Credit: BBC

Singing in Scots: When did we get so American?

By Holly Jennings

From Lewis Capaldi to Annie Lennox, we examine the Scots-American transatlantic accent that’s taken over our radios and the Scots-singing rebellion challenging it.

Growing up on too much television has left me main-charactering from a young age. Especially through puberty, I combined main-charactering with adopting the personality of my favourite character from the TV show I was watching. 

Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t have chosen to watch something which would have inspired me to do anything meaningful: instead, I let Ryan Murphy lead me into believing that to survive the impending horror of high school, I needed to learn how to sing. Ipso facto, I channelled my inner Rachel Berry and at the ripe age of 12 joined my rural Aberdeenshire secondary school’s glee club – and to think I wonder why I turned out weird.

Nevertheless, at the time, I was ready to become a Broadway star. I took a deep breath in and performed The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine like it has never been performed before and will never be performed again – and for good reason. I imitated Rachel Berry as much as I could, warbling and wailing, trying to Americanise my voice as much as possible. Whilst the rest of my glee club members (all three of them) were bandaging their bleeding ears, my very own (either far too kind or completely tone-deaf) Will Schuester told me to drop the Americanisms and sing with my real accent.

Looking at the Scottish music industry, not everybody received this advice. Whilst some display their Scottishness vicariously in their music, some of our more successful “chart-toppers” have totally abandoned their Scottish twang. Lewis Capaldi, KT Tunstall, Emeli Sande, all dump their Scottish accents for a strange neutral accent, with only the slightest hint of where they could be from. Now, that’s not to say they’re embarrassed by their heritage, but why won’t they sing as they speak? 

When thinking of Scottish music, it’s hard to block images of bagpipes and Sunshine on Leith – the latter of which guaranteed makes most of its money being played at weddings or any Scottish cishet man’s afters. Scottish music undeniably has been tagged as folky, which is far too often said in a derogatory manner. This label may have steered modern young artists away from using their own accent in order to break into an industry that predominantly favours English and American sounding voices, especially when it comes to mainstream pop. Unless you’re Taylor Swift, it’s unlikely you’ll climb any charts with an inherently folky sound. 

Additionally, this rejection of using their own voices could stem from the Scottish cringe, the embarrassment Scots people are said to have about being Scottish. Has years of received pronunciation and anglocentricity made us Scots have the fear about embracing our own identities in music?

Such a sweeping generalisation can’t be true for all relatively recent Scottish artists, with Twin Atlantic, Gerry Cinnamon, and Biffy Clyro maintaining their accents (to a degree). Each of their successes shows that there is a market for music with Scottish tones in it. Attitudes are changing towards Scottish music and largely because of social media. With Scottish Twitter being one of the best corners of the internet (and often deeply envied and therefore mocked by the English), being Scottish isn’t as cringe-inducing as it previously was. In fact, Lewis Capaldi commandeers his Scottishness often, claiming he’s the Scottish Beyonce. Whilst he knows this can reel in an audience of fans on Twitter, does his numbing of his accent in his singing suggest he’s not as committed to the Scottish cause as he appears to be?

In my opinion, this is deeping it. After all, singing elongates vowels, stresses syllables, and forces us to use words in ways we don’t typically speak. We all naturally Americanise because it’s easiest. Even in our day to day lives, we all soften our accents for wider audiences – and I doubt many of us have to soften our accent on a global scale, at least not regularly. It’s comforting to hear sounds and words in familiar voices, and it certainly allows for Scottish people to feel represented in the music industry. But I don’t think our identity as a country is fragile enough that we need to demand singers to force an accent simply to remind ourselves that we’re Scottish. After all, how we say or sound isn’t what makes us Scottish, rather it’s who we are and the communities we are a part of.

But if Wet As Biffy is anything to go by, perhaps Scottish accents should stay out of chart-toppers for good. 


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Michael Clancy

Early David Bowie sang cockney and he had to ditch it as it was horrendous