3 Reasons Why British Singers Sound American When They Sing

Author: Brian Campbell | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

Even when you’re just trying to have fun writing a simple song, there’s something you just can’t ignore: music is always tied to geographical, cultural, and social roots.

When people mention this, they often ask why British singers sound American when they sing.

For example, Adele’s “Someone Like You” sounds like a Midwestern accent, but she talks in a thick London accent. Hertfordshire-native Alesha Dixon was criticized for singing the British anthem in a distinctly American accent at the British Grand Prix. She claimed it was a “soul” rendition, not American.

But was it, really? Or are we just hearing things?

Turns out, many British singers do sing with American accents. HOWEVER, there are many intentional and unintentional reasons behind this phenomenon.

Without further ado, let’s look at the scientific, linguistic, historical, economic, and sociological reasons why British singers sound American. Be warned though, things aren’t always as simple as they seem!

Reason 1: Linguistic and Scientific Factors Indicate It’s Coincidence

If you’ve ever taken vocal lessons, you know that musical proficiency is only a small part of the picture. Singing is not the same as talking, even though they both use words.

When you talk, the words and grammar are only a small part of communication. You also convey meaning through vocal tone, stress, and cadence – all of which change from culture to culture.

Then, of course, you have differences between sounds across accents. In America they practice rhoticity, meaning we make a hard R sound every time we read one. In Britain, however, they drop it. And when Spanish folk speak English, they roll them.

When you sing, you have to compromise with those nuances. In order to sound clear while you sing, you have to stretch out your vowels and make them pure-sounding. You also have to cut consonants short, often clipping them to make them softer on the ear.

As a result, you naturally drop the aspects of a distinct accent. Funnily enough, it just so happens that the American Midwestern accent is the most “neutral” form of English out there.

In fact, almost everyone who sings in English sounds American for this reason. Famous examples include ABBA from Sweden, and Icelandic musicians like Nanna (Of Mice and Men) and Josin.

Reason 2: American Traditions Formed the Foundation of Modern Pop

Perhaps you think that “just happening to sound American” sounds a bit phony. Don’t worry, I get it – it’s not a super interesting answer for many. But while the scientific explanation is verified, there are still plenty of intentional reasons behind American-sounding singing.

If you study the history of most pop genres today, you will trace them back to four distinct genres – all formed on American soil: soul, jazz, rock, and blues. Jazz developed standards for singing diction, and the other three were imbued with American sensibilities.

Over time they became popular overseas. In Britain’s case, it took the teenage population by storm in 1959. Soon afterwards, British bands were mimicking their American idols – guitar tone, grooves, accents and all.

The interesting thing? Before 1959, most British pop singers sounded distinctly, well … British! This alone is a pretty strong indication of American music’s influence.

Anyhow, the American influence only grew from there. Even when the Brits started making their own brand of rock, they still used American accents and sensibilities. American audiences liked this too, and they’ve been feeding on each other ever since.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with sharing musical traditions and imitating your idols. That’s how most great art is made, and it’s a part of why music is so powerful. But there is a downside to the British-American pop market.

If you want to make it big in the international pop scene, you almost always have to cop an “American” sound. For bands wanting to showcase their individuality through accent and culture, it’s often very difficult to make an impact overseas.

Reason 3: We Imitate Our Influences

I already touched on this in Reason 2, but it’s important enough to restate again as its own section. Yes, British musicians may have been trying to cater to American audiences. Yes, maybe it wasn’t as “authentic” (sometimes).

But as I mentioned, don’t we all imitate our favorite artists? You have to learn the ropes before you can delve into your own creative projects.

On the flip side, many American punk bands actually ended up mimicking the cockney accent of the Sex Pistols. Green Day is a prime example, but far from the only one.

When British Singers Don’t Sound American

It’s worth noting that while the majority of British singers sound American, there is still a large portion that does not. And while I’m sure plenty of them retain a British accent without trying, many do it intentionally.

In the 1970s, British punk bands like the Sex Pistols were determined to forget the rock tropes of the sixties. They did this because they wanted independence from mainstream culture and consumerism.

Part of their strategy included asserting their “Britishness.” This attitude remains today. In turn, punk philosophy inspired many other independent genres to keep their accents and identities too.

Generally, the less mainstream a British artist is, the more “British” they’re likely to sound. Examples include Manchester-native Morrisey of the Smiths, and Hammersmith-native Lilly Allen.

Conclusion

When it comes to singing and accents, science has a clear explanation. And while that may be interesting in its own right for some, the social and historical explanations are extremely compelling too. Music can be enjoyed in its own right as music. But as a human artifact, it becomes much more interesting!

I hope this article gave you some interesting insight into why British singers sound American. But more importantly, I hope it gave you some food for thought regarding music’s relationship with identity.

While differences have always caused strife in history, they also bring us together. Even something as simple as accents. I choose to focus on that, and I hope you can too!

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About Brian Campbell

Brian has been playing piano since elementary school and started learning guitar in 7th grade. He teaches K-8 students in Columbus, Ohio, and writes lessons covering a broad spectrum of genres. As a child, he moved back and forth between Colorado and West Africa. He credits those experiences with opening his eyes to the cultural and artistic diversity he appreciates today. Several of his favorite musicians include J.S. Bach, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Radiohead. When not doing music and teaching, you can find Brian reading, hiking, traveling, or making just one more shot of espresso.

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