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June 20, 2018

Where are the British Accents?

"People lose their accent when singing!" Have you ever heard someone say that? Here's the thing... it's a little bit nonsensical. Country music is an entire genre made by people with regional accents and whose regional accents can be heard. African American English speakers' accents can be heard (note not all Black Americans speak AAVE, so remember the distinction is for Black Americans who speak AAVE). how can someone ignore these?

What people really mean when they say people "lose their accent" is referring to the inability to tell that a singer is English from a song. Song is apparently a magical property that makes accents disappear (though only some accents, since Southern and AAVE accents are apparently unaffected).

The reality is that many British singers purposefully change their accents when singing. Listen to the One Direction boys:

Liam Payne confesses that bosses at record label Syco (owned by Simon Cowell) encourage them to nurture their inner Yank. He says: “I don’t think you can really sing in a British accent. I think it’s a bit hard and sometimes a bit forced. Singing is an imitation at the end of the day, it’s the way you put things across.”
Louis Tomlinson, 19, from Doncaster, “I think in certain music genres you can really tell when people are British, but in pop it’s not as easy to get it across.”
Harry Styles, 19: "I have a theory... I think it’s all on who you grew up listening to and who your parents listened to. So when you sing, you’re singing along with them. I think you just apply that and you have that idea of singing.”
Louis agrees: “It’s what music you sang in the shower and what you listened to when you were young.”
Zayn, 20, “What Makes You Beautiful would sound more indie with a British accent.”

Zayn's comment about "What Makes you Beautiful" sounding "more indie" with a British accent is interesting. There does not appear to be the same restriction on accents in indie music as there is in pop music, which demands either General American or a modified AAVE. You can find punk bands and indie rock bands (The Ting Tings) where the singer clearly has a British accent. Louis Tomlinson's solo material (Miss You) shows his regional English accent clearly. This should be enough to disprove the notion that singing neutralizes a British accent, because we can hear examples of it.

So why do so many British singers try to sound American? Has it always been this way? British rock and roll bands from the 1960s tend to do their best imitation of AAVE. These bands were hugely succesful and influential on future British musicians, who would listen to those same records and try to get the same sound. In this way there is a period of time where mainstream British artists downplayed their accent or copied another one.

In the 80s you had Kate Bush, who sang with her British accent. The Human League had a big hit with "Don't You Want Me."

Nowadays it seems more common - though still not universal - for British singers to keep their accents, or at least *a* British accent. Ellie Goulding sings in an English accent, but she used to have a different accent. Florence Welch keeps many notably English pronunciations (Kiss with a fist). Perhaps this is due to the increasing prominence of indie music. it's no longer bizarre to hear British accents in pop or rock music. British accents can even be found in rap. After decades of being ignored, British accents may yet return to pop music.

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