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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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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