I often find myself wondering, why is the American accent so often used by foreign singers? We often hear British singers like Adele, Bono, and Eric Clapton, or Australian singers like Keith Urban and Iggy Azalea, Americanizing their songs. Is it simply to gain larger audiences and sell albums?
For instance, in Adele’s “Hello” music video she starts by talking on the phone in her native Cockney accent and drops the ending ‘r’ on ‘here & hear’. But once she starts singing, she adds all the final ‘r’ sounds and even uses the American ‘flap T’ in the following line: “But it don't matter it clearly doesn't tear you apart anymore”. The only slight Cockney vowel you can hear in the song is when she says “Hallo”.
A great part of this may be due to America’s cultural imperialistic influence. America’s TV shows, movies, actors, technology, media, and music is seen and heard everywhere around the world. Its impact on other countries has surpassed that of all other nations. I myself didn’t realize the extent of America’s influence until I lived in Europe and heard the same American songs that I moved away from. American music simply dominates the charts. For instance, according to Wikipedia’s list of the world’s best-selling music artists, 66 percent hail from the United States, while the United Kingdom came in second at 22 percent.
America has become one of the supreme leaders of modern music including pop, folk, punk, and most recently hip hop. Being one of the richest countries in the world translates well into marketing and promoting its artists and albums all over. The launch of the MTV channel in the United States in 1981 featured many American singers before it expanded and introduced its English-speaking artists to countries worldwide. Therefore, we can see why using an American accent may be advantageous. It’s a trend that dates back to British acts like The Beatles who started singing with American accents to parallel popular acts like Elvis. It was only later that they started singing with more of their Liverpudlian accents.
But some experts would argue that it’s not simply a trend. Rather, when singing, accents become neutralized as words and vocal pitches are more drawn out. Linguist David Crystal, referencing this on his blog, says melody cancels out the intonations of speech, and the beat of the music cancels the rhythms of speech. The music also forces singers to elongate their vowels. Therefore, the sounds become more neutral and more similar to what a general American accent would sound like. But this theory makes little sense once you hear The Beatles’, Lily Allen’s, and David Bowie’s distinct accent in their songs. Instead, could singing with an American accent be a choice?
Although singing may make accents more neutral, I would argue that perhaps its the prevalence of American songs worldwide that have lent it to becoming more of a standard accent. Maybe foreign-born singers are accustomed to hearing American accents in songs, and they try to emulate that in their own music in hopes of fame and fortune. Because even though the general American accent is neutral to Americans, it is distinctive from British, Australian, and other foreign accents. You have to listen and learn how to say an American ‘r’, produce the common American /æ/ vowel, or how to correctly say an American ‘flap T’ like in the word ‘little’.
In the end, perhaps it’s a combination of both theories which singers use to appeal to a larger English-speaking audience worldwide. The same could be said for non-native speakers of English; many have been exposed to American accents through pop culture and seek to acquire it in order to be understood more clearly by all English-speaking civilizations. It's the appeal of having an accent closer to your rock idols', which is so often heard and accepted in the mainstream world. The bottom line is, using an American accent is a style that has shown to be more profitable and more popular globally, and one that will not end anytime soon.