Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Accent Thing

Life comes with niggles.  You try not to let them niggle you too hard, but you’re niggled nevertheless.  You’d love to speak out against your niggle, but it’s such a little niggle that you’d just come across as a whinging malingerer. The old guy who insists on using the self-checkout at the supermarket even though he patently can’t, thus wasting time and consequently defeating the entire purpose of the self-checkout’s existence.  The driver whose wing-mirror misses you by an inch as you bike to work every day, harming no-one, breaking no law, but properly frightening and theoretically nearly killing you,  daily.  Misspelled grocers’ signs.  These things will not end the world, though they will surely niggle you to hell.  So you grit your teeth and you try to let them go by. 

But secretly you hope for the day when a paramedic rushing to an urgent call is prevented from saving a life by that old guy at the self-checkout; the day when a single callous driver beheads every cyclist between his house and his office with that weaponised wing-mirror; the day when o shit help -  there must be some instance in which the fate of the world depends on the belongings of Apple and someone rushes into a fruit shop which advertises “Apple’s” but then it turns out they just meant the plural of apple and so everyone dies. The day when that happens.  Come on.

That day came for me when Jezebel used Iggy Azalea’s faux-american accent as evidence of her racism.  Let’s get a bunch of things straight right from the get-go:

1) This essay is not about Iggy Azalea.  The only reason I know who she is is that I teach 8-year-olds how to play the ukulele and some of them wanted to learn how to play an Ariana Grande song, and Iggy ‘raps’ on that song,

2) This essay is not about America’s culture wars, except insofar as America keeps making them everyone else’s business and that annoys me,


3) This essay is not about racism - it’s obvious that Iggy Azalea is racist, because she’s Australian, and all Australians are racist, and that’s all that needs to be said about that.*

But the sight of a major online publication using an artist’s fake accent as evidence of Dumbness or Evilness means that at last I can do an essay about The Accent Thing.  I am pumped.  I’ve been thinking about The Accent Thing my whole life.  Here, for those of you who just want to skim this thing, is what I’ve been thinking:

Firstly, that if you’re from New Zealand, and you don’t sing with a New Zealand accent, you are a cunt. And

secondly, that it’s not that simple.

Let’s tackle these points in reverse order.  It’s not a simple matter to sing in a native accent if you come from New Zealand.  We learn to sing in formal situations, like kapahaka groups, choirs, school bands and productions, and churches, and all of these are led by folks with set ideas about how words should be sung.  And we learn to sing by singing along to music we love, which until very recently has been exclusively imported from England and America.  This has led to a situation where four major English accents dominate our singing:  from America a kind of mid-western ‘neutral’ American which will do you for most pop stuff from Hotel California to Shake it Off; and alongside it a kind of cod-southern twang which serves for all the Soul-thru-Hip-Hop stuff, and which many people see (fairly wrongly) as the ‘black’ accent.  From England we receive the flattened version of a public-school accent beloved of choir masters, but also heard with only slight regional variation in early Simon and Garfunkel, and in posh-indie bands like Coldplay; and the Mighty Mockney, which in its broadest definition informs everything from Bowie’s commoner moments, through most of the early punk bands, to artists like the Streets and Dizee Rascal.

It’s worth noting here that Americans and Brits reading the last paragraph will howl with derision at the broad strokes I’ve used to lump all their myriad dialects (each bundled with their attendant issues of race and class and region) into four main accents, but I’m not writing about the nuances in their accents, I’m writing about what their accents have done to ours, in terms of singing.  From the point of view of New Zealand singers, there are four accents to choose from - Rich American, Poor American, Rich English, and Poor English.  If you’ve been schooled in singing in New Zealand, you will have been forced to enunciate in English public school style, unless you’re doing a Pop or Jazz paper, in which case you’ll be schooled in Rich or Poor American respectively.  If you’ve learned to sing by wailing along to your favourite bands, the background of those bands  - in terms of nationality and class - will determine your default mode of singing.

