Rihanna and the pop stars who change accent

One of the unexpected elements of Rihanna’s twisted, off-piste pop album Anti has been her reclamation of her Barbadian heritage, and the return of her native accent. Although Def Jam first launched her with the dancehall crossover hit Pon de Replay, much of the music she has made since has been sung in a standard American accent, helping her reach an audience more attuned to that voice as the sound of mainstream pop.


Rihanna has talked about the adaptations she has made to her accent before. In one interview, she said she learned how to adjust her phonetics for business meetings and interviews. These are disciplines she often disregards on Anti – a decision that mirrors the album’s pursuit of respect and self-expression: “I’m tired of being played like a violin,” she sings on Love on the Brain, while on Consideration she asks: “Do things my own way darling … Why you ain’t ever let me grow?” This album is a statement of intent: a global star establishing her unique manifesto.

However, according to Lisa Jansen, an English lecturer at the University of Münster who also runs a blog about music and linguistics, the accent Rihanna uses on Anti, on a track such as Work, is not a pure distillation of her Barbadian background. “Although she uses some prominent Caribbean features in Work, they are not specifically or uniquely Bajan,” Jansen says. “Rihanna draws on various elements and eclectically builds her own linguistic repertoire.”

“That Rihanna draws on Caribbean features in her lead single for the album is presumably an active decision,” Jansen says. “Whether she intends to actively highlight her ethnic background or uses Caribbean features as a stylistic device cannot be said for sure. But this song certainly reveals Rihanna’s multifaceted pop-culture persona.”

A newly inflected accent can certainly amplify an artist’s preferred guise; in fact a lot of the vocal intonation used on Anti may reflect the codeine drawl of Young Thug and Future, for example: perhaps Rihanna is aligning herself more with pioneering hip-hop artists rather than the mainstream pop approach that helped establish her place in the industry’s upper echelons.

The change in accent is something singers often use to signal a break in style, or a new beginning. On her early albums, Laura Marling performed with a southern British accent, but after she peeled away from the folk scene of west London and moved to Los Angeles, her voice changed into a more Dylanesque drawl. In an interview with the Quietus she said: “When I arrived in LA I thought, I can be whoever the fuck I want – nobody knows who I am. And for a long time it was great; I was piecing myself back together. Only now in retrospect, listening back to the record [2015’s Short Movie], do I realise I was assuming a character most of the time I was there, because it gave me the excuse to live out my fantasy.” While she also claims that her voice remained unchanged and that she “was English and I was holding on to that,” she seems to have used American intonations since her 2013 album Once I Was An Eagle.

“Accents can characteristically define‎ an artist: Bowie was the master, he could take a mundane verb and give it an exotic context via pronunciation. The twang in the delivery of some of country’s greatest stars has helped define their authenticity, or at the other end of the scale, when Johnny Rotten spat the words ‘God Save the Queen / the fascist regime / They made you a moron,’ you believed him, the diction and passion in his delivery and honesty in his accent scared the hell out of the nation, and then the world,” Red Light Management’s James Sandom says (the company manages artists including Alabama Shakes, Lionel Richie, Tiesto and the Vaccines). “But it’s hard to measure the reasons for a ‘change’ in accent, as artist by artist the reasoning can differ‎, it can be genuine influence of surroundings … it can be ambition.”

Perhaps the same can be said for Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner and the rock’n’roll persona he has adopted in recent years, one that seemingly began after the group decamped to California to record their third album, Humbug. His Sheffield identity had been core to the band’s first two albums, when they made music with a similar celebratory/satirical approach to Britain as Pulp or Blur. With Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme by his side, Turner was transformed and – in that great British tradition – then criticised for betraying his past (in one interview with Wild Beasts, Hayden Thorpe asks: “How can you sing with sincerity if you’re not singing in your own tongue?”). This came to a head during a Glastonbury headline set. “Jo Whiley just said I was channelling my inner Elvis, but … it’s not intentional,” he told NME at the time.

There’s hope for Turner and his true accent however; like his slicked-back hair and penchant for wearing shades indoors, it could all be just a phase. Take the Beatles for example; a band who were masters in vocal shape-shifting, and picked up traits from their fans across the Atlantic during the height of Beatlemania in the US. In You Say Potato: A Book About Accents, authors David and Ben Crystal note the impact of the Beatles’ fluctuating tones. Citing a report by Peter Trudgill in 1980, which examined the way in which the Beatles sounded out the r after a vowel, something most American singers would do, they wrote:

“In 1963/64, in such songs as Please Please Me, almost 50% of the words containing this feature had the r sounded. By the time of the Sergeant Pepper album in 1967, this had fallen to less than 5%. Note that the use of the feature was never totally consistent. That’s normal. When singers copy Americans, they get the accent sometimes right, sometimes wrong. But over the years, the Beatles’ singing voices show that they are leaving the mid-Atlantic way behind and starting to sound more consistently British.”

On the flipside of this, listen to Billy Bragg’s formative group Riff Raff and you’ll hear a subtle American inflection to his voice, a quality that the punk explosion, and particularly Joe Strummer’s influence, soon ironed out. It’s hard to imagine tracks like England, Half English, packing a similar punch when sung with an American lilt.

Sometimes, however, this change is less about shedding a former self but about creative survival: Australian rapper Iggy Azalea has always said that her American accent came from carving her craft as a teenager in the US. Many believed that rapping in her native Australian accent could have ended her career before it started.

Rihanna’s approach, in melding her own form of intonation, is the antithesis of Adele, who, according to Jon Pareles on the New York Times’ music podcast, consciously decided to soften the edges of her north London accent to appeal to a global audience on 25. Which presumably helped to make it the fastest-selling album ever in the US.

At other times, however, there is an arcane approach to linguistic faux authenticity. The worst in recent years being Rod Stewart’s Love and Be Loved – a song set in the West Indies, which features the 71-year-old north Londoner adopting a West Indian accent. Proving, that while some artists develop or enhance accents for mercurial reasons or even for mystique, others are just plain misguided.


Source: The Guardian

Categories:   Style