In Love With These Tones: Confronting The New Zealand Accent In Music

The Chills

From the North Shore suburbs to the top of the Billboard charts comes a strange creature in pop lore: a New Zealand body with an American voice. She sings the word “bathroom” with an /æ/ sound, as if there is no other kind of bathroom to be pronounced. We, like the rest of the English-speaking world, bat no eyelids at this habit, having ourselves been raised on a lifelong diet of American films, music and television. ‘Royals’ is a brave attempt to decry the falseness of our American cultural idols, yet with its American affectation it defaults to nothing more than a factory setting. “No postcode envy,” the lyrics proclaim.

The incoherent, melancholic world of pop habitually produces drunk-dials more than it does songs. I say ‘habitually’, but really I mean consistently and universally – you can hear a million lovesick lyrics in a million different formations until everybody leaves and throws up in a taxi on the way home. Martin Phillipps of the Chills, being the disgusting sentimentalist that he is, knows exactly what I’m talking about. In ‘Wet Blanket’, he saps all over the place with some of the most hideously clichéd lines to ever bog down his otherwise spotless career. “I’m not in love with anyone – but I could fall in love with you.” It’s truly despicable songwriting. And all because of his rare, guttural Dunedin accent, it’s one of the most fucking powerful love songs New Zealand has.

It’s a popular view that the New Zulland “quack” is more a childish gurgle than any proper semblance of a language. For Lindsay Perigo of Stuff Nation, it is “not an accent; it is a disease.” But it is this koi-woi infection that transforms ‘Wet Blanket’ from a disgusting piece of melodramatic filth into a crippled, snivelling wreck of a love song. It’s common practice for us rugged, emotionally repressed farmers of the South Pacific (we’re either that, or Hobbits, I hear) to rely on far-off proxies to explain to us our own most intimate feelings, no matter how much ocean – and wires – must be crossed in the process. Nope. ‘Wet Blanket’ is a song written by a guy who sometimes watches DVDs with my friend’s dad. A dad-friend who once wailed like a child, cementing the suggestion of the song title that love is a stupidly embarrassing thing. With the plainness of his South Island accent, it’s almost as if he’s saying, ‘That’s the way it ought to be.’

When he does embark upon more intrepid lyrical journeys than in ‘Wet Blanket’, Martin Phillipps gives the supposedly hideous New Zealand accent a sense of purpose. “Oh god this white ward stinks, sterilized stench of sticky death, sniveling relatives at the feet of another moist corpse, but that corpse is Jayne and Jayne can’t die.” This is a blunt line carried by a bluntness of sound that no other accent could hold. So, if the New Zealand accent is the disfigured monster it’s accused of being, here’s proof that it’s not one without feelings. Such articulateness convinces me that the New Zealand accent is not irreconcilable with beauty, and the fact that the Chills are one of the most celebrated bands of the 1980s for their poetic ability shits all over any contrary claim. To be quite frank. But — it’s just a shame the accent itself is never thanked.

It’s been twenty-five years, and no matter how bold a move it was for Phillipps to go with his gut back then, his vocal style still stands out as a rare pinprick of light in an otherwise murky world of tonal affectations. Of course, we are no exception on the global stage when it comes to vocal imitation. Following their idols, the Beatles did it and the Stones did it to the point that the rest of the world pretty much guessed they could get away with it, too. And so did we, for the most part. When you’ve got a winning formula, there’s no time to test the alternative – there is money to be made. But somehow, the only universal success to come close to matching that of Lorde on the strength of one single was not a cowboy twang, but a husky South Auckland accent. How very, very, bizarre.

