to her mangle it. It’s bad manners, not ‘betrayal.’

    The closest I think I could Legitimately come to a British accent is to imitate the Southern one, as a good many English, Irish and Scottish settled in the South. But trying to do anything further is ridiculous and disrespectful of those ‘who know better’ the accents they grew up hearing.

    [/babble OFF]

  • Jeremy

    It’s nothing new.

    Most English rock bands from the 60s on up never sang with British accents. It wasn’t really until punk that it happened, and that was started by Americans trying to sing with British accents (the Ramones).

    Same with Australians. AC/DC is the most notable, but lots of others. Ikon, INXS, the Australian Doors Show, the really really awful “Silverchair”, etc.

    And what about Canadians? Other than the MacKenzie brothers, how many Canadians sounds like Canadians? (Granted, I can’t think of all that many Canadians to begin with. Rush, The Guess Who, BTO, Neil Young, uh, Our Lady Peace, uh, Celine Dion.)

  • Jeremy

    Speaking of the Proclaimers, about 5 years ago there was a cover version of their 500 miles done presumably by Americans (I think), which added the wonderful line “whatever the **** that means” after “If I haver”.

    On a related note, in most dance music these days, even stuff coming out of mainland Europe, the lyrics are in English, not their native language.

  • Germaine

    I wouldn’t try to pass off my playful attempts at accents (foreign or otherwise) in front of those ‘who know better’. It’s just a silly thing my daughter and I do to amuse ourselves at home. We also sing in the car at the top of our lungs – off key. They say imitation is the highest form of flattery – no insults intended.

    If blond-haired, blue-eyed Eminem can rap and try to do the “inner-city-gansta” bit, why is it such a bad thing that Madonna does her “Brit” bit? They both sound rediculous to me, but people are still paying them millions to do what they do. Enough people must like it well enough.

  • 21st century elvis

    Interesting discussion all—

    I guess it is apparent by now, but this phenomenon is nothing new. In fact, a very informative and interesting article on this very phenomenon can be found in a book by Peter Trudgill (one of the preeminent British (!) sociolinguists)—
    _On Dialect: Social and Geographical Perspectives_,
    Oxford and NY: Basil Blackwell and NYU Press.

    the relevant, (by now slightly dated) article:

    “Acts of conflicting identity: The sociolinguistics of
    British pop song pronunciation”.

    Enjoy!

  • Chris Josephson

    Fewer and fewer American celebrities talk or sing with any distinct American regional accent.They all just sound very bland.

    I enjoy hearing someone on the TV or Radio who breaks that mold and talks with his/her regional accent. I read an article that this (having any regional accent) is discouraged. Anyone who wants to be in the entertainment or talk news industry usually takes classes to rid themselves of any distinct regional accent they have.

    I enjoy the (now rare) UK singer/band that retains their accents. Don’t know why the don’t retain them.

    Regards,
    Chris J.

  • Dale Amon

    It may at least partially be a market thing. Britpop has at time had near dominance of the American market. The way to fame and fortune was not to remain in a Liverpool club and sing on the Beeb, but to cross the Atlantic and do a night on Ed Sullivan.

  • Ryan

    I’ve been singing for years….in bands…or just writing my own stuff. I’m in school now studying the recording arts. I never noticed until I heard my own voice recorded that I sing with an accent. I’ve lived in the Midwestern US my whole life, but it almost sounds British or something. The most apparent part is when singing words with R’s. Like heart……..it sounds more like hot. It’s weird.

    I don’t do this intentionally…so I was curious as to why this happens. I personally think it just has to do with who we as singers are influenced by. Most musicians start off playing/singing like other people. Maybe some of my influences did this……..who knows??? I sure as hell don’t. But it’s interesting either way.