Popular music

Most singers from the UK sound American – but British grime artists are bucking the trend

This common phenomenon is especially striking when we happen to know that, when speaking, the singer shows strong regional features.

Most British pop and rock stars sing with an American accent. But UK grime artists are taking pride in their Britishness and staying true to their regional roots.

It doesn’t matter where in the UK a singer is from or how they sound when they speak, when the song begins the regional accent usually ends. In its place emerges a general American-type accent. Not precisely identifiable in terms of region but certainly more US than UK.

This common phenomenon is especially striking when we happen to know that, when speaking, the singer shows strong regional features. Think Adele, Cheryl Cole, Jamelia, Mick Jagger, Ozzy Osbourne, all of whom have distinctly regional accents but adopt an Americanised singing style.

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Why American?

So, why is this the case? Most likely it’s a combination of two main factors, one linguistic, one social. Linguistically, the very process of singing has an accent-neutralising effect. Accent differences are largely created through intonation, vowel quality and vowel length – all of which are affected when we sing. In singing, syllables are lengthened, air flow is increased, articulation is less precise. Thus we get a more generic, neutralised accent that happens to share features with American varieties of English.

Socially, there is an expectation (based on musical history) that popular music will be sung this way. It’s not that singers are consciously trying to sound “American”, rather they are adopting the default style for their genre. Linguist Andy Gibson noted a similar trend in New Zealand singers and suggested we should simply call it a “pop music accent”.

Alex Turner from Arctic Monkeys.  Alterna2/Flickr, CC BY
Alex Turner from Arctic Monkeys. Alterna2/Flickr, CC BY

But this accent neutralisation isn’t inevitable, as the numerous exceptions over the years illustrate. Artists such as Madness, Ian Dury, Lily Allen (London), The Proclaimers, Biffy Clyro (Scotland) and Cerys Matthews (Wales) have all maintained aspects of their regional accents to varying degrees when singing. Linguistics professor Joan Beal explored the use of local accent and dialect features in the music of Sheffield band Arctic Monkeys, suggesting that it represents their authenticity and independence from the corporate machine.

“UK grime” seems to be continuing this tradition. Originating in early 2000s east London, grime is a uniquely British descendant of UK garage, bashment, drum and bass, jungle, and dancehall that has been spreading across the country. And while it does have its own genre-appropriate language in the form of Multicultural London English, there are distinct signs of regional variation.

As you move away from London, features of Multicultural London English appear in the speech of young people in other cities, suggesting that it has become the language of urban British youth. However, small regional differences exist and this is reflected in musical performance. Just as Arctic Monkeys and others took a stand against the accent-neutralising process of popular music, grime artists are resisting the London-centricity of their art.

Local and proud

Take Bugzy Malone. Born, raised and based in Manchester, Bugzy’s bars have a distinctive local flavour. Listen, for example, to the northern vowel in words such as “up”, “trust”, and “money”, and the tell-tale Manchester vowel sound at the end of “corner”.

Or Lady Leshurr, the unofficial Queen of Birmingham. In her Queen’s Speeches, she displays local accent features such as the second vowel sound in “upload” (saying it somewhere between Received Pronunciation “load” and “loud”).

Similarly, Astroid boys have a subtle yet unmistakable Welsh aspect to their delivery. Notice the typically Cardiff vowel in words like “early”, “burger” and “work”.

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There are two likely reasons for this style of performance. First, rapping arguably has a lot more in common with speaking rather than singing, so the phonetic constraints are not as strong. However, it would still be possible to perform in an entirely “London” way, which early grime artists tended to do.

The second reason is to do with local identity. It’s no coincidence that grime artists rap about their lives and local areas. Bugzy takes pride in having “put Manny on the map”, Lady Leshurr references her Birmingham lingo, and Astroid boys were the subject of a recent BBC Radio documentary in which they said: “Yeah we are from Cardiff … our accent’s in the music, we rap about the streets we grew up on.”

Lady Leshurr at Sónar 2016.  scannerFM/Flickr, CC BY
Lady Leshurr at Sónar 2016. scannerFM/Flickr, CC BY

Interestingly, this reference in performance to the local area is also found among the singers mentioned earlier who maintained their regional accents and identities. Ian Dury, Madness, The Proclaimers and Arctic Monkeys would regularly situate their lyrics locally and could also be seen as having a spoken quality to their music.

So, is this a conscious decision made by grime artists? In a recent interview with Dazed and Confused magazine, Lady Leshurr said:

People used to diss my accent and I got insecure and stopped using it. But I just woke up one day and thought, “What are you doing Leesh? You’re from Birmingham, you shouldn’t have to hide your accent because of other people”.

Researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University are now looking at how language and other resources are used by grime artists to construct young, urban, and regional identities. Grime is about staying true to who you are and where you come from, making Lady Leshurr the “realest gyal” and other grime artists relatable and engaging. Keeping it regional is their way of keeping it real.

Rob Drummond, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics, Manchester Metropolitan University and Erin Carrie

Lecturer in Linguistics, Manchester Metropolitan University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.