Friday, May 22, 2009

Damn Yankees

Time for another round of "Smack" talk. This time we attempt to tackle the issues confronting the music industry, the state of the pop charts, and who exactly should be labeled as "having an accent." As always, feel free to weigh in by posting a comment, and enjoy.

Within Reason: Okay, I've asked this question of others before - and evidently the answers were so disappointing or uninspiring that they've left my mind:

I was listening to "Buffalo Stance" by Neneh Cherry today, and I had to remind myself that she was British due to the fact that her accent was indiscernible. Thing is, I had thing thought while listening to the spoken word intro. So, it would seem, British singers drop their "accent" (or adopt ours) the second a vocal mic is in their face. If Buffalo Stance doesn't do it for you, there's "Every Breath You Take" by The Police, "Your Love" by The Outfield, "Tears in Heaven" by Eric Clapton...I don't know where I'm getting these but they all prove the point - the accent disappears. Even Space Oddity by Bowie is only mildly British, and again, this is when he's speaking (the whole Grouwund Cuhntrol to Mayuhjuh Tum)...but once he starts singing, he could be from Nebraska.
So here's the question: If you are British, does it sound like Americans are singing all the time?

Smack: How about the Beatles? Reminds me of my favorite Celebrity Jeopardy quote: "Are you English or retarded?"

WR: Can't remember that quote. About the Beatles: I think their accents are more detectable than most British singer's, but on the whole, it's a wash. For instance, if you were not familiar with the artist beyond his music, and I told you Neil Young was British, would you say "wow, you can't tell!"? Probably not. Though, this also raises the point that Canadian accents also fall by the wayside.

S: What aboot Oasis? Then there are bands like The Ramones or Green Day: American bands that try to sound British.

WR: Exactly, they try. Is it the case, then, that British singers (for the most part) try to sound American (or Canadian)?

S: Well, I didn’t think it was about trying… And it looks like I’m right. Of course, this takes all the fun away from the discussion…From the National Center for Voice and Speech website:

Q: How come when people with a strong regional accent (i.e., Southern) or stuttering problem don't manifest it when they sing?
A: When people speak with an accent, they produce the vowel sounds differently than the person identifying them as having an accent. When singing, the vowels are prolonged and those differences are minimized.

People who stutter may have an easier time singing because of several possible reasons:

  • The support required in singing keeps the continuous voicing and airflow components moving easily.
  • Words are provided in singing, so the challenge of deciding what words to say isn't present.
  • Some feel that stuttering is a neurological disorder; the neural pathways involved in speech are disrupted somehow. Singing involves more right-hemisphere brain functions as compared to speaking, which is left-hemisphere dominated. Thus, singing may be easier to initiate and sustain than speech.

WR: Yeah, way to ruin this conversation. Since when have cold hard facts been interesting (sorry ESPN)? The answer still doesn't really get to the point, though, and for reasons you've already brought up. When you listen to Oasis, their vowels pronunciations are drawn out longer than that of, say, David Gilmour or Sting, yet the more compact vowels hide the accent - in these cases - better than the prolonged ones. Case in point: Oasis "Wonderwall": "I said maybaaaay, yur gonna be the one that sayaaves maaaay...." Pink Floyd: "On the Turning Away": "On the turning away."

I strike down the theory of the National Center for Voice and Speech!

S: I would argue that Oasis is a minority and Noel Gallagher consciously forces his accent. Can you think of any instances where someone sings with a Boston accent?

WR: Your first point is my point. Oasis is the minority - I want to know why. As far as a Boston accent - I'd say that's a bit trickier, because of the simple fact that a lot of singers, regardless of nationality (taken for granted we're talking about people singing in English), drop their 'r's. If you need a point of reference, think about "Round Here" by The Counting Crows." You notice the r in 'round herrrrre." Normally, 'r's kind of just fade off into nowhere, much like in the bleachers at a Red Sox game. Even Nelly tried to dig out a niche in the hip hop world by pronouncing his 'r's. You could argue that's a little different, and it is, but I think there's weight to the fact that he chose 'r' as opposed to 'g' or 's'...