It is as common as dirt to hear New Zealand singers tell you that this or that foreign accent is “just how you sing,” as though there were a universal singing standard (there is not, and there will not be on my watch).  It is equally common (and just as dirty) to hear New Zealand singers tell you “Well I grew up singing along to Aretha Franklin so it makes sense my voice comes out sounding like a Tennessee Preacherman’s daughter”.  Having come through the same process, having lived the same experience, I do feel the pull of these arguments.  But they’re both disingenuous, and I’m going to come back to them and punch their faces in due time.  For now though, I’d better mention the Happy Few who have defeated accent entirely…

There is another and much more interesting school of song in this and every other country in the world - those people who sing as though they are from a different planet entirely.  Discussions of accent don’t apply to artists like Kate Bush or Björk, who are blessed with instruments so bizarre and wonderful that they transcend silly things like national borders with hilarious ease.  Some Kiwi artists who fall into this category for me are John White, Edmund Pie, David Mitchell and Shayne Carter - all of whom have developed, in very different ways, a vocal sound so weird and wonderful that it’s just obviously lame and point-missing to remark that ‘nobody talks like that’.  These people fall outside of a discussion of Kiwi accents in song but they lead to the heart of my niggle, which is this:

Your voice is not just some voice.  It is simultaneously the heart and soul of the song and the source and sign of the singer’s identity.  The accent with which a song is sung must serve the song (this is one of the few good arguments for faking an accent); but also, will you or nil you, the accent with which you sing a song is a stamp of your identity - far more particular and specific than any trademark guitar tone or harmonic tendency, infinitely more potent than your choice of drumsticks or your T-shirt collection.  Your voice is you.  Are you from Tennessee? Was your dad a preacher?

Music and identity are strongly linked in sick and beautiful and complex ways.  The tribes of adolescence down through the ages - the punks, the goths, the b-boys, the emos, the homeboys, the rastas, the metallers, the mods, the rockers, each and all have clung to their chosen colours and their preferred fabrics and their compulsory haircuts and their custom-made music, and bruises and cuffs and cuts and shunning and taunts and worse are the accepted price of tribal clashes and border incursions.  In a simpler (and far worse) time I recall the confusion sparked among my cohort by Faith No More, with the white guy in front seemingly rapping and the drummer with the dreads and the metal guitarist and a guy actually daring to play a keyboard in the nineties - who were these people?  And who was supposed to like them?  Actually, literally: if you like this band, who are you?

It took me a long time to learn that if you stick to the music of your tribe you literally damage your brain: you starve it of stimulus, rob yourself of potential avenues of inspiration.  I pity the folk who can only listen to their selected genre, forsaking all others.  I know from experience what they’re missing.  It will always be a mistake to stake your identity on a style, or an artist, or anything else that is born to flower and fade and ultimately disappoint.  But that doesn’t mean that music and identity can ever be fully disentangled, either.  If they could, I’d have thrown away my AC/DC shirt a long time ago.  And my Nicki Minaj one with it.

So we know by observation and by introspection that music and identity are entangled.  We can hopefully agree that in terms of speech and song, accent is one of the biggest markers of identity, assuming identity includes class and nationality. Yet the vast majority of us choose to wear an accent, and thus an identity, borrowed from overseas sources.  Why?

Let’s look at the two most commonly-used excuses again - firstly that this or that accent is ‘just how you sing’ - i.e. there is a right accent with which to sing, and it is [whichever one you’ve been trained to use].  All other forms of singing are wrong and bad.  This just doesn’t pass the giggle test.  The simple fact is that there’s-only-one-right-way-to-sing is the sad little brother of that most cowardly of school bullies, there’s-only-one-right-way-to-talk.  There’s-only-one-right-way-to-talk is a pitiful hangover from the British class system which all New Zealanders of British ancestry are lucky to have escaped and any attempt to re-introduce it should be granted the same consideration as an attempt to re-introduce tuberculosis.  In case it hasn’t been explained often enough already, the ‘posh’ English accent isn’t some perfectly-honed language-delivery system, it’s just the regional accent with which the powerful of England happened to speak around the time their power was being entrenched.  If London had, in some historic quirk, been replaced as England’s economic and political powerhouse by Liverpool, England’s public schoolboys down through the generations would have been whipped until they spoke like scousers.   Which is a dystopia I’d actually kind of like to live in.

