October 21, 2020

Now here you go again - Stevie Nicks' Incomprehensible Singing

Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" has found new popularity with the younger generation as a popular TikTok featuring a man skateboarding, drinking cranberry juice, and lip syncing the song has gone viral.

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♬ Dreams (2004 Remaster) - Fleetwood Mac

While listening to the song, I was reminded of how I always found Stevie Nicks kind of hard to understand - I'm pretty sure I just made up half the lyrics to "Dreams" whenever I sang it.

I listened to the following three songs: Rhiannon, Dreams, and Gold Dust Woman. All three were primarily written and performed by Nicks, and are considered signature songs for her. I left out songs like "I Don't Wanna Know" and "The Chain," both of which had Nicks as writer but not as the primary vocalist. I also did not look at any post-Rumours albums because it gets weird and also I did not want to.

We are lucky enough to have studio and filtered acapella tracks, which makes it easier to tell what is her singing and what is interference from the background. I have selected clips from the below tracks to illustrate.




Stevie Nicks seems to operate on the base American Rock Register, which is influenced primarily by African American English and secondarily by white Southern English. The following features are quite common among 70s rock bands:

  • PRICE-monophthongization. Every "I" becomes an "ah" for Nicks.
    • "Who am [a] to keep you down?" (Dreams)
  • CAUGHT-diphthongization. "Want" sounds like "wa-unt."
    • "You wawnt your freedom" (Dreams)
  • TRAP-diphthongized. Nicks splits the vowel in words like "had" into two vowels.
    • "What you "he-ad and what you lost." (Dreams)
    • "Thunder only heappens when it's raining." (Dreams)
    • "Heave you any dreams you'd like to sell?" (Dreams)
    • "She's like a ceat in the dark" (Rhiannon, 0:44)
  • STRUT-centralization - the 'uh' sound in "loves" is raised to sound kind of like "lurves."
    • "See your sunrise lurves to go down." (Gold Dust Woman)
  • KIT-diphthongization. Nicks loves to split short 'ih' sounds into two vowels.
    • "Wake up ian the mornian'" (Gold Dust Woman)
    • "Neaver seen a woman taken by the wiand" (Rhiannon)
  • Non-rhoticism. Nicks pronounces 'er' sounds as 'uh.'
    • "Lousy lovas." (Gold Dust Woman)

Fleetwood Mac originated as a blues band, but Nicks's arrival in the band heralded a shift towards more lush pop material. The band still used a lot of acoustic instrumentation, and the electric instruments like guitars and keyboards were not used aggressively. Nicks' faux Southern/AAE accent jibes perfectly well with the band's musical direction, as well as the musical zeitgiest of the time.

All her Southern features are vowel-based, and most of them introduce diphthongs. The only one that reduces a diphthong, PRICE-monophthongization, has been standard in American rock for so long that it's almost not even worth mentioning. (I wonder if Lana Del Rey was influenced by Nicks - her love of diphthongizing the short 'i' KIT vowel is very Nicksian.)

Nicks also has the following features, non-consistently?

  • Consonant deletion.
    • "It's o-ly right that you should..." (Dreams)
    • "Bla[ʔ] widow." (Gold Dust Woman)
  • Consonant lenition.
    • "Pick your [f]ath and I'll p[f]ray" (Gold Dust Woman)
    • /t/s before /l/s become vocalized and flapped.
      • "Hea[r]less challenge." (Gold Dust Woman)
      • "But they never cry ou[r] loud." (Gold Dust Woman)
    • GOAT-monopthongization. "In your shad[o]" (Gold Dust Woman)
    • Lack of aspiration.
      • "Mmm [p]ale shadow, she's a dragon." (Gold Dust Woman)
      • "Women, they will [k]ome and they will go." (Dreams)
      • Very emphatic /b/. "She rings like a Bell in the night." Could be an example of cowboy (implosive) b? (Rhiannon)
      • Splitting one syllable into two: "It's only right that you should p-lay the way you feel it." (Dreams)
      • EmPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble. "When the rain wash-ES you clean, you'll know." (Dreams)

      If you're a long-time reader, you may recognize some of these features from my Ariana Grande article. These features increase singability by simplifying a more complex syllable into CVCV.

      Combined with Stevie Nick's recognizably light, breathy voice and floaty phrasing, it's clear that Stevie Nicks is not singing for comprehensibility, but for aesthetic effect. She loves to stretch out her vowels, especially in words like "cat" and "win" that would normally be harder to sing.

