“You’re Turning Into John Wayne” – An Analysis of Accents in Music

Listen to any mainstream music radio station and chances are most of what you’ll hear will be either American artists or artists singing in some sort of generic American accent. Currently, American artists rule most of the western world’s music charts (with the odd exception) and the small minority of English singing artists will often adopt this generic accent, perhaps to appeal to a more global audience.

Baring this in mind, I recently conducted a poll, asking people to vote on whether they believe vocalists should use their own accent and when. The answers to choose from were:

  • Yes! No more silly generic singing please.
  • Yes, but only if it sounds natural and not forced.
  • It depends on both the accent and the music genre.
  • No, it alienates many listeners.

Around 75% of voters chose the second option, that vocalists should only sing in their own dialect if they came across naturally, whilst the other 25% voted that original accents should always be used and vocalists should never adopt a fake American drawl.

So why do so many bands and artists, in the UK particular, decide against embracing their own accent?

Twin Atlantic Live Concert @ Ancienne Belgique Bruxelles-7519

Credit: Kmeron

As mentioned, it could be this idea of attempting to appeal to a wider, more global audience. Perhaps some vocalists feel their own accent, particularly the heavier ones, might alienate and turn off listeners and only appeal to a limited audience and most musicians just want their songs to reach as many people as possible, as much as possible.

In this sense, perhaps it’s a conscious decision on the part of the vocalist, to do their bit in helping themselves as a solo artist, or their band to gain more fans. As we’ve seen, the results of the poll prove that this is not the case and that people will accept, even embrace the original accents of vocalists. Not only does it sound natural, it gives the music a unique twist, something different that stands out from the mainstream and has its own character.

However, another reason for taking on this generic singing accent may be that it is how the vocalist has grown up and been brought up – singing along to pop videos on MTV (back when they actually played music videos) or their parents’ records when they were young, singing Christmas carols in the school choir where proper pronunciation is absolutely key, etc…

You begin to realise how singing in an accent different to their own becomes the norm for many vocalists and when they grow up to become proper musicians, they know no other way. Singing with a generic accent is natural for them, it’s what they feel comfortable with and this is what is most important because if an artist doesn’t come across naturally (no matter how bizarre the music in question may be) chances are the music will be awful.

So what about vocalists who do sing in the own accents? Again, I’m speaking only about English speaking artists, with particular reference to those in the UK. With Hip Hop and rap, British artists seem more than happy to embrace their own accents – the likes of Dizzee Rascal, Professor Green, Plan B and Example are all big names in the UK music industry. What’s interesting, however, is how the latter two swiftly adopt a different accent when singing instead of rapping. I would like to ask them personally why they choose to do this. Perhaps for one of the reasons I gave above?

Scottish Hip Hop, on the other hand, isn’t so big. There is a massive scene there, but it’s a little elusive which is a shame. The LaFontaines are perhaps one of the most famous Scottish Hip Hop bands, then there’s the likes of Stanley Odd, Madhat McGore and Hector Bizerk amongst many others, not daring to shy away from their accents, but using them as a key aspect of their music, adding to the geographical imagery their lyrics create.

In pop and rock, accents are a little more sparse. In England, you have The Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner, Maximo Park’s Paul Smith, Kaiser Chiefs’ Ricky Wilson, all embracing their own accents and gaining quite a lot of success at their peak with smaller acts such as Blood Red Shoes and Trails adopting the same technique. In Ireland, there’s Two Door Cinema Club, General Fiasco and Axis Of – I struggled to come up with any more, it seems they are a rare breed but if you have any suggestions, feel free to comment below!

In Scotland, however, I’m spoilt for choice. Out of nowhere, Scottish bands embracing their accents burst onto the mainstream just a few years ago, with the likes of Glasvegas and Biffy Clyro leading the way.

This gave vocalists of bands all around Scotland a very large incentive to sing freely in their own accents and with the UK’s new love affair with Scottish bands came the success of Glasgow’s Twin Atlantic and a host of smaller acts including Frightened Rabbit, We Were Promised Jetpacks, The Xcerts, Sucioperro, Make Sparks, Bwani Junction, Fatherson, Carnivores… the list goes on. In fact, it’s probably easier to list Scottish bands who don’t sing in their own dialect.

From embarrassing to embracing, this idea is probably best summed up by Arab Strap’s Adrian Moffat in an article published on The Guardian’s website in March this year:

When I was young, all Scottish bands seemed to want to be English or American and I found that really peculiar. We’re still a fucking miserable bunch, but we certainly seem more proud and comfortable with our own identity than we were in the past.

Another Scottish vocalist to thoroughly embrace his accent and forsake all others who don’t is Twin Atlantic’s Sam McTrusty. The Glaswegian frontman doesn’t hide where he’s from with his strong dialect and even penned a song which appeared on the band’s debut album Vivarium about his dislike of people losing their accents and developing this generic American accent I previously discussed. He called it ‘You’re Turning Into John Wayne’.

So, should vocalists use their own accents? If they want to and feel it’s more natural then why not? But if they prefer to use a more generic, nicely rounded American accent for the same reasons then I see no harm. Accents are great for, as I said earlier, adding that something extra and perhaps even giving the music a more geographical element but, either way works fine, so long as the music is still good!

Feel free to comment with your own thoughts about accents in music, your favourite accents, your favourite bands and musicians who sing with strong dialects. It’s a great topic for a discussion and I’d love to get one started.

As always, thanks for reading!

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EDIT: This article now features on Fish In A Sub music website.

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