It’s worth noting in passing that the there’s-only-one-right-way-to-sing brigade also avidly police the pronunciation of Latin words in classical pieces - is the suggestion here that the original singers were all English public schoolboys?  Or that every singer of Latin, from every part of every country in Europe, sings and has always sung Latin with the same Eton-toff-meets-a-Spanish-Waiter inflections?  Remember that most of the classical works we sing in Latin were written long after Latin had ceased to be a living language - there is literally no way to know for sure how these words were ever ‘properly’ pronounced; of course we can make educated guesses, but it hardly seems fair to be crazy dogmatic about an educated guess. 

I’ve spent far too long on this bullshit. It is self-evidently ludicrous to pretend there’s only one proper way to pronounce words in song.  So let’s talk about how growing up on foreign music influences your original work.  First of all, my hands are up: I grew up on a typical nineties nerd’s cocktail of yelping geeks and cock rockers, and to this day if I cover a Violent Femmes or a Talking Heads song, I am plunged involuntarily into nasal Wisconsin or barking New York**, I can’t help it.  I also slavishly copied the guitar riffs of my heroes (too embarrassing now to list) note for note, and if at some drunken party someone begins to play One by Metallica you had best believe I will snatch the guitar from their hands at solo time and quote Kurt whatsisname verbatim if they are failing to do so.  

Here’s the thing though - when you start writing your own songs you don’t just lift entire Jimmy Page solos and slap them over your chord progression.***  You may (dear god) have been inspired by Angus Young’s one-handed shenanigans, but that doesn’t mean you slavishly reproduce the cool bit from the intro to Love Song in your own work****.  So why should an accent be any different?  Your favourite players played in a way that only they ever could.  That’s what inspired you to try and play in a way that only you ever could.  Unless you’re a cunt.  Your favourite singers sing in a way that only they ever could, unless they’re cunts.  What possible excuse could you have for not trying to do the same?

….dun dun duuuun…


We’re scared to hear ourselves.

You know when you hear your own voice, recorded on a video or something, and you cringe inwardly O god do I sound like that surely that’s not my actual voice?  As far as I can tell, New Zealand is the only country which has ever raised that phenomenon to a national trait:  we called it Cultural Cringe.  It’s not a phrase that’s used much anymore, except for the occasional middlebrow magazine article mentioning in passing that Cultural Cringe is a thing of the past because OMC or King Kong or something.  The idea is that  art produced here is kitschy, provincial, amateurish, cack-handed; the deeper, unspoken suggestion is that our art accurately reflects our culture, and our culture is inferior.  We don’t have the brash, world-policing arrogant swagger of the Americans.  Or the depth and subtlety and sophistication of the English.  We don’t have Europe’s History*****, or Africa’s Soul.  We are the world’s awkward, dorky little brother.

And we hate to hear our accent sung or spoken because it reminds us of all that inadequacy.

Well fuck that. 

It is certainly true that almost everyone in this country who has ever done or tried to do anything great and original and essentially New-Zealand-esque has been royally sharted upon by the forces of conformity and small-mindedness and/or England.  But that is not the fault of our native geniuseseses, it’s the fault of the idiots who overpowered them.  In a sane world,  Ghandi and Martin Luther King would be considered reasonably competent Te Whiti o Rongomai tribute-acts. In a sane world, Archibald Baxter’s thoughts on peace would be more widely quoted than John ‘run-for-your-life-while-you-can-little-girl’ Lennon’s.  In a sane world, the country that produced Sylvia Ashton-Warner would pity the country that produced Tony Robbins.  In a sane world, the pride our country can rightly take in things like universal suffrage, enlightened social policy,****** mostly-pretty-functioning-actually multiculturalism, public education, and a panoply of insanely-overachieving scientists, artists, and (fuck it I give in) athletes would go some small way towards mitigating the shame of pronouncing our short A and I sounds a little funny.

