Perception, Phonetics, Phonology, Sociolinguistics

“just singing in a quite clear, neutral way” – from role model to mainstream

pop

Trudgill’s seminal work (1983) on the sociolinguistics of music performances was concerned with British artists’ possible motivations for changing their accent into a somewhat “American accent”. Since the US is the cradle of modern pop and rock music, American artists dominated the music landscape for a very long time and therefore have a role model function. In short: “cultural domination leads to imitation” (Trudgill 1983: 144). This ‘Americanized’ singing style is called the USA 5 model (Simpson 1999). It includes five features which are supposedly the most salient of American speech. However, these features do not occur altogether in one single American accent in the US. It is therefore a constructed, perception-based model. Trudgill notices a decline in the use of American features throughout the years after British bands had established themselves as an authority within the American-dominated music industry (Beatlemania) and therewith a rise in the use of British working-class features as punk bands wanted to identify with their main target audience.

Today though, this ‘Americanized accent’ is no longer necessarily geographically or culturally bound to the US but indexes ‘mainstream pop’ (Beal 2009). Gibson and Bell (2012) also presume that this American-influenced accent has become the default pronunciation used for singing pop songs. Hearers might label it a ‘neutral accent’: “it’s kind of like a more neutral kinda [accent, LiJa] with a bit of an American tone to it, but nothing that would give it away as American”, “She’s not singing with a strong English or American accent. She’s just singing in a quite clear, neutral way”[1] This shift in associations (or indexicalities, Silverstein 2003) led to a new trend. Local British accents in singing have become more and more popular especially in the ‘indie’ pop and rock genre. Beal (2009) shows that the Sheffield indie rock band the Arctic Monkeys actively uses their local accent to promote independence, individuality and authenticity while criticizing artists who ‘sell out’ and take seemingly necessary steps gain worldwide success such as changing their accent and concealing their origin. Singers that stick to their ‘natural’ accent are ‘keepin’ it real’ so to speak.

This is how attitudes towards an ‘Americanized’ singing style have changed from being associated with American artists who were the major role models in music to being a default accent representing the mainstream pop genre.

[1] Taken from interviews I conducted with British students on identifying different performed accents.

Literature

  • Beal, J. C. 2009. ‘You’re Not from New York City, You’re from Rotherham’: Dialect and Identity in British Indie Music. Journal of English Linguistics 37, 3: 223-240.
  • Gibson, Andy & Allan Bell. 2012. Popular Music Singing as Referee Design. J.M. Hernández-Campoy & J.A. Cutillas-Espinosa (eds.), Style-Shifting in Public, 139-164.
  • Silverstein, M. 2003. Indexical Order and the Dialectics of Sociolinguistic Life. Language & Communication 23: 193-229.
  • Simpson, P. 1999. Language, Culture and Identity: With (Another) Look at Accents in Pop and Rock Singing. Multilingua 18, 4: 343-367.
  • Trudgill, P. 1983. Acts of conflicting identity: The sociolinguistics of British pop-song performance. P. Trudgill (ed.), On dialect: Social and geographical perspectives, 141-160. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
  • Picture: LiJa
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Language Attitudes, Perception, Phonetics, Phonology, Sociolinguistics

British attitudes towards an “American accent” in English pop and rock performances

The following abstract summarizes a presentation I will give at the Sociolinguistics of Globalization conference in Hongkong in June 2015 .

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British Attitudes towards an “American accent” in English Pop and Rock Performances

Many British artists switch to an “American-influenced accent” when singing. Previous studies in this field focus on the production side of performances and on what motivates British artists to change or stick to their accent (cf. Trudgill 1982, Simpson 1999, Beal 2009). However, the audiences’ perspective, i.e. perception and reception, has been widely neglected. In the course of globalization US cultural dominance has dispersed and English varieties mutually influence each other. This is especially observable in contemporary popular music – where singers seem to eclectically create diversely influenced performance accents.

For this paper folk perceptions towards accents in singing were elicited. Guided interviews based on music samples aim at answering the following questions: Which features, language-wise and other, do Britons perceive as “American” in music today? And which associations are triggered in connection with such performed accents? Preliminary results show that concluding an artist’s origin from his/her performed accent is a highly challenging task for native speakers. Salient phonetic features alone (cf. Simpson’s USA-5 model) do not suffice to represent and determine an accent. Other factors such as genre or content prove crucial for the evaluative process as well. Attitudes show that American accents are often associated with “incorrectness” but prove more marketable whereas local British accents are seen as a welcome change that authentically supports British pop-culture.

Literature

  • Beal, J. C. 2009. ‘You’re Not from New York City, You’re from Rotherham’: Dialect and Identity in British Indie Music. Journal of English Linguistics 37, 3: 223-240.
  • Simpson, P. 1999. Language, Culture and Identity: With (Another) Look at Accents in Pop and Rock Singing. Multilingua 18, 4: 343-367.
  • Trudgill, P. 1982. On Dialect: Social and Geographical Perspectives. Oxford: Blackwell
  • Picture: unsplash.com
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Sociolinguistics

Thoughts on the properties of popular music recordings

recording

Gibson and Bell (2011) coined the term mediated staged performances which laid the groundwork for approaching a definition of popular music recordings.

Staged performances are linguistically stylized communicative events, executed in stage-like situations were the audience lies at the centre of attention. Musicians perform for their audience, their main goal being entertainment (Gibson/Bell 2011: 558, Coupland 2007). It is stressed that such events are planned by performers (e.g. several concert preparations and rehearsals) and audience (fans purchase tickets and come together) alike. During the performance both are physically separated. However, communication is possible via cheering and clapping as a direct response to the performer and evaluation of his/her presentation. The singer on the other hand can spontaneously react to the audience’s feedback and might accommodate to or comment on the place of performance (e.g. hometown or abroad), linguistically or otherwise.

Considering music recordings these parameters need to be re-defined and adapted. Gibson and Bell mention that “their pervasiveness in contemporary society makes them the primary channel of public performance” (2011: 558). Music not only accompanies our everyday life activities such as working or shopping, it is also virtually accessible and available 24/7 not least due to music streaming services and portable electronic devices. This entails that hearers do not always voluntarily choose to listen to music but sometimes are simply exposed to it in public space(s). However, even when they consciously decide to listen to a certain artist, song or album it is not necessarily a heightened event. The performer is not physically present at the moment of the hearer’s reception and cannot directly receive a responsive evaluation. Spontaneity is exchanged for consistency and recognition value. The final recording is widely spread, defines and represents an artist and his/her image. Eventually, success is defined by clicks, download rates and/or sales figures.

These properties could influence both: a singer’s singing style and the audience’s perception. For instance a British singer might choose to sound more local if he/she wants to evoke authenticity and promote localness or switch to a “mainstream” accent which is audibly influenced by “American varieties” in hope of being more readily accepted worldwide (Beal 2009). The latter in particular will make it difficult for the audience to identify a singer’s origin.

Literature

  • Beal, J. C. 2009. ‘You’re Not from New York City, You’re from Rotherham’: Dialect and Identity in British Indie Music. Journal of English Linguistics 37, 3: 223-240.
  • Coupland, Nikolas. 2007. Style: Language Variation and Identity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gibson, A & A. Bell. 2011 Staging language: An Introduction to the Sociolinguistics of Performance. Journal of Sociolinguistics 15:5: 555-572.
  • Picture: unsplash.com
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