Globalisation, Morphology, Music, Perception, performance, Phonetics, Phonology, Sociolinguistics

Published: Rihanna Works Her Multivocal Pop Persona: A Morpho-syntactic and Accent Analysis of Rihanna’s Singing Style

Pop culture provides rich data that demonstrate the complex interplay of World Englishes

My dear colleague Michael Westphal and I turned our blogpost into a more detailed, refined, and peer-reviewed article for English Today. I am happy to announce that it was published online on February 13th 2017. Below you will find our abstract published on English Today’s First View platform.

Abstract

Singing is a very dynamic and innovative mode of communication through which artists often express themselves with a set of various voices. Today, pop music circulates across national boundaries and English is the main medium of communication in transnational pop culture. In this special context different varieties of English meet at a high density. Rihanna’s single Work is an example of this prevalent multivocality in pop music culture. Her language performance attracted public attention of various sorts as she audibly incorporates several Caribbean English Creole (CEC) features. While some critics describe her lyrics as ‘gibberish’ (cf. Noelliste, 2016), others acknowledge her performance as a ‘reclamation of her Barbadian heritage’ (Gibsone, 2016). The example of Rihanna shows that singers can be transporters of English varieties: she is a Caribbean artist who started a successful career in the US, and whose music today has global reach. Singers, like Rihanna, are thus mobile, transnational linguistic agents. On the one hand, she physically travels the world playing concerts to her audiences. On the other, her persona, music, videos, and further media commodities are part of the global ‘mediascape’ (Appadurai, 1996). In other words, her products easily spread across the globe and are reproduced, transcending national and social boundaries. New technologies (e.g. smart phones, tablets) and applications (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) facilitate as well as accelerate the transnational dissemination of media resources. Moreover, singers show that the linguistic (and cultural) resources as such are mobile. Different language influences are formed into individual linguistic repertoires. Singers often playfully employ certain features to highlight parts of their identity or locate themselves in a particular music genre.

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Language Attitudes, Music, Perception, Phonetics, Phonology, Sociolinguistics

Language Attitudes: Just One Sound

queen

English singer Alesha Dixon was heavily criticized for her performance of the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen” at Silverstone. Especially the last sentence of the anthem was at the centre of criticism: 1. she sang God save our Queen instead of the Queen and 2. her supposed American accent caused great indignation. The latter was mainly based on her pronunciation of God [ɡɒd] as [ɡɑːd] which was strongly emphasized since she lengthened this vowel sound even more to be in line with her melody and rhythm.

Twitter and co. were the usual anger outlets and gave insight into language attitudes towards linguistic behavior in national anthem performances. Here only some tweets and online newspaper comments:

  • Alesha Dixon appears to think Gad should save the Queen instead.
  • Alesha Dixon singing the national anthem in an American accent for the British Grand Prix?
  • Pretentious and fake!!
  • Alesha Dixon pays tribute to Independence Day by singing the national anthem in an American accent.

If Alesha Dixon or any other British singer switches to an American singing style in one of their songs, people might notice it but do not pay great attention to it – they would surely not be shocked. But in this case the discursive frame sets linguistic expectations that seem inevitably bound to a very specific cultural context. There is a heightened sensitivity with which the audience perceives such performances and artistic freedom is considered inappropriate. The comments show that national pride and a certain linguistic behavior (being “authentic” not “fake”) are intertwined and should certainly be reflected in the performance of the national anthem.

Want to read more about it?

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Language Attitudes, Perception, Phonetics, Phonology, Sociolinguistics

Conference Impressions: Sociolinguistics of Globalization, Hong Kong 2015

hk conference

I had the privilege to present a paper at the Sociolinguistics of Globalization conference organized by the University of Hong Kong. Intimidated by the number of renowned linguists (you know, those that you quote all the time) and the amount of parallel panels, I felt like ‘the new kid on the playground’. Language experts from around the world met to discuss the effects of globalization processes on language behavior, use and attitudes.

I was majorly interested in the panels dealing with music and language. Here it seemed that the sociolinguistics of hip hop clearly dominated the discourse. Specifically this music genre reflects the phenomenon of ‘glocalisation’: A global phenomenon, hip hop music, is re-interpreted and re-invented with a local voice. Its main ideas and concepts (i.e. the credo of “keepin’ it real”) are adopted while at the same time projecting an authentic local place identity. This is not necessarily the case when it comes to pop music, where an American-influenced pronunciation still dominates and seems to have become the default or the norm. Andy Gibson illustrated this “power of the norm in pop song phonetics” in his presentation on the singing style of three New Zealand singers.

I was able to gain many new insights and inspiration from manifold approaches, methods and different languages and cultures. Fortunately, I also had the pleasure of meeting Andy Gibson (Auckland University of Technology) for at least a quick chat. The conference offered fruitful stimuli and was a great experience.

If you are curious about who was there and presented what, take a look at the book of abstracts.

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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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