We’ve now normalised the American voice in song to the point that it’s little more than background noise. To the untrained ear, there is no accent in song, because there is hardly ever a vocal distinction between one region or another. It’s a ‘pop default’. Yet there is culture in music, and culture always has a sound. To ours, we are supposed to be loyal, but we are told this in a thick American drawl. “Cawl me lawy-al, call me laaawyal-[twang]”. Because of this, conservative, money-padded ears have relegated our sense of vocal intuition to the fringes. Even the anti-establishment spirit of Auckland punk compilation AK79 is contradicted by how many of its artists bluntly steal Johnny Rotten’s vocal cords, as if the automatic working-class opposite of American capitalism is supposed to be a London accent. No-one really stopped to notice that we’re not actually from either place.

Stylus’ excellent article on the Chills’ Dunedin scene points out that “Ian Curtis was dead and buried before any JD records were released here”, so imitators flatterers were practically waiting at the record stores to wear their influences on their sleeves. Even Chris Knox, our most fabled punk pioneer, gave idol-flattery his best shot with a baffling mixture of Dunedin via Liverpool via Los Angeles, somehow strangely transplanted in Grey Lynn.

Those who have seized upon the NZ accent, sidelined as they might be, have taken advantage of its jarring effect. Anyone who has heard Sharpie Crows’ Sam Bradford snarl about tire spikes in Hunterville, or Thom Burton from Wilberforces lash out at Blue Star Finance, or Tom Scott from Home Brew condemn the government itself on live TV will know that it’s well in our ability to sing in our native tongue without sounding like Suzy Cato. If you ask me, I think it’s radically subversive to be posing a challenge to the ridiculousness of the fact that we can’t tolerate the sound of our own voice, like spotted teenagers in front of a bedroom mirror.

In a way, though, that sums it up. The New Zealand as I know it is a “rabid, snarling, adolescent scream” – of self-disgust. We take on another personality – a marketable, automatic, submissive, subconscious, subterranean, easy inner voice – so we don’t recoil at the horror of our own image. It will only take puberty as a country for us to drop our guard, and our false accents and affectations with it.

I might sound like a cliché-drunk Herald writer (another senseless institution for another day), but I’m no flag-waver. Really, I identify with the word ‘Kiwi’ about as readily as I identify as a Weet-Bix Kid. As much as the media loves to portray us as wholly ‘pure’ and wholly ‘Kiwi’, we need look no further than the music of our alternative scene to know that New Zealand is much deeper and darker than a fickle mascot for tourism. Perhaps this is the problem, however. Instead of mistaking New Zealand for the embarrassing nationalistic parade it’s presented as, we should be reclaiming the sound of New Zealand for ourselves.

So, no – it’s not a matter of sucking it up and learning to love your country, it’s part of a bigger battle against the falseness that mainstream New Zealand projects inwards and directs outwards. And all we need to do to is ask the basic question of whose voice we really want to sing – or better, scream with. That, to me, is a political statement. That’s when music stops just being a thing to listen to, and it becomes the life-changing force that changed me the moment I heard the Chills for the first time when I was eighteen.

He might not have always lived by his own example, but the master of teenage revulsion himself, Chris Knox, masterfully observed one time back in 1989:

“The New Zealand music industry gets its product overseas
‘Cos it can’t believe it’s quality till it gets US release”

It’s 2013, and he still has New Zealand by the balls with this one.

31 Comments

  1. Superb article mate !

  2. Stefan Neville, gfrenzy, CJA, Antony Milton – great voices, they use their own NZ accents.

  3. I get (and agree with) the argument to embrace the NZ accent in music, but the criticism of Lorde baffles me. “Royals” sounds like it’s sung with a Kiwi accent to me (or at “worst”, somewhere between NZ and US) – the word “bathroom” obviously breaks this to create assonance with “hotel room” rather than to sound American.

    • Dan Taipua says:

      There’s a really good interview between David Dallas and either HOT97 or KISS where they say his accent is unnoticeable and Dallas says people feel his NZ accent on Rose Tint is stronger than ever.

    • +1 Nick on the Lorde thing & I will try more & more to enbrace kiwi accent but at the moment it feels & sounds wrong to me. Maybe it’s because of what Sam said to me below about the ‘mental block’ due to american overflow but it feels more than that aye.

