Trudgill (1983) brought to light a tendency for British Pop artists to adopt American-like phonetic features when singing. In Caillol & Ferragne (2019), we found this was the case for Traditional Heavy Metal – a markedly British music genre in its origins. We studied the pronunciation of word-internal intervocalic /t/, whose voiced, flapped allophone is “one of the most striking characteristics of American pronunciation to the ears of a non-American” (Wells, 1982), as opposed to a voiceless plosive in British English. All Heavy Metal bands showed a propensity to flap, but to varying degrees. Among others, we proposed an explanation involving music genre and authenticity: the band which flapped considerably more than the others also happened to have a style closest to Pop music. This led us to wonder to what extent genre might play a role in this tendency towards Americanization in singing.
The goal of this study is to compare T Voicing in Heavy Metal and Pop music, whose proportion we expected to be greater in the latter. For an accurate comparison, we selected (when possible) the first ten best-selling albums by English artists in the United Kingdom for each year from 1980 to 1990. We were left with 86 albums by 54 different artists, from which we selected a random sample of 350 songs. All words containing a word-internal intervocalic /t/ were automatically retrieved from the lyrics, checked to see if they could be realized as a flap in Wells (2008), and segmented. An auditory analysis was conducted by the two authors to determine if a flap or a plosive was produced.
Results showed that out of 967 tokens, 571 were flapped. A binomial test confirmed that there was a significant bias in favor of the flapped allophone. Flapping rates in the two music genres under study were essentially the same: 61% for Pop music against 61.4% for Heavy Metal. The similarity in T Voicing proportions for two genres that are so different indicates that, on the surface, genre may not be the main explanation for this style-shift in singing. However, for both genres there was considerable variation between artists. For British Pop, a mainstream band like Spandau Ballet flapped 100% of their tokens, whereas The Smiths, who, while fitting under the Pop umbrella, are more accurately described as post-Punk, only flapped 8% of their /t/ allophones. Analyzing the potential influence of a finer-grained genre typology on inter-artist variation will constitute a logical development of the current study.
This style-shift towards Americanization can be more broadly related to the question of the interrelationship between phonology and phonetics. Choosing one allophone over the other, based on considerations linked to the genre of music and its geographical origins, the desired identity to be projected, and the targeted audience can be seen as a phonological decision (conscious or not) on the part of the artist. However, we argue that the phonologically binary aspect of this decision can also be adapted in real time to constraints that are phonetic, and more gradual, in nature. More precisely, articulatory constraints linked to the specificity of the singing voice (a larger aperture when singing at higher pitches or louder, or the necessity to maintain voicing so as to “carry” the melody, for example) could mean that it is likely more difficult to produce a prototypical stop /t/ with full closure, as opposed to its voiced counterpart. An interaction between phonological binarity and phonetic gradience is therefore at least as relevant in the singing as in the speaking voice.
Caillol, C. & Ferragne, E. (2019). The Sociophonetics of British Heavy Metal Music: T Voicing and the Foot-Strut Split. In S. Calhoun, P. Escudero, M. Tabain & P. Warren, Eds., Proceedings of the 19th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, Melbourne, Australia 2019, p. 2650–2654.
Trudgill, P. (1983). On Dialect: Social and Geographical Perspectives, chapter 8, Acts of conflicting identity: the sociolinguistics of British pop-song pronunciation, pages 141–160. Basil Blackwell.
Wells, J. C. (1982). Accents of English. 1: An introduction. Cambridge University Press.
Wells, J. C. (2008). Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (3rd ed.). Pearson Education ESL.