Entertainment

Why Do British People Sound American When They Sing?

It's always weird when you find out the actor behind a very American character (Stringer Bell, Batman, Abraham Lincoln) is an undercover Brit. But the thing is, it's part of their job description. Actors are supposed to trick you into thinking they're other people, in the same way they're supposed to manipulate you into crying in the movie theater parking lot because goddamn, Rose just loves Jack so much.

Movie stars might need to put up a double act, but musicians don't. So why is it that so many British singers sound like they were born in the USA on their albums? Linguists have a few theories, and they all pretty much start in the '60s.

One of the most prominent academics on this case is Peter Trudgill. In 1983, the man published an oft-cited study that examined the disconnect between how so many British pop singers talk in real life and how they perform. He concluded that acts like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones incorporated American phonetics because they were so influenced by Yankee musicians -- particularly blues acts. (Remember, the Stones got their name from a Muddy Waters track.) It was an attempt to ape their idols and break into the U.S. market.

Trudgill noted the American-ness got less aggressive as time wore on, and the British Invasion acts became more comfortable with their native speaking voices. By the time the '70s arrived, punk bands like The Clash were turning away from American affectations. Hard.

That's one explanation, but seeing as we still have modern fakers like Adele, it's incomplete. Some people argue that the phenomenon is more a matter of technique. Billy Bragg, who's normally pretty cool with singing like a Brit, once said, "You can't sing something like 'Tracks of My Tears' in a London accent… the cadences are all wrong." (Lest you doubt him, here's Bragg singing that Smokey song.) A recent study by Andy Gibson, a sociologist in New Zealand, would appear to back Bragg up. Gibson found that Kiwis defaulted to an American singing voice across the board, and it wasn't a conscious choice. He surmised it was just easier to sing in that accent. That's partially because of the way we round off certain words when we sing, and partially because the world is so used to hearing American accents in pop songs, it requires more effort and concentration to sing in a different accent. Even if that "different accent" is your default speaking voice.

Clearly, researchers are still working on a definitive answer. But people do "lose" their accents through song, and it's not some weird conspiracy. It's just linguistics! Or Mick Jagger's fault. You decide.

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Kristin Hunt is a staff writer for Thrillist, and adopts a pretty terrible Joe Strummer impression when she sings Clash songs. Follow her at @kristin_hunt.