January 11, 2018

Dialect Dissection: Taylor Swift and Genre Hopping

When I started this blog, one of my goals was to make a series on how singers use dialect in their music to different ends and how it affects their perception. Taylor Swift was always my first choice, though my first attempt at writing about it was, eh, not that great. One year and one new album later, I've completely reworked it. I'd like to introduce Dialect Dissection, a series that looks at how accent and dialect appear in pop music. I'm going to be covering several artists throughout the year, and I welcome suggestions for artists and the series.

Today's topic is former country star and current pop star Taylor Swift. If you have no idea who she is, let me catch you up - Taylor Swift is a singer/songwriter who started making country music and became famous by capitalizing on the heretofore-unexploited teenage girl country fan demographic. She starting transitioning to pop in 2012 with her critically-acclaimed album "Red," and in 2014 completely cut ties with country by releasing a full-blown (and extremely successful) pop album, "1989." She released a new pop album last year, "Reputation," which deals with her media entanglements as well as her more traditional topics like love.

The reason Taylor was my first choice for this series is that Taylor’s eras have been marked by an acute awareness of the sociolinguistic importance of using the appropriate accent in each musical context. Translated back to English, this means Taylor knows that people expect certain genres to sound certain ways, and she’s played along by incorporating aspects of those accents into her own vocal performance. It's like choosing the right costume, except for her voice. Let's look chronologically through her discography. Note that if you don't understand the sound symbols in brackets [] and slashes //, you can click the 🔊 symbol and you can hear a recording of the sound by itself and the sound in a word.

Speak Now - In The Right Accent (2006-2012)

Taylor Swift fell in love with country music at a young age. She fell in love with it so hard that her schoolmates bullied her about it. She loved the storytelling of Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and the Dixie Chicks, and she knew she wanted to be the same type of artist.

Now there’s an interesting wrinkle in this. A lot of famous country singers, like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, and Willie Nelson, came from poor and/or rural areas in the American South. Taylor Swift was born in the Northeast to two wealthy parents and lived on a Christmas tree farm. Her own accent is not particularly distinctive, sounding very much like what is called "General American." But when she recorded her first album, she put on a fake Southern accent. She continued using this accent up until "Red," which was her last country album.

  • /aɪ/ 🔊 → [aː] 🔊 : In General American, the "ai" sound (/aɪ/) is a diphthong, meaning it's made of two vowels. In Southern English, it's one long vowel ([a:]). This means "ride" (/raɪd/) sounds a little like "rad" ([ra:d]) (Source). This is the most common Southern feature she uses, being found on all four of her country albums.
    • "I was right there beside him." - Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift
    • "For quite some time time time" - Stay Stay Stay, Red
  • /æ/ 🔊 → [ɛ(j)ə]) 🔊 : In General American, the "aa" sound like in "bad" (/bæd/) is one vowel made with the tongue flat on the bottom of the mouth. In Southern English, it's a diphthong with the tongue raised a little, so it sounds like "beh-add" ([bɛəd]) (Source). She uses this feature pretty liberally throughout her country albums.
    • "Wishing you never found out that love could be that strong." - Red, Red
  • /ɛ/ 🔊 → [e(j)ə]) 🔊 : In Gen. American, the short "eh" sound like in "bet" (/bɛt/) is one vowel made with the tongue low in the mouth. In Southern English, the tongue is raised so that it almost sounds like "bit" or "beyt" ([bet]) (Source). This feature becomes much rarer after her first album.
    • "I hope you think that little black dress" - Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift
  • /ɪ/ 🔊 → [iə]) 🔊 : In General American, the short "i" sound like in "bit" (/bɪt/) is one vowel made with the tongue held loosely. In Southern English, it's a diphthong with the tongue held tensely. This means "bit" can sound more like "beeyit" ([biət]) (Source). This feature becomes much rarer after her debut album.
    • "I was right there beside him." - Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift
  • /aʊ/ 🔊 → [æʊ] 🔊 : the tongue is more pushed forward when Southerners say "au," so "bow" like "take a bow" (/baʊ/) sounds like 'bAAH-uu' ([bæʊt]). She uses this one fairly frequently.
    • "They're trying to tell me how to feel." - Love Story, Fearless
    • "I said we should talk about it." - Stay Stay Stay, Red
  • Pin-pen merger: most English dialects differentiate the the vowels in 'dress' [ɛ] and 'kit' [ɪ] when they appear before 'n' and 'm'. This means 'pin' /pɪn/ 🔊 and 'pen' /pɛn/ 🔊 sound different. In Southern accents, they sound the same, so 'pen' and 'pin' both sound like 'pin' ([pɪn]), and 'hem' and 'him' both sound like 'him' ([hɪm]) (Source). This is one of the rarest features in Taylor Swift's oeuvre.
    • "Twenty-two." - 22, Red
  • /ʌ/ 🔊 → [ɜ] 🔊 : The 'uh' vowel as in bug, luck, strut, etc., sounds like [ɜ] or [ə], a sound similar to British 'er'. It is higher in the mouth (Source). This one is more common in her early albums, becoming comparatively rarer over time.
    • "Just a boy in a Chevy truck." - Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift
  • /u/ 🔊 → [ʉ] 🔊 : Normally for the long 'oo' vowel (in goose or true), the tongue is in the back. Southern accents move the tongue forward in the mouth so it sounds kind of like 'ew' [ʉ] (Source). This feature appears pretty evenly among her country albums.
    • "You, with your words like knives." - Mean, Speak Now
    • "I gotta have you." - 22, Red

