No one asks why Adele speaks like a Londoner and sings like an American.
I once put this down to the obvious commercial reason that to sing in a manner that pleases American audiences is to make your music potentially more successful on the worldwide stage.
But that is too simplistic a solution. Writing Music Mania: How the Victorians joined the cult of Classical Music and why England has never been the same since, made me think about about the effect of accent on musical style. For instance, listen to this:
I do not have a very regional accent. It is a little stereotypical compared to many people I know. It is deemed posh considering I was born in Yorkshire and even more so for a neighbour of Liverpool. But such social niceties are essentially local. I am English.
American Accents in English Schools
As a child, I sang along to Disney films and musicals. Over time I became fairly adept at mimicking particular singers - American or not. By 11, I was the youngest lead in the high school’s production of Guy’s and Dolls, largely due to my ability to give a confident impersonation of "Adelaide" from the film version. However, very soon, without realising it, I was singing with an American twang all the time. That is not to say that I sounded authentic, but the closer the better. In my own mind it was the way to sing well, to sound as though I meant the lyrics, to impress others with talent. And I was not alone. We had an all-schools concert one year. A girl of 8 belted out Titanic's My Heart Will Go On as though she had been raised next door to Celine Dion in Canada. (In fact, we tended to think she had improved the hit song.) A few years later, in a variety show-style pantomime, our Prince Charming sang A Whole New World from Aladdin and she sang it with the same accent I have always used:
We may put on the American sound in order to imitate the original film’s sound. But that is not the only reason. Consider this, my attempt to maintain my native English accent for the same song:
Refer to the talking track above and you will notice that this version sounds more like “me”. But it does not sound as “good” because the short vowel sounds of the English accent do not sit well in the syncopation of the American song. The musical style is American and needs an American accent to pull it off, in the same way that an opera singer would have to study Italian in order to sing Puccini.
Gospel Sound in Cheshire
In my last two years of school, a black Gospel quartet visited my music class every week to teach us songs by ear. We finished by going to the local Philharmonic concert hall, to sing the same songs with pupils from all the other schools they had visited. They had selected one girl to sing the solo and this was how she sang:
The singer was as white and English as I am. Granted that the Gospel quartet were black and took their musical roots from American Gospel; but it was borderline crazy - if not insulting - to witness such an affected imitation.
I have attempted to sing this without the American sound. It is difficult. Listen to the vowel sound on “strong” and “carry on” and “long” and “body”. The “o” sound is dragged in a lazy way that makes it easy for an American to give the vocal an embellishment. But in an English accent, this vowel sound is short and tight; it is difficult to give it any ornament, which is why I kept reverting by accident to American for some “o” sounds. At best, it is stilted, awkward and unintentionally comic:
The American accent in popular singing has become a sign of quality, which is why every talent show contestant in England has the accent. Music cannot be sung successfully without the accent because the singer will not be deemed talented.
This is not a problem, as long as you are American. But whatever happened to English music?
Consider the articulation of this passage from the quintessentially English Arthur Sullivan’s music for Iolanthe:
This same music would not work with an American accent because the long vowel sounds would impede the rapid progress. An American would have to adopt an English style in order to achieve the right effect. The last word “begone” is a clipped order in an English accent and even though I have exaggerated it in American style for effect, it would be unsuccessful with a long “o”.
I have traced the annhiliation of English music in Music Mania. The American influence conquered England so much, so thoroughly, that to sing an English composition in an English accent is now the preserve of parody. English music is equal to old-fashioned, straight-laced, square. It involved clarity of word-setting. Any syncopation was not akin to jazz, but just for a brief effect. And, once upon a time, American composers adopted the same style! Sherman and Sherman’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was written to be sung with the short English vowel sound (just imagine the title song with long vowels). Victor Young’s marching Stouthearted Men has a strident appeal that would not be taken seriously in the music charts today.
A quality has been lost. Its loss may or may not be felt in America. But it is obvious from English shores because how many new songs can we sing without accommodating our tone, our manner of speech, our pronunciation, to that of another culture? We are chameleonic and derivative.
In his autobiography, Burt Bacharach recalled the dilemma of recording an album with Dionne Warwick and having to wait six weeks between the American release and distribution in England. In those six weeks, Cilla Black copied Warwick’s performance and released herself as the originator of the singing style!
We speak a lot about honesty and authentic voices in music, and then compromise. What we have lost - more even than our respect - is any style to call our own. We sing like Americans because we write music like Americans. There once was a style of English music, in which English people could sing without contorting their mouth unnaturally. My grandparents knew the songs, like this example by Harold Fraser-Simson.
We do not reassert English music by resurrecting old songs, or by singing the songs of others in an English way. We need to think English again, unafraid that others will judge us as wrong for being different to them. We need to be comfortable being ourselves. But, more than that, we need to have something to sing about. The much derided old-fashioned sound of English music was designed to communicate - whether it was a tragic ballad or a comic ditty. Words do not matter now that music is supreme and the sound alone is supposed to carry the message. It was an old-fashioned view that belonged to England only 100 years ago: to write music to be sung by English people and heard by English people and enjoyed by English people.
The Legacy of Loss
The early 20th century composer Howard Carr bemoaned that after 20 years of music from Berlin and Vienna, managers would now promote nothing but American music.
It is a long time since the British composer received so little encouragement as he has in recent years. Turn where one will, it is difficult to find evidence of British music; in fact, it is so seldom heard in comparison with foreign compositions that one might be apt to think that the public have a strong antipathy towards it. The truth is that to a large extent the public have to take what is given to them ... (cited in Music Mania: How the Victorians joined the cult of Classical Music and why England has never been the same since)
In case this article has seemed an overstated argument, I leave you with a few videos to consider, in the light of the concerns of composers like Howard Carr. These videos were filmed by my local county council, as the best my town can offer, on its most important festive days of the year. Flick through from act to act, by all means, but remember that these are ordinary English people, celebrating with American songs and accents. They don't know any other way.