Friday, 5 October 2007

ON ACCENTS IN TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY POPULAR MUSIC

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The present increasingly desperate attempts by the commercial musical mainstream to adopt caricatured Indie! posturings having resulted in a vogue for an exaggerated, bogus colloquialism as regards the pronunciation of lyrics, now might be an appropriate juncture to reflect on the issue of accents in popular music.

The leaders of the current school of corporate-independent music – Lily Allen, The Kooks, Kate Nash - united in their predilection for placing an inordinate emphasis on ostentatiously enunciated regional accents in their work, might in self-defence point to a long tradition in popular music of adopting an alien vocal pronunciation in the name of good art. For all that the Beatles initiated a short-lived trend for their native Liverpudlian accent in mid-sixties pop, the larger portion of their vocals are consciously Americanised, if somewhat idiosyncratically and often erroneously (a comic case in point occurring in their cover of ‘’Til There Was You’, with Macca inserting a rhotic ‘r’ sound into the word saw: ‘but I never sore them singing’). Other of the notable British bands of the period – The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, even quintessentially ‘English’ bands such as The Kinks - shared this tendency adopt American or ‘mid-Atlantic’ pronunciation. With punk arrived half-notions of authenticity giving rise to an aggrandisement of the demotic, but did the cockneyfied vocals of Joe Strummer really accord with his middle-class background (this is not to mention the Geordie Sting’s hideous cod-Jamaican travesties in the ensuing era)?

Good popular musicians, like all good artists, understand that creativity involves all manner of role-playing, mask-wearing, and experimentation with a multitude of disparate identities just as much as it demands fidelity to one’s origins (cf. Shakespeare’s ‘This above all: to thine own self be true’ (Hamlet, 1.3.78), alongside the countervailing, and perhaps more representative, view of Jacques in As You Like It, ‘All the world’s a stage … and one man in his time plays many parts’ (2.7.139-142)). Any creative process is fundamentally one of transformation through affectation, of development through the exploration and adoption of foreign modes. Conversely, clinging dogmatically to fixed, naively naturalistic notions of selfhood can get you into all kinds of trouble, not the least of which might be a tendency to produce boring, conservative art that endlessly repeats the same calcified puritanical half-truths, founded on the spurious notion that a straightforward artistic representation of truth is at all possible (cf. The Twang, Kasabian, latter-day Oasis &c).

So there is nothing wrong with attempting to expand artistic horizons by adopting an exotic persona. The deployment of an unusual vocal inflection might even allow you to realize otherwise unattainable creative goals. Would the Rolling Stones or Radiohead ever have been taken seriously if Mick Jagger and Thom Yorke hadn’t replaced their monotonic Home Counties accents with more sonorous and malleable American modes of speech? Isn’t this all Allen, Nash, Luke Kooks et al are doing by appropriating, respectively, ‘New London’ and Scouse accents?

Well, yes and no. On the one hand, as has been suggested, it is perfectly acceptable to try out new roles if the aim is to enhance your range of creative possibilities. However, a far less generous response might be expected if your aim in adopting a regional accent is not in fact artistic but motivated by a desire to co-opt the anti-authoritarian brio of the cultural margins in order to align yourself with a commercial trend for ‘edgy’ music that also evokes the ghost of alternative music of the past without retaining any of its original political or aesthetic impetus. For alternative music to retread shaky notions of authenticity is one thing, but what happens when the mainstream begins to disguise its naked corporate avarice by attempting to borrow an authenticity that was never quite authentic in the first place, capitalizing on the misconceptions of an aging demographic who, mindful of an adolescence spent listening to Old Indie, still naively equate external trimmings such as a distinctive regional accent with precarious if well-meaning concepts of ‘realness’?

The defense for the Kooks and co. is negated by the fact that they make a virtue (and presumably lots of money) out of borrowing the last scattered remains of the counter-culture’s rhetoric of legitimacy, cloaking their upper-middle class accents (which would give the game away as regards their Thatcherite, money/fame-oriented intentions) by posing as marginal figures in defiance of a mainstream they secretly epitomize.

1 comment:

michael spearman said...

What about the Arctic Monkeys? Their 'cheeky' stream-of-consciousness lyrics have a wryness that matches the accents in which they are delivered perfectly but are the Monkeys genuinely not aware of how slick their northern 'brand' is?