Curiously enough, it gets harder to find examples of some of these features as her musical career progresses. Some of the more stigmatized features, like pronouncing short 'i' as a dipthong (/ɪ/ → [iə]), are almost dropped after the first album. She also does not use all of the features all of the time; e.g. not every instance of long 'i' gets turned into 'aa' (/aɪ/ → [aː]). It appears that as her career solidified, she no longer felt she had to imitate the accent so strongly, and so she both dropped some of the features and began to alternate between General American and Southern accents. Taylor appears to be aware of her own performative Southern-ness. In her self-satirizing video for "Look What You Made Me Do," she lines up multiple "Taylors" at the end, each one representing a different period of her life. The Taylor representing the Fearless era simply says “y’all!” - the famously Southern second-person plural pronoun (Bernstein, 2003).

Taylor is far from the only country singer to fake a Southern accent. Some country singers are actually from the South and their singing accent is their real accent (Dolly Parton, Luke Bryan). Others are from the South but don't have a strong regional accent, like Faith Hill. Then there's those who aren't from the South at all, like Shania Twain (Canadian), Anne Murray (Canadian), Olivia Newton-John (Australian), and Bonnie Tyler (Welsh). Some of these, like Anne Murray, don't bother faking an accent, but others, like Taylor's idol Shania Twain, put on an "appropriate" singing accent. We don't know if Taylor had any accent coaching, but it's more likely that she simply caught on to the fact that country singers "sound" a certain way. Country music is not the only genre where people change their pronunciations to fit a "sound" - looking at you, pop music.

Some Taylor fans are defensive of Taylor's accent, saying that it's her real accent because Pennsylvania is rural, Pennsylvania is part of the South, she grew up on a farm, accents rub off on you, etc. There's a very simple way to see if this is Taylor's "real" accent or not - does she still have the accent when she's speaking? When you look at her interviews, she does not have any of these features, and we shouldn't expect her to! These are features of working/middle class Southerners. Taylor's family is upper middle class and she lived in the urban parts of Berk County, Pennsylvania: Reading and Wyomissing (Conroy, 2016). The simplest explanation is that Taylor did what Shania Twain did, and put on an accent to fit the music she sang. No shame in that.

Like, Oh My God (2012-present)

When Taylor dipped her toe into making pop music on Red, she didn’t use a Southern accent (with the exception of 22, which still straddles the country-pop genre). Southern accents are unmarked in country music - nobody notices it. Southern accents in pop music, however, are very much marked. There’s a joke that goes “country music is just rock music from 20 years ago with a twang.” In other words, the mere presence of a Southern accent in a song is enough to shift its genre. If she was going to crossover into pop domination, she would have to find a new accent. Lucky for her, she already spoke it. For the most part, she simply shed her Southern affectations and used General American pronunciations. She did, however, add some non-neutral features.

Taylor's pop songs are marked by several features associated with young, urban women: using ‘like’ in a non-comparative fashion, liberal usage of slang, a wide range of intonation patterns, etc. This form of talking is looked down upon by many older folks as frivolous and silly, and appropriately enough she uses these features mostly on humorous or tongue-in-cheek songs: We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, Shake It Off, and Blank Space. Rarely, you'll find some of these features in other songs later country material.

