Why Don't You Hear Someone's Accent in a Song?

cookelma/iStock via Getty Images
cookelma/iStock via Getty Images

Reader Jared wrote in with this question: "Why do singers I perceive as having accents (i.e. Adele, Bono, etc.) have those accents when they talk, but not when they sing?"

I hear what Jared is saying. Or, rather, I don't hear it. While there are certainly exceptions, I've heard a thick accent on many European singers when they give interviews, but they sound as American as apple pie - which, to American ears, means "no" accent - when belting out their songs. (Except maybe these guys.) If I'd only heard Eric Clapton or Bono sing instead of speak, I'd believe you if you said they were from the States.

There are two main reasons, from what I can tell, for this perceived loss of accent.

One is technical. As Billy Bragg — a guy who's never had difficulty letting his accent shine through — explains, "You can’t sing something like 'Tracks of Your Tears' in a London accent. The cadences are all wrong." Different accents are often defined by their rhythms, intonation and vowel quality and length. For many accents, the tune and the rhythm of a song can constrain these qualities to the point where the accent seemingly disappears.

This is true even for certain qualities of the General American accent and regional American accents related to it. GenAm is a rhotic accent, which means speakers pronounce the letter r at the end of words like car and lover. But if most Americans sang those words the same way they said them, they'd sound like pirates. Instead, many songs force American singers to push the r more towards a vowel ah sound, the same way many Brits might pronounce it. (See Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher" for examples of both sounds. In some performances he pronounces the r fully, and in others he holds back on it.)

Of course, it is possible for a variety of accents to maintain their unique characteristics within the constraints of song. There's no mistaking where The Beatles, The Proclaimers or The Pogues were from. So, if you can sing with your accent, why wouldn't you?

There also seems to be a social factor to the Incredible Disappearing Accent. I'm just speculating here, but if they have a very thick regional or working-class accent, some singers may want to drop it on their way to music superstardom in favor of a more fashionable or mainstream accent (the exception being American country and western music, where a down home Southern drawl gets you major street cred). Still others might have masked their accent's particular eccentricities in an effort to imitate the sound of their musical idols. This might help explain why the "British Invasion" bands, whose appeal to Americans was their very Britishness, largely kept their accents in their songs, but acts like Led Zeppelin, Cream and the Rolling Stones, heavily influence by African American blues musicians, had more American-sounding vocals.
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While we're on the topic, here's a question I'd love to see some input on in the comments: Is this apparent accent loss peculiar to foreign ears? That is, can Brits still detect the accent on Adele when Americans can't? Do foreign ears just miss the subtleties of Bono's accent still shining through when he sings? What about the differences in two regional accents? In that vein, even though I'm not from the South, I listen to a lot of country music, and can tell the difference between a singer from Texas and one from Tennessee. To my friends who aren't country fans, however, they both just sound "Southern."

In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

In 1989, some three decades after King had earned his doctorate, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

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Who Is 'The Real McCoy'?

Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Ypsilanti Historical Society, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After taking a cool, carbonated sip of champagne from the Champagne region of France, you might say, “Ah, now that’s the real McCoy.” Sparkling wine from anywhere else is technically just sparkling wine.

The phrase “the real McCoy,” which can be used to describe any genuine version of something, has several possible origin stories. And while none of them mention champagne, a few do involve other types of alcohol.

According to HowStuffWorks, the earliest known recorded instance of the saying was an 1856 reference to whisky in the Scottish National Dictionary—"A drappie [drop] o' the real MacKay”—and by 1870, a pair of whisky distillers by the name of McKay had adopted the slogan “the real McKay” for their products. As the theory goes, the phrase made its long journey across the pond, where it eventually evolved into the Americanized “McCoy.”

Another theory suggests “the real McCoy” originated in the United States during Prohibition. In 1920, Florida-based rum runner Bill McCoy was the first enterprising individual to stock a ship with alcohol in the Caribbean, sail to New York, and idle at least three miles offshore, where he could sell his wares legally in what was then considered international waters. Since McCoy didn’t water down his alcohol with substances like prune juice, wood alcohol, and even turpentine, people believe his customers started calling his top-notch product “the real McCoy.” There’s no definitive proof that this origin story is true, but The Real McCoy rum distillery was founded on the notion.

There are also a couple other leading theories that have nothing to do with alcohol. In 1872, inventor Elijah McCoy patented a self-regulating machine that lubricated parts of a steam engine without the need for manual maintenance, allowing trains to run continuously for much longer distances. According to Snopes, the invention’s success spawned a plethora of poor-quality imitations, which led railroad personnel to refer to McCoy’s machines as “the real McCoy.”

Elijah McCoy’s invention modernized the transportation industry, but he wasn’t the only 19th-century McCoy who packed a punch. The other was welterweight champion Norman Selby, better known as Kid McCoy. In one story, McCoy decked a drunken bar patron to prove that he really was the famous boxer, prompting others to christen him “the real McCoy.” In another, his alleged penchant for throwing fights caused the press to start calling him “the real McCoy” to acknowledge when he was actually trying to win. And yet another simply suggests that the boxer’s popularity birthed so many McCoy-wannabes that Selby started to specify that he was, in fact, the real McCoy.

So which “the real McCoy” origin story is the real McCoy? The 1856 Scottish mention of “the real MacKay” came before Elijah McCoy’s railroad invention, Kid McCoy’s boxing career, and Bill McCoy’s rum-running escapades, but it’s possible that the phrase just gained popularity in different spheres at different times.

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