Adele, Sam Smith, the Rolling Stones, Cliff Richard, Iggy Azalea, Nicki Minaj, The Killers, Snow — what do these artists all have in common? Their accent. That is, the fact that they sometimes put on an accent other than their own when they sing.
Identity in song is a fluid thing. I’ve long thought that it was easier to sing in an accent that isn’t your own than it is to speak in a foreign accent. This turns out to be somewhat true according to Bill Beeman, a sociolinguist at University of Minnesota. Beeman also happens to be an opera singer. He speaks and sings in multiple languages: English, German, Italian, French and Russian. However, his accent in each of these languages is acctually better when he sings than when he speaks.
“My accent when I’m singing is very carefully constructed and we use coaches when we’re singing in order to be able to produce the language as perfectly as possible,” he says.
When copying an accent in song turns out, it is all about the vowels. “Singing is all about vowels. Language is altogether is really vowels interrupted by consonants. Although there are things you have to be careful of when singing consonants generally it’s the vowels you have to be careful of.” Nail the vowels and you can nail the accent says Beeman.
But it takes more than just nailing the vowels to really nail a song sung in a different accent according to linguist and cover band singer Jane Setter. Singing in one accent or another isn't a neutral choice. “When popular music started it came out of the rhythm & blues tradition which was an American thing. When you started getting the big stars who were singing this popular music, it was people like Elvis Presley and people wanted to emulate him and emulate his success,” says Setter
Singers like Elvis Presley or the Rolling Stones — most popular music as we know it — have borrowed (stolen?) linguistic and musical cues from African American artists throughout history. “We can go back to jazz with artists such as Benny Goodman who became known as the king as swing, when in many respects Duke Ellington could be known as the king of swing, black artist Duke Ellington,” says ethnomusicologist Langston Wilkins.
This week’s edition of The World in Words podcast we tackle the complicated questions that arise when we sing in an accent that’s not our own. We’ll hear from linguists Beeman and Setter and ethnomusicologist Wilkins about faking the funk. We’ll explore the “how” and “why” artists appropriate accents when they sing. And it’s a wild musical ride from the Rolling Stones to Cliff Richard and the Shadows to Iggy Azalea.
Music heard and mentioned in the podcast (in order of appearance):
00:00 Our listeners are the smartest. Thank you.
2:53 The World's host, Marco Werman gets quizzed and talks Soul Train
9:55 Linguist Bill Beeman on singing in foreign languages - It's all about the vowels!
13:51 Linguist Jane Setter sings like Tammie Wynette
15:47 Alesha Dixon controversy
19:31 Cliff Richard, the British Elvis
21:20 Ethnomusicologist Langston Wilkins and the influence of the African American voice
23:20 How can a Canadian artist who sings with a Jamaican Patois be authentic?
24:00 "Blaccent" and the problem with Iggy Azalea
28:20 The difference between Iggy Azalea and Mick Jagger
32:00 Goodbye for now. Patrick Cox takes us out with a song
Finally, one last song for you to enjoy: Das Racist's song, "Fake Patois."
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