  • Use of "like" as a quotative or filler. This usage is particularly despised and misunderstood by people.
    • "And so he calls me up and he's like, I still love you, and I'm like... this is exhausting, we are never getting back together, like ever." - We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, Red
    • "Saying this is it, I've had enough, cuz like, we hadn't seen each other in a month." - We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, Red
    • "My ex-man brought his new girlfriend, she's like oh my God." Shake It Off, 1989
    • "Keep you second-guessing like, oh my God, who is she?" - Blank Space, 1989
  • Use of vocal fry: a creaky sound in the voice. It's common among young women, and Britney Spears popularized its use in pop music.
    • "I can make the bad guys good for a weekend." - Blank Space, 1989
    • "Won't you come on over baby we can shake, shake, shake" - Shake It Off, 1989
    • "He's so bad but he does it so well." - Wildest Dreams, 1989
    • "He's so bad... but he does it so well." - Wildest Dreams, 1989
  • The phrase "Oh My God" is associated with Valley girls (MacNeil, 2005).
    • "Oh my God, look at that face." - Blank Space, 1989
    • "Keep you second-guessing like, oh my God, who is she?" - Blank Space, 1989
    • "My ex-man brought his new girlfriend, she's like oh my God." - Shake It Off, 1989
  • Intonation that changes quickly.
    • "She looks at me like I'm a trend and she's so over it." - Better Than Revenge, Speak Now
    • "Who's Taylor Swift anyway? Ew." - 22, Red
    • "My ex-man brought his new girlfriend; she's like oh my God." - Shake It Off, 1989

After the 2009 VMAs incident with Kanye West, she came under increased media scrutiny. Her boyfriends were no longer anonymous schoolmates but high-profile celebrities, so songs written about them became fodder for tabloids and were viewed as musical hit pieces. She started gaining a reputation as a crazy man-hunter who chased after famous men, only to write vindictive break-up songs once the relationship ended... and making a profit in the meantime. She became self-conscious about how the media portrayed her, and appeared to launch pre-emptive strikes on herself: on Mean, she says "You have pointed out my flaws again as if I don't already see them;" on 22, a background vocal features a self-styled 'cool kid' who makes fun of her: "who's Taylor Swift anyway, ew;" We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together has her sarcastically proclaim that her ex's indie record is "much cooler than [hers]." This culminated in 1989's "Shake It Off," where she claims she simply ignores the gossip that she "stays out too late" and has "nothing on [her] brain." "Blank Space" is similar, featuring her as a self-aware man-hunter going through the paces.

Her use of a Valley Girl accent appears to be a way to both portray people she finds snobbish (the man-stealer in "Better Than Revenge;" the cool kids in "22") and to mock herself by purposefully invoking the stereotype of the ditzy, boy-obsessed Valley Girl (Blank Space, We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, Shake It Off). Interestingly enough, linking these two personas with the same accent has the unintended affect of linking her with them as well. She started being portrayed as a cool kid with a 'squad' instead of the relatable girl next door, and tabloids didn't stop covering her high-profile relationships with the same old tropes. Her schtick about being self-aware of her own flaws and highlighting worked... until it suddenly didn't. If being the vocal-frying like-using ironic Valley Girl wasn't working and she couldn't go back to the ai-monophthongizing Innocent Country Girl, where could she turn? She could use General American, which she did. But she didn't just use her General American accent.

...Are You Ready For It? (2017)

There was nothing linguistically notable about the lead single from "Reputation," “Look what you made me Do.” The follow-up promo single, however, surprised everyone, because it seemed to feature Taylor Swift… rapping? Okay, she wasn’t actually rapping, but she was doing this sort of rhythmic sing-talking thing that was definitely influenced by rap. It had some African American Vernacular features, some Caribbean English features, but juxtaposed this against her valley girl-ish accent when she says “but he act like such a man so [...] he can be my jailer, Burton to this Taylor, every love I’ve known in comparison is a failure." This was the preview to "Reputation," her latest album and the second one in the pop vein.

The album definitely has more urban notes in it. 16th-note hi-hats, autotune, vocoders, vocals used as rhythmic elements, 808s! It also borrows slightly from the "tropical" sound in "Delicate." This is an evolution from the pure pop Taylor of 1989. She also changed her promotional strategy to involve less interaction with media outlets. Fewer paparazzi shots, no interviews, only a couple of TV performances. If "1989" stuck its tongue out at the media, "Reputation" seems almost defeated with lyrics like "my reputation's never been worse," "they're burning all the witches even if you aren't one," and "my castle crumbled overnight." Her lyrics are more adult than her past albums, featuring more unabashed references to alcohol and sex. The old Taylor certainly can't come to the phone now.