      Finally, it does not help that her lyrics are unusual for American rock. She uses a lot of symbolic imagery and unusual collocations, making it harder to fill in the gaps if you happen to miss a word. If the topic is "I love you, tell me it's true" you've probably heard enough variations on a lyric like that to be able to fill in what's going on if the singer slurs "I love you, tell ??? it's true." But it's harder to predict what's meant to go in "It's ??? ??? that you should play away your ???."

      "Rock on gold dust woman
      Take your silver spoon
      Dig your grave
      Heartless challenge
      Pick your path and I'll pray
      Wake up in the morning
      See your sunrise loves to go down
      Lousy lovers pick their prey
      But they never cry out loud" - Gold Dust Woman

      "Now, here I go again, I see
      The crystal vision
      I keep my visions to myself
      It's only me, who wants to
      Wrap around your dreams and
      Have you any dreams you'd like to sell" - Dreams

      "She rules her life like a fine skylark
      And when the sky is starless
      All your life you've never seen
      A woman taken by the wind
      Would you stay if she promised you heaven?" - Rhiannon

      Having listened to these songs again, Stevie Nicks is not the most incomprehensible singer. Ariana Grande is more willing to play fast and loose with consonantts than Stevie is, who is picky about when she deletes and when she stretches. Nicks is also not the most unusual vowel performer. A band like Alt-J is easily weirder than her.

      She actually reminds me a little of Fergie when she did that really weird rendition of the American National Anthem. Weird phrasing, a recognizable tonal color, and unpredictable phonetic changes. The difference is Stevie Nicks wrote these songs, and so her interpretation of them matched with the lyrics and the production - Fergie's version of the Star Spangled Banner clashes with previous renditions we've heard before by going for a weird slow sexy cabaret thing.

      What makes Stevie Nicks's performance so memorable? Perhaps when the rain wash-es us clean, we'll know.

October 12, 2020

And in cheeching you will learn: More Stop-Affrication

I've written about sounds becoming fricatives (like 'v', 'zh') or affricates (like 'ts', 'ch', 'dj') multiple times on the blog: glides becoming fricatives, /tr/ and /dr/ clusters getting affricated, and all manner of stops becoming affricates.

Today I present to you a very simple example of stops becoming affricates: /t/ becoming /tʃ/ before a high vowel. This is happens commonly across languages. Those of you studying Japanese may know that historically, the sequence /ti/ became [tɕi] and /tu/ became /tsu/.

I don't know exactly how common this is in English, but I've found /t/ becoming /tʃ/ before /i/. Example from Phil Collins:

In learning you will [tʃ]eech (teach), and in [tʃ]eeching (teaching) you will learn

Example number two is from the Backstreet Boys. Notice that although there is a /tʃ/ in 'reach' before the 'to', the singer clearly stops and produces a second /tʃ/ sound for "to." I would imagine that this one is influenced by the nearby /tʃ/ in the environment (he doesn't affricate the 't' in 'two worlds' one line before), but it's still neat.

Can't rea[tʃ] [tʃ]o your heart

October 5, 2020

ABBA's Special Swedish Sibilants

I'm curious as to whether any of the members of ABBA have any non-standard features in Swedish.

Members of ABBA. From left to right: Benny Andersson, Frida Lyngstad, Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus.

The two men, Björn and Benny, grew up in major cities (Goteburg and Stockholm, respectively), so I don't expect them to have anything distinct from Central Standard Swedish. Frida (the brown-haired mezzo soprano) was born in Norway, but grew up in a small Swedish town which I can't find much about.

The members of ABBA having an interview in Swedish. Do you hear anything unusual? Sounds pretty standard Stockholm Swedish to my (limited) ear.

Agnetha (the blonde soprano) grew up in Jönköping, which is a town in Småland. Småland is a region in the south of Sweden which does have some interesting phonetic features, though Jönköping lies outside of that isogloss. I have found at least one phonetic curiosity from Agnetha.

Central Standard Swedish has a process of retroflexion that occurs when an alveolar /r/ gets too close to a dental consonant like /t, d, n, l, s/. The two produce a single retroflexed (or postalveolar) consonant: [ʈ, ɖ, ɳ, ɭ, ʂ]. So a word like "förstå" (to understand) will be pronounced [fœ̞ʂˈtoː].

