What accent did The Beatles have, anyway?
The odd thing about musical genres is that the features that distinguish them from each other are not musical features alone. Beat, rhythm, meter, ‘color’, instruments: these alone don’t make a song rock, or country, or punk. The accent of the singer also helps to define the musical genre – and singers who don’t have a genre’s favored accent as their native accent will go out of the way, while singing, to change their sound.
A classic exploration of this phenomenon is a 1983 article by the sociolinguist Peter Trudgill on ‘the sociolinguistics of British pop-song pronunciation’. There, Trudgill examines a striking feature of the early decades of British rock and pop: ‘singers of this form of music employ different accents when singing from when they are speaking, and… deviations from their spoken accents are of a particular and relatively constrained type.’ The Beatles, who started out with an Americanized accent and later shifted to the accent of their native Liverpool, demonstrate both the power that regional accent exerts over genre and the ability of a great artist to change a genre’s terms.
A handful of American features
As a general rule, Trudgill says, British singers who are trying to sound American rely on a handful of pronunciations: the replacement of /t/ with a flap in words like bottle, making them sound, to some, like ‘boddle’; pronouncing the /r/ in words like girl, which speakers of non-rhotic English dialects normally do not pronounce, with an emphasis that speakers of rhotic English dialects do not use; and pronouncing words like my and life with a monophthong vowel, [a] – a pronunciation familiar in the American South – even though most dialects in Britain pronounce those words as diphthongs.
To be sure, you can find dialects in Britain that exhibit one or two of these features. ‘The point is, however, that no single British variety has all these features, and the vast majority of singers who use these forms when singing do not do so when speaking.’ Indeed, you can’t find all of these features together in an American dialect. The Southern American dialects that use monophthongs are also non-rhotic; the same goes for African-American Vernacular English, also a model for British rock singers. ‘There can be no doubt that singers are modifying their linguistic behavior for the purposes of singing.’
The Beatles are a case in point. The dialect of their native Liverpool is non-rhotic; speakers don’t pronounce /r/ in words like car. But in their first studio album, Please Please Me (1963), the Beatles pronounce /r/ in such words around 47 percent of the time, according to Trudgill. (They were probably doing their best; I wouldn’t have much success in deleting /r/ in a reversed situation.) Yet over the course of their first ten albums, which they released between 1963 and 1970, the Beatles’ use of postvocalic /r/ drops dramatically, ultimately falling to three percent in their 1970 album Let It Be.
Listeners can find the same pattern, albeit with a less dramatic curve, in the Beatles’ use of other American features over the course of the same ten albums: the flap for intervocalic /t/ (‘boddle’); the use of /ӕ/ for the words half and can’t, instead of /a/, which prevails in both northern and southern England. In 1963, Paul McCartney was leaning so hard on the American /r/ that he sometimes put it into words that don’t contain it: ‘I never saw [sɔr] them at all.’ By 1970, he was thoroughly, proudly Liverpudlian: ‘Lovely Rita meter [miːtə] maid.’
The artist and the genre
What brought about this change? Trudgill argues persuasively that the Beatles changed their speech because their music underwent a change in genre – and helped to change the terms of rock and pop music as genres for British musicians at large. On the one hand, they pushed the boundaries of their work artistically, moving beyond the musical models with which they began: ‘Their early songs are often clearly in the rock-and-roll mold, while later songs tend to be more complex, contemplative, poetic, and so on.’ More than this, however, their very success changed the expectations of the music world. ‘The enormous popularity of the Beatles, which extended to the USA by 1964, and in their wake, of other Liverpool-based (and other British) groups, led to a change in the pattern of cultural domination.’ British pop music became a recognizable and even a prestigious category, allowing British musicians to use their native accents as part of the sound of rock and pop.
American singers and American sounds
American singers also change their accents to sound ‘authentic’. Taylor Swift, who comes from Philadelphia, adopted a Southern twang when she started out as a country artist. Bob Dylan, who hails from the rhotic Midwest, uses non-rhotic pronunciation in some of his folk-rock music – for example, the 1979 song ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’. Rock-and-roll singers favor two features in particular: the use of non-rhotic pronunciation even when the singer’s native dialect is rhotic, and the use of monophthongs in words like life, even when the singer’s native dialect uses diphthongs. These (and other) borrowed features indicate that, for American singers, the genre of rock-and-roll – and the genres of folk, hip-hop, jazz, and rhythm-and-blues, as well as some flavors of pop – entails dialect features that characterize both Southern American English and African-American Vernacular English.
Musicians from the South, and in particular African-American musicians, have profoundly shaped the history of popular music in the United States, as Trudgill notes: inventing genres, reshaping styles, sacralizing sounds. ‘Most genres of twentieth-century popular music, in the western world and in some cases beyond, are (Afro-) American in origin. Americans have dominated the field, and cultural domination leads to imitation: it is appropriate to sound like an American when performing in what is predominantly an American activity; and one attempts to model one’s singing style on that of those who do it best and who one admires most.’ The borrowing of dialect features as part of this modeling appears in the earliest recordings of popular music, showing the venerable connection between dialect and genre.
Even the later music of The Beatles, Liverpudlian though it is in terms of accent, on occasion uses grammatical features that characterize Southern and African-American dialects. Examples include copula deletion (‘I tell you man he livin’ there still,’ in the 1968 song ‘Glass Onion’) and the absence of the third-person singular suffix (‘Here come old flattop,’ in the 1969 song ‘Come Together’).
Ultimately, the story of how singers, songwriters, and others have woven dialectical patterns into the history of musical genres shows how the study of linguistics can open new dimensions in the history of musical influence, divergence, and culture. That story includes what the historian Eric Lott calls ‘love and theft’: influence and its grim aspect, appropriation. It includes the ways in which genre can circumscribe not only categories of art, but also the identity categories of artists. And it includes a remarkable feature of art that the poet Robert Frost touched on in a whimsical poem about birdsong: the way that an artist’s voice can seem to persist, folded into and crossed with the voices of others, for as long as art itself persists.