Taylor has avoided doing interviews up until now, so we don't know who influenced this album or what her goal was. Nevertheless, it's not a coincidence that her edgiest album yet has hip-hop influences. Other artists who have done the same include Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and Miley Cyrus. Unlike the aforementioned artists, Taylor only dipped her toe musically into hip-hop, r&b, and "tropical" styles. This is reflected in her accent, which is mostly General American, but with a few features from African American Vernacular English and Caribbean English. This has not gone unnoticed: some have commented that she sounds like Rihanna, some have criticized her usage of hip-hop and the below features as appropriative, and some have merely noticed that she's not sounding the same. Taylor is not committed to her new influences in the same way she was committed to country; she's taking aspects of it to make her brand of synth-pop edgier (this is problematic, as that article explains).

  • Dropping the verb 'to be' in sentences like "where (are) you at?". This is called "zero copula" and can be found in African American Vernacular (as well as languages like Russian).
    • "Dive bar on the East Side - where you at?" - Delicate, Reputation
  • The use of the word 'chill' as an adjective meaning 'alright' or 'acceptable' is from African American Vernacular, as is the form 'gon' for 'gonna'.
    • "Is it chill that you're in my head?" - Delicate, Reputation
    • "I see how this is gon' go." - ...Ready For It?, Reputation
  • Instead of pronouncing 'oh' as a diphthong with a 'w' sound at the end [oʊ] 🔊, she pronounces it as a pure vowel with no 'w' [o:] 🔊. This is common in Caribbean varieties of English. (Filppula, 2017)
    • "But if he's a ghost, then I can be a phantom." - ...Ready For It?, Reputation
    • "No one has to know." - ...Ready For It?, Reputation
    • "Oh damn never seen that color blue." - Delicate, Reputation
  • Instead of pronouncing 'ey' as a diphthong with a 'y' sound at the end [eɪ] 🔊, she pronounces it as a pure vowel with no 'y' [e:] 🔊. This is common in Caribbean varieties of English. (Filppula, 2017)
    • "Baby let the games begin." - ...Ready For It?, Reputation

But She Fell in Love with an English Man

One final piece of dialect-borrowing is much more personal. Some fans have noticed that there seems to be some English slang in "Reputation." There's also references to Taylor's nationality in "King of my Heart" and to a lover's accent in "Gorgeous." These would be innocuous were it not for the fact that Taylor's boyfriend at the time of album release was Joe Alwyn, English actor. Her prior relationship was with another English actor, Tom Hiddleston; "Getaway Car" is rumored to be about him. Perhaps her lack of t-flapping in the final line of the chorus ("we're driving the geddaway [gɛɾəweɪ] car" vs "nothing good starts in a gettaway [gɛtəweɪ] car") is a reference to Hiddleston. She's also imitated an English accent before, when making fun of English ex Harry Styles. Maybe hanging around so many Englishmen caused the accent to rub off on her. This is "convergence," a phenomenon where we change our speech to sound more like our speech partner's (Turner, 2010). We are more likely to converge with someone if we are attracted to them - note Taylor has been romantically linked to three Englishmen. Now, it's possible she just thought it sounded cool. Either way, it's an interesting departure from her previous use of accent because it's very personal and not related to genre or public perception. In other words, it is - ironically - divorced from a genre's reputation.

  • Use of English slang like "fit," which means "attractive."
    • "My baby's fit like a daydream." - Call It What You Want, Reputation
  • Using pronunciations that are specific to England.
    • "The Range Rovers and the Jag-u-ars [dʒæ.gju.ɑrz]." - King of my Heart, Reputation
  • Pronouncing 't's as glottal stop. A glottal stop is the sound you hear in 'uh-oh' between 'uh' and 'oh'. South England varieties of English often replace 't's 🔊 in the middle of words with glottal stops 🔊.
    • "Bass beat ra'-uh-lin' [ræʔəlɪn] the chandelier." - This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things, Reputation
  • Instead of pronouncing a /t/ as a d sound in the middle of a word (this is called t-flapping) like Americans 🔊, she uses the full value of the the 't' 🔊 as in 'posh' Southern English accents. (Trudgill, 1984)
    • "No nothing good starts in a gettaway [gɛtəweɪ] car." - Getaway Car, Reputation
  • Additionally, she makes references to accents and to nationality.
    • "You should take it as a compliment that I got drunk and made fun of the way you talk." - Gorgeous, Reputation
    • "Salute to me, I'm your American queen." - King of my Heart, Reputation

Conclusion

Many - perhaps most - singers will pick one accent and stick with it for the rest of their career. Taylor Swift, an outsider to country and rhythmic music, chose to imitate icons of each genre in order to blend into the sound. She effectively camouflaged the parts of her upbringing that were foreign to country music in order to sell the notion that she belonged in the genre. Perhaps this is why, as a young teenager, she felt confident enough to call an ex-lover a "redneck heartbreak" despite her own reality of driving a Lexus instead of a pick-up truck. When she no longer had anything to prove, she dialed back many of the linguistic features she used in her first album. The fake rural accent turned into a twangy coloring, and she realized she didn't have dig into the Deepest South to sound "authentic."