This retroflexion only occurs in dialects that have an alveolar /r/ sound. In Southern Swedish, the standard /r/ is a uvular [ʁ] instead. This means no assimilation happens, so no retroflexion happens.

Agnetha grew up in the Southern region of Swedish, but she does not have that uvular [ʁ] sound. Does she still do retroflexion? Well, inconsistently.

In her debut single "Jag var så kär" (I was so in love), she sings "Men nu först förstår jag" (but now I begin to understand), with two opportunities for retroflexion: "först förstår." She actually splits the difference: "först" has [ʂ] but förstår has [s].

Men nu för[ʂ]t för[s]tår jag

I was tipped off to the existence of this detail by this blog (Swedish). Apparently this is the only noteworthy Swedish-dialect pronunciation in Agnetha's discography, because nobody else has made any reference to her accent.

Why the difference between [ʂ] and [s] in these closely related words? May have to do with the syllable struct. The /st/ cluster in "först" is in the coda, or end, of the word. Meanwhile the /st/ cluster in "förstår" is at the onset: för-står.

Perhaps underlyingly, the 'r' in "förstår" being in a different syllable than the "står" means that it cannot 'travel forward' and cause the 's' to assimilate. This would predict that the assimilation shouldn't happen across syllable boundaries.

So Agnetha's assimilation rules would be a little different compared to a Jönköping-er who has a uvular 'r', and no assimilation at all. It would be interesting to see how much other people from this region with alveolar 'r' have assimilation: similar to Stockholmers (lots of assimilation), similar to Southern Swedes with uvular 'r' (no assimilation), or variable assimilation (with different rules, or assimilation is part of a word itself).

I'll give Agnetha's discography a re-listen to see if she continues to avoid assimilation. Perhaps, this being her first single, nobody gave her any accent coaching. Once she became popular, record labels may have wanted her to sound more standard, and so she may end up avoiding this in the future.

October 1, 2020

Spooky Smoothing in Backstreet's Back

In honor of the spookiest month of the year, I've been watching the Halloween-themed video "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" by the famous 90s band the Backstreet Boys.

Despite having listened to it for several years, this week was the first time I noticed that the chorus was not, in fact, "everybody (yeah) rock your body (yeah)", but in fact had a phantom 'yeah' added in: "Everybody yeah (yeah) rock your body yeah (yeah)." I checked several lyrics sites to confirm this and yes, these are the official lyrics. How did I miss this yeah for so long?

Well, the introduction of the song has a very clear extra yeah.

Everybody, yeah. Rock your body, yeah.
ɛvrɪbadɪ jɛə. rɑk jo bɑdɪ jɛə

You can clearly hear that there is a 'y' in that 'yeah'. Compare how they say "body yeah" with the next section, with no 'yeah':

Rock your body right.
rɑk jo bɑdɪ rait
It turns out that this pattern of a lyrics plus a 'yeah' actually repeats in every chorus. But I had never noticed because, well, there is some pretty wild smoothing going on:
Everybodye (yeah) rock your bodye (yeah)
ɛvrɪbadɪɛ (jɛə) rɑk jo bɑdɪɛ (jɛə)

Did you catch it? [ɛvrɪbadɪ jɛə] has become [ɛvrɪbadɪɛ] or [ɛvrɪbadɪə]. The [j] has mysteriously disappeared!

It doesn't help that the Backstreet Boys use a lax-HAPPY vowel in 'everybody' and 'body,' which means there is less distance between the 'ih' in 'everybody' and the 'eh' of the swallowed yeah. I think I would have noticed it if they had used a tense HAPPY-vowel - it would have been harder to ignore the difference in vowel quality.

This particular conversion of a falling diphthong to a monophtong is called smoothing, or at least it is in the study of English. Indeed, the only other example I can think of smoothing happens in RP, where a word like 'fire' /faɪə/ can become [faə].

Is this part of some larger linguistic trend? Not that I can tell. The lax-HAPPY is definitely very typical of the period (as I shall write about soon), but I don't think smoothing of this sort was widespread. This smoothing seems to have been motivated by the meldody, which was melismatic in the first chorus ("Everybody, ye-e-ah") and then became syllabic in the following choruses ("everybody-e"). It was easier to reduce the 'yeah' to a monophthong than to try and produce the full form, especially since the full form was repeated by the backing vocals anyway.