S: I already told you why. Some Brit sings a song and his accent drops because singing and talking are physiologically different. Singing makes you sound "regionally neutral" for the most part. Unless of course you consciously force the accent. Like Oasis.

I said they're an exception because you were trying to use them as an example.

WR: Do you think Joe Strummer was forcing his accent? I don't. I also don't think that the parallels are there between why people drop a stutter and why people drop the accent. The point I brought up, about the elongated vowels of Oasis, works directly in contrast to the theory put forth by the NCVS.

Let's get away from Oasis and look at it this way - is the singing voice the true pronunciation of the English language? It sounds like the NCVS might think so, if they are putting forth that regional differences in pronunciation disappear when some one sings...and in that case, wouldn't it mean that, by default, Americans have a better pronunciation of the language?

S: Joe Strummer was a punk singer. Much more casual singing than "On the Turning Away," to use your own example. I think that makes it easier to retain the accent.
I would say that formal singing tends toward the natural pronunciation of the English language. I don't know if that means Americans have a better pronunciation of the language, though. Don't forget, we have Southern, Boston, New York, even Rhode Island accents over here. I think they all can disappear in music.

How about country music? Generally retains the drawl. Ryan Adams doesn't speak with an accent, but he sure puts it on sometimes. There are definitely differences among the genres.

WR: Well, I'm going to disagree about the vocal stylings of Joe Strummer and David Gilmour. Once you've heard Gilmour speak, you can tell that he actually has a very easy vocal style, in terms of it's similarity to his speaking voice - much like Nat King Cole.

Another angle is this - if we're going to agree that the natural singing voice - unless modified with intentional accents - is a more phonetically correct pronunciation of the language, do American national nightly news broadcasters have neutral accents? And if that's the case, does it sound like Brian Williams is singing the news in Britain? I don't think we'll settle this without bringing in an Englishman.

I'll tell you what will settle the whole "accents in music" thing really quickly, though: the vocoder. The vocoder must be stopped. Ring-tone music must be stopped. Music is devolving so rapidly, that by the sheer volume of horrible music out there, in 10 years NO ONE will be able to make halfway decent music anymore, even people who seek out the music that falls outside the mainstream to serve as their influence. Here's an example:
Here are the artists with the Top 10 Records this week, in order: Bob Dylan, Hannah Montana, Rascal Flatts, Rick Ross, Lady Gaga, Twilight (soundtrack), NOW 30 (various), Heavan and Hell (the re-formed, Dio-led Sabbath), and Tayolr Swift.
25 years ago, this week in 1984, here was the Top 10: Footloose (soundtrack), Lionel Richie "Can't Slow Down", Michael Jackson "Thriller", Huey Lewis and the News "Sports", Van Halen "1984", Culture Club Colour by Numbers", Cyndi Lauper "She's So Unusual, Scorpions "Love at First Sting", The Cars "Heartbeat City", Rush "Grace Under Pressure."

Now, I'm not going to sit here and say that downloading isn't a big problem, but if the music industry wants to know what the problem is, I'll give them a hint: the product that you are selling stinks. I'm not saying Dylan stinks, but Dylan is old. You don't see Frank Sinatra on the 1984 chart. People don't buy records en masse anymore, because it is a very small percentage of the population that can sit through a Lady Gaga record without harming themselves, or others.

S: I don't think it sounds like Americans are singing any more than it sounds like Joe Strummer is speaking during "Rock the Casbah."

Must I point out that you are a huge fan of "Snap Yo Fingaz"?