Seriously, if our culture makes you cringe, fuck you.  For the last thousand years a disproportionately large number of the World’s Best People have busted a gut trying to furnish this country with culture, mostly to a mighty chorus of total indifference from their fellows, and if you, like so many before you, choose to believe that the likes of Joey Essex or Dan Brown are by dint of their nationality somehow naturally superior to local product then, let’s face it, you haven’t read this many words, ever, and I congratulate you for coming this far. Having done so, you may as well come a little further: let’s imagine a world where New Zealand culture is neither inferior to others, nor superior.  A world where cultures aren’t better or worse, they’re just things we live in, like air or national borders or station wagons.

Whatever impression I may have given a couple of paragraphs ago, I am not a patriotic man. It is a total accident that I was born where I was, and as such I can’t take pride in it - it was literally beyond my control.  In the words of every teenager ever, I didn’t ask to be born.  I did nothing to earn my nationality, and I claim no credit for it.  It just happens that I’m a New Zealander, and so the only option available is for me to sing like one, even if people don’t like it.  Even if people don’t like me.

Even if people don’t like me.

Which is what we’re talking about, what we’ve been circling coyly all along.  We want people to like us.  In fact, the thing people from New Zealand want more than anything else on earth is to be liked by people from the rest of the earth.  Maybe you could argue that it’s normal for people to be proud when a quite-financially-successful movie trilogy is directed by someone from their country.  But we get excited if one of our elected representatives gets invited onto an American talk show, exactly as if that were a measure of success for politicians, rather than a weird trivialisation of what might be considered a kind of important job.  Our newspapers rush to report that a relatively-obscure comedy program did a five-minute segment mocking the way we pronounce the word pennant or something.   We get super-excited when our cool big brothers notice us, even if they’re relentlessly teasing us, because we really, really want the rest of the world (by which, let’s face it, we mean England and America) to like us.  And so, like all pathetic people-pleasers, we are willing to change any aspect of our identity necessary to Fit In.

Which is human, and understandable, and in a way kind of beautiful.  And the absolute antithesis of good art.  You will not make good art by trying to work out what people will like and serving it to them.  Although she was talking about gender rather than nationality, Chrissie Hynde gave the last word on identity in popular music a long time ago:

Remember you’re in a rock and roll band. It’s not “fuck me,” it’s “fuck you”!

Popular music is fast running out of ways to say Fuck You.  Raw noise, nudity, guitar trashing, excesses of drugs and sex, wildly provocative opinions on race or politics or what not to wear, all these and more are so frequently brandished in the name of rebellion that they have become badges of conformity; the day is not far off when the same choirmaster who forces kids to sing in stilted Anglotone will force their accompanists to burn their instruments post-performance because “that’s just how you play”.  And New Zealanders who sing like New Zealanders will still be considered weird and outsidery, and, hell.  Maybe I’ve decided that’s a good thing after all.  It’s cheaper than trashing a Marshall every gig.

I’m going to leave you with a song and a story: on New Year’s Eve just been, at some party, everyone was taking turns picking songs.  I got three, and they were Millie Jackson’s Fuck You Symphony,  Nicki Minaj’s Shitted On Em, and this, the only one of the three which offended someone so much that they demanded I cut it short. The ultimate in rock n roll rebellion.  A cutting parody of a certain sector of New Zealand’s society at a certain time, performed in a pitch-perfect rendition of that sector’s mannerisms. In a broad New Zealand accent. Because Fuck You.

**David Byrne’s Scottish.  What’s with his accent?  Beyond the scope of this essay, I’m afraid.
*** Unless you’re English (or a failed American two-piece) and wish to be NME’s favourite band for a month, but, y’know, fuck every last aspect of that.
****Unless you’re Angus Young, of course.
*****AAAAAAArgh, once and for all, can we stop going to Europe and waxing stupid about all the History they’ve got lying about the place?  For one thing, history started in the same place everywhere. New Zealand’s history is exactly as long as that of the universe.  For another, New Zealand’s pre-European history matches Europe’s pre-New Zealand history rather nicely:  a bunch of nations fought a lot, for ages, over God-knows-what, given that they all shared roughly the same skin colour, language-family and religion; and all we have to show for all that spilt blood is a bunch of statues and some bedtime myths.
****** Or occasional bursts thereof, sigh…