June 06, 2005


Listen to Midnight Oil's Peter Garrett singing some time -- is that an accent or an affectation? To many Californian ears, it's more the latter, but if it's an accent, what accent is it (bear in mind that few Americans can hear any difference between Australian and British accents)? Phil T has a short riff on Australian accents in pop (a subject close to my (heavily-accented) heart) which asks whether you can tell the nationality of a person just by listening to the vocal sounds they make while singing.

Now listen to Frente!'s cover of Bizarre Love Triangle (the only song of theirs that got much radio play here in California). That's an accent... (Phil's right that it seems much more noticeable with younger Oz female singers. No, I don't know why). But which accent? Again, most Americans would hear it as generically British, but that may be changing. When Live-105 was playing the Frente cover non-stop, K. once said something like: "Hey! She's got an accent... do all Australians sound like that when they sing?". It was the first time she'd noticed a particularly Australian accent in a singer. I don't think it ever occurred to her that an Australian singing voice might have a distinctive accent. And why should it, if your only reference points before this had been bands like Men At Work (that most Australian of American bands...) or AC/DC (god bless their British souls...)? Or The Church. Or The Saints. Or Air Supply, for that matter. Or even the Brothers Gibb.... You can listen to Split Enz or Crowded House for years and not notice anything particularly Antipodean in the singing.

But more tellingly, you can listen to Midnight Oil for years and not notice anything particularly Antipodean in the music -- the lyrics and (maybe) the accent are really the only distinctively Australian thing about the band. But even that's unusual, I think (think local lad and True-Blue Oz nationalist Angry Anderson singing blithely about being locked up in the county jail...). Bands like Radio Birdman or Celibate Rifles (to name a couple I'm way too familiar with) didn't become Legendary Australian Bands by being specifically Australian in any way -- they did it by consciously adopting someone else's musical vocabulary and by sounding, well, not-Australian (at the risk of being shot, I'd call Radio Birdman a Detroit band that just happened to be from Australia...). Especially when singing.

So yes you can tell. Sometimes. But the other question is: can you tell anything about the music (or even the lyrics) from the accent?

(Part of Punk (and Later)).


At 6/12/2005 4:51 pm, Blogger Phil said...

most aussie men in the pop biz are actually rockin' hard and they use vocal affectations that mask their accent. it's always the singer/songwirters who let it all hang out - the strine is evident in both ben lee and paul kelly, for example. same with the women too, i think. maybe that's the way it is for all countries and accents?

At 6/13/2005 10:18 am, Blogger Jimmy Little said...

Yeah, I think you're right about it being true for all (or most) countries and accents. Hard rockin' singers aren't going to be able to get the same space to use (or express) accents in the same way as gentler souls (though Paul Kelly hasn't always been a gentler soul, come to think of it...).


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