At the Magdalen bop the other night, sandwiched between the incoherent but familiar ramblings of Lady Gaga and the bronze American classic that is Journey, was a song I was almost wholly unfamiliar with, but that seemed to be quite popular with the crowd. This song, which begins, “What’s up darlin’? I been keeping my eye on your movement” was Dizzee Rascal’s 2008 hit “Dance Wiv Me”. And while it never reached the American charts, it stayed for four weeks at number one on the UK singles chart, perhaps explaining my relative unfamiliarity.
For those of you who haven’t heard this song, its most immediately striking component is Dizzee’s unique voice—and its strong East London influenced accent (with a bit of Jamaican as well as African-accented English thrown in). Dylan Mills, as Dizzee is known in other circles, together with such acts as The Streets, a.k.a. Birmingham-native Mike Skinner, are part of a flowing musical current that is increasingly emphasizing a distinctly British – or, barring that, at least an identifiably non-American – identity in music. Within the context of a British-Jamaican-influenced answer to hip hop, a genre known as grime, this identity has naturally taken on a characteristically linguistic bent, emphasizing words of working-class British origin (see the Streets’ “Fit but you know it”), unique syntactic structures, and a particular ways of speaking. Their linguistic choices have been the subject of much commentary , both in the UK and the US. Critics, such as those on UKmusic.com speak of how these artists represent a fundamental break from what is perceived as the predominate American rap model in the UK.
The particular origin myth as told by UKmusic goes back to a group in the 1980s known as the London Posse, which it says “took a sledge hammer to the chains around the English accent, and allowed it to run free throughout hip hop”. Since this, the “accent switch,” from UK-English to American, has become less and less common in UK grime/hip-hop. Beyond accent, however, the website decries the still-strong presence of copying the “slang, the style, the sound and even the catchphrases” of American music. In describing its position toward these lingering features, the article quotes UK rapper Yungun: “Back then, accents were the issue. Nowadays, standard: talk Yank, we’ll diss you”. Linguistically speaking, however, what does it mean to “talk yank” – especially in the context of song?
In sociolinguistic circles, some work has been done in investigating this issue, going back to British sociolinguist Peter Trudgill’s 1983 study of the British Invasion and later punk rock, and furthered by Paul Simpsons’ 1999 study of dialect and song. Trudgill cites a general tendency for British-originated rock groups of the 1960s and 70s to adopt phonological features typically identified with American English. Simpson gives a name to a collection of five of these features, which he chooses to call the “USA 5 model”. Specific phonology aside, these include differences in the t’s in “better,” the a in “dance,” the r in “girl,” i in “life,” and o in “body”. As Trudgill points out, no single British English variety possesses all of these features, but they are found individually somewhere in Britain.
In attempting to explain why this might be happening, Trudgill settles upon the idea of an “act of identity”. To explain this, he notes “British pop singers are attempting to modify their pronunciation in the direction of that of a particular group with which they wish to identify… This group, moreover, can clearly, if somewhat loosely, be characterized by the general label ‘Americans’”. Americans, he continues, had dominated the field of 20th century pop music, and this domination had led to imitation: “one attempts to model one’s singing style on that of those who do it best and who one admires most.” This last claim is dubious, but the spirit of the argument seems compelling.
To investigate the prevalence of the “USA 5” in British-originated music, he analyzed samples of The Beatles from the 1964 Please Please Me to the 1969 Abbey Road, as well as the albums of the Rolling Stones. (Images possible? See below). He specifically looked at the usage of American-specific r and t sounds. Both bands displayed a sharp decline over time in the frequency of both “American” features. Trudgill attributes this fact to the increasing acceptance of British speech norms in singing, linked to the decreased motivation to sound American.
Simpson extends Trudgill’s study to focus on the Britpop movement of the 1990s. He frames the problem thusly: “the basic premise . . . is that pop and rock singers, when singing, often use accents which are noticeably different from those used in their ordinary speech styles.” He concludes that the accent used in song constitutes “a projected social role or persona.” Looking at a very different landscape, he speaks of the commercial appeal of being different: speakers “carve out their identity by searching for some generic label that marks them out as different or unique”.
The most recent study done in this area (By English language professor Joan Beal) focuses on the Arctic Monkeys, a British “indie” group from Sheffield in Yorkshire that has been enormously popular both in the UK and the US. To appreciate the unique nature of this band, I will follow Joan Beal in quoting The Guardian’s Alex Petridis: “…the idea of ‘When the Sun Goes Down’ topping the charts appears a deeply improbable scenario: the biggest-selling single in Britain might soon be a witty, poignant song about prostitution in the Neepsend district of Sheffield, sung in a broad South Yorkshire accent. You don’t need to be an expert in pop history to realize that this is a remarkable state of affairs”.
Beal looks at the Arctic Monkeys within the framework of the language-ideology approach. Within this framework, linguistic features are seen to become associated with social values, so that they acquire symbolic (here, “indexical”) meanings. These symbolic meanings can change over time. Thus, she points out, while the “USA 5” features may have been indexed as American, “in time the association of these features with a certain type of musical performance led to their being indexed in this context as “mainstream pop”.
It is critical, in Beal’s view, that the Arctic Monkeys are an indie band, having arisen not by climbing a corporate ladder but by sales over the Internet. Further, it is important that the band holds the values that they do—their anti-corporate streak has shown its head in their unwillingness to attend awards ceremonies for their own work. Thus, their accent, she argues, is a means to fight back against the corporate machine—it is very much a tool, consciously employed, to fight back against the American accent in song, now indexed as “mainstream pop”.
The “perceptual model aspired to” in their case is that of the northern working class, a voice not often heard in popular music, and in fact, increasingly not heard in the speech of young people in these areas. The Arctic Monkeys use characteristically northern English pronunciations, and include dialect words as well as specific references to their native Sheffield. Beal analyzes one song in particular, the at first glance seemingly incomprehensibly titled “Mardy Bum”. In her analysis, this song is categorized by a complete absence of USA 5 features. Additionally, the divergence between the speaking voice and singing voice of lead singer Alex Turner is very slight. Employing phonological faithfulness and local terminology (see “owt” and “summat”), in Beal’s view the band consciously works to buck the mainstream.
But there is a problem: the Arctic Monkeys, despite their indie roots, are now quite mainstream. “Indie,” as Holly Kruse points out, is more a “genre,” with specific sound features, than a “political category”. Nikolas Coupland (2009) emphasizes the mediated “performance” of the vernacular—not in the sense of a stage performance, but rather in the sense of putting on a mask. The very conscious nature of the employment of linguistic costumes, combined with the mainstream success of the Arctic Monkeys, hints that this process is even more conscious than Beal admits. In this vein, he asserts that the question of authenticity is thus irrelevant.
In our late modern era, we have disentangled voices from their primary “social matrices” (the “working class” for instance), and have given them new meanings. Coupland argues, it makes less sense to speak of summoning a particular persona with your linguistic choices, because every new performance necessarily exists in a new environment.
Well, what about Dizzee Rascal? Where does he fit into all of this? It makes less sense to say he is emphasizing a British identity than that he is emphasizing a personal one, consciously utilized in the context of mass media to boost record sales with its very uniqueness. While it draws on features of East London English, it is employed in an entirely new context. Ultimately, can we really say that when we dance to this music, we are dancing to a genuine claim to working class authenticity? The interaction between dialect, identity, and song is quite complex indeed.