WR: Must I point out that "Snap Yo Fingaz" was, and still is, considered to be a novelty hit?
I think the real problem is, is that somewhere in the late 1980s, synthesized music took over almost exclusive control of the pop charts. Now, I enjoy a pop hit at least as mush as the next guy, but it is sad to think that the days of a Huey Lewis and the News - essentially a bar band cutting records that made it big - or even a Genesis - a former prog act that said to themselves (after the departure of Peter Gabriel) "Uuhh, why can't we write pop hits?" Cue Phil Collins saying, "Can sing on this one? Ahem, 'Just as I thought it was going all right..." and voila: Pop hit "That's All." This lasted into the late eighties, with "rock" bands like Poison, ROCK bands like Guns ' n Roses, and just regular old "pop" bands like Roxette (Listen to Your Heart, The Look, It Must Have Been Love). Nowadays, a "band" is four or five dudes or cute girls dancing around and lip synching to music made predominantly by machines. I's Milli Vanilli's fault...
Milli Vanilli showed up for an audition and said "I'm Rob" "and I'm Fab..1,2,3,4 Girl you know..." and the producer just gave the thumbs up, pretended the tape was rolling, and said, "You've got the job!" "Should we bring our guitars next time?," they might have asked, and the producer says "Uhh, no, well, sure, whatever. Just bring your good looks and your dancing shoes, boys." That was 1989, and it's been all downhill from there. And then, even though it was a quasi-international scandal, every single record label in the world thought "Hmmmm." Only "Smells Like Teen Spirit" delayed the onslaught of the boy band. Oh, Kurt Cobain...where are you to defend us now...?

S: I see your point, but...Devil's Advocate says, "Why are Pearl Jam's records `music' more so than Timbaland's or Kanye's? Who's to say that what is produced by a drummer, bassist, guitarist, and vocalist is superior to what a producer can do with Pro Tools, or what I can do with Garage Band?" Ignore the rock purist within you that wants to lash out at your monitor right now. I'm not trying to put the Spice Girls on the same level as the Rolling Stones, but hey, there have always been bad rock bands too. Music is an evolving art. There was much ado about Dylan going electric. Don't get stuck in the past.

WR: I see what you're saying, but here's my point. It's all "music." What I'm talking about is the level of talent involved in making the music. This is going to sound like a crazy stat - but I'd say that 50% of Americans under 40 could come up with a catchy little beat that would stick in your head for a week or two if properly produced. What technology has done is allow people like this to make their music widely available. There's nothing wrong with that, per se, but I'm not too psyched for Lady Gaga's 3rd album, where she goes acoustic.
You're right that there have always been bad rock bands, a lot of whom end up on the charts (I'm looking at you, Limp Bizkit). There have always been pop groups that did no more than sing and dance (The Supremes, The Four Tops, etc.).
I know I sound like I'm stuck in the past, but as I write this, I have my iPod shuffling (don't get me started on that), and "Head Over Heels" by Tears For Fears has come on. Tears For Fears were a 100% bona-fide pop band. Instrument playing, dual vocal outfit that wrote hits. Wrote, arranged, and performed their hits. When Green Day's album comes out in a few weeks, they will be the only pop band on the charts equaling that achievement. You can discount Heaven and Hell, because the market for new music has only recently dipped low enough for them to dent the top 10 (no way they're there in 1998), and Rascal Flatts is a "country" act, and they'll pop up from time to time, too.
I guess it really goes back to the point we were making in our "La-a" discussion: Our standards are constantly evolving. In this case, however, you can see that the music industry is finding out that their standards are well below ours, and they are learning that the only demographic that truly votes are consumers, albeit with their feet.


  1. Ryan Adams is from North Carolina, and in a lot of his early songs, especially with Whiskeytown, you can hear the drawl. I imagine years of living in NYC eroded it in his speech but every once in a while it
    surfaces in his singing. Southern accents seem to me, originally a southerner, the hardest to lose completely. All I have to do, 30 years away from the south, is talk to my aunt on the phone and my accent resurfaces for a while.

  2. I think Arnold Schwarzenegger might have you beat. He's been here for 41 years, having moved to America at age 21 in 1968, and his accent is as strong as ever.

    He must frequently speak with family members back home (wink wink). As long as he doesn't sing, though, we'll never be able to figure out just how stubborn that Austrian accent truly is, I guess.

    Thanks for visitng, and thanks for weighing in.