Her forays into pop music show her abandoning her imaginary Southern heritage in favor of exaggerating her own reality as a young, female urbanite. Her record-breaking '1989' placed her in a tradition of anonymously-accented female singers. When she embarked upon another reinvention that drew from trap and trop house, she must have drawn from the lesson she learned after her first album: you don't have to use every feature of an accent to be effective. She imitated singers like Rihanna in slight ways. She even made her own inside jokes about her British boyfriend by injecting small doses of Anglicisms into her songs. Overall, her accent went from a long list of features to something that she downplayed.

The lessons to other singers: there's nothing wrong with imitating the idols of a genre as long as you keep your theatrical impulses in check. You can use accents artistically by drawing on stereotypes associated with that accent, as Taylor did when using Valley Girl affectations. It's also important to be sensitive to cultural concerns associated with particular accents, as we saw in the Reputation era. If you can navigate accent usage intelligently, it can be another trick in your creative bag.

What did you think about Taylor's accent-switching? Do you agree that her Southern accent got lighter over time? Is there another accent she's used I may have missed? And also, please post your suggestions for the next Dialect Dissection in the comments!

References

  1. Bernstein, Cynthia. "Grammatical Features of Southern speech: Yall, Might could, and fixin to". English in the Southern United States, 2003, pp. 106 Cambridge University Press
  2. Conroy, Tyler. "Taylor Swift: This Is Our Song." 2016, pp. 154
  3. Filppula, Markku; Klemola, Juhani; Sharma, Devyani. "The Oxford Handbook of World Englishes." 2017, pp. 501
  4. MacNeil, Robert & Cran, William. "Do You Speak American?" 2005, pp. 155
  5. Schneider, Edgar W. "The Americas and the Caribbean." 2008, pp. 72
  6. Trudgill, Peter. "Language in the British Isles." 1984, pp. 56
  7. Turner, Lynn H.; West, Richard. "Communication Accommodation Theory". Introducing Communication Theory: Analysis and Application (4th ed.). 2010.

Acknowledgements

A special thank you to Maithili Jais, Yadira Capaz, and the other proofreaders who helped make this article possible. You're the best!

12 comments:

  1. Wow great article. I love the samples and IPA transcriptions. Keep up the good work!

    Benny

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  2. Great article! I wonder why you feel the pronunciation of the medial plosive in "gettaway" is in imitation of Southern UK "posh" English? Could it not also be from Caribbean Englishes that you allude to elsewhere in relation to the album Reputation?

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    1. You're correct that this could also be from Caribbean English, but the Caribbean pronunciations seem to pop up in certain genres of songs that are more influenced by hip-hop/trap (Ready For It) or Tropical (Delicate). Getaway Car is firmly in the pop style she used on 1989. My reasoning was that the genre provided a clue as to where this pronunciation came from. Of course it is worth mentioning that this is not absolute and that some features are shared between multiple accents, which muddies the waters a little.

      Thank you for the comment! Excellent point. :)

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  3. Very interesting article!

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  4. The samples currently aren't working for me, is anyone else having his problem? Love the article though!

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    1. Hi Phil! Unfortunately it appears that so many people have played them that they've eaten up the bandwidth on Dropbox! I'm looking into solutions to prevent this from happening again. My current option is to just update the hosting for the month to save the links and then look into options from there.

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    2. You could try with google drive or other clouds. Regards.

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  5. Very interesting! There are things I'd never notice without reading them here first. Love it.
    Suggestion: could you write an article about why Billy Joel pronounce an 's' after the final 't' in the album "The Stranger" (e.g Moving Outs) and not in other albums?

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  6. I can look into it! I have noticed other singers do the same thing with the sound 'd'. Sometimes Lady Gaga pronounces 'd' at the end of a word like 'dzzzz'. I'll have to do more research into this to see where it comes from. (Coincidentally, she's also from New York!)

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  7. For "Keep you second-guessing like oh my God, who is she?" - Blank Space, 1989 you accidentally linked the "my ex man..." from shake it off.
    Also "Who's Taylor Swift anyway? Ew." is from 22 not we are never ever getting back together.
    Great article though.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for pointing out these errors! I've updated the article to fix them.

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