      Do you have a link to that interview Dan?

  4. I like your piece, but (as confirmed by the lyric sheet) the line from CK’s ‘Statement of Intent’ is “till it gets US release.”

  5. brian feary says:

    to be honest ‘no postcode envy’ would be ‘no zip code envy’ if they were really trying hard to sound american. It’s more of a default singing accent i think.

    I’ve always thought Martin Phillips tries too hard to sing in a ‘Kayway’ accent – anyone who’s had a singing lesson would’ve been told that you are supposed to sing the vowels of a song. Martin Phillips sings ‘Kayway’ vowels but takes it a step further and attempts to throw the Kayway consanants in too, making it more of a talk-singing style. And it’s not a bad thing. Buuut i don’t think you have to lay it on that thick to still be singing in a kiwi accent.

    Lorde’s vowels are generally in line with NZ vowels (the only really obvious americanism is the A in ‘bathroom’ in the chorus). It’s a fairly nondescript international pop music accent she’s singing in but wouldn’t say she’s trying to sound american

  6. Great post, been thinking about this lately in relation to Lorde. Hilariously, when Selena Gomez covers ‘Royals’ she actually puts on (or attempts to anyway) a New Zealand accent.

    There are also singers like Lydia Cole who milk the Kiwi accent all the way to NZ On Air/the bank. Not a bad singer but I can’t help cringing when she sings “twenty-two” in the first line of this song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SB6Zc2oGC9E

    Considering we’re only about 800-odd years old as a country it’s probably a fair call to say we’re still going through puberty. Until our accent evolves, I’m all for Americanization.

    • Lydia Cole says:

      I’m down with the fact that you cringe in my song, that’s cool.
      But I’m not milking an accent, I’m singing how I talk.
      I’m from New Zealand and I feel like a dick if I fake anything else: but honestly – it doesn’t cross my mind to. The only people who ever think about my accent are other people, and they don’t write my songs. Maybe to some it sounds jarring and you can’t argue with your ears, that’s fine. But I don’t see the link between my “accent” and getting money.

      • Hi Lydia,

        Sorry, I meant no offence to you or your music. The point I was trying to make (and maybe could have phrased better) in regards to the ‘pop’ accent is that there is also a certain marketability in emphasising your native accent, whether it’s a stylistic choice or just how you sing. As some comments have already mentioned, it stands out against the default Americanized accent a lot of NZers sing with.

        I do however actually like ‘Hibernate’ and thought it should’ve won out against ‘Everything to Me’ for the SS.

  7. Still to read the article but I find that us Islanders don’t sound good rapping in a ‘kiwi’ tone, I actually sound terrible which is why I rap american style. David Dallas can get a way with it because of his, dare I say it, half cast ‘colour’. Will you’s hate me (or more not listen) for rapping ‘non kiwi?’ just curious.

    Should really read the article but when David Dallas was Con Psy, he didn’t rap the way he does now & wonder if it was an intentional change of style to match his new name ‘David Dallas’ & get all kiwi’s behind him.

    Talking briefly but I’ll come back tomorrow lol I been waiting on an article like this though

    • You say you ‘sound terrible rapping in a Kiwi tone’ — most singers sound terrible singing in a Kiwi tone, at first. I don’t see that rapping should be any different. It takes a bit of time to figure out how to make it work.

      There’s a mental block there when all the songs you love have an American accent. Your own voice sounds wrong. But if you have the courage to push past it, to trust your own judgement, I absolutely believe it can be done. If rappers all thought they had to sound like other rappers, everyone would rap in the same tone as the Sugar Hill Gang. And that would be terrible.

      (A bold prediction: the first NZ rapper to have big-league international recognition won’t be rapping in an American accent.)

      • Oh wait, that already happened, and it was OMC and Michael already mentioned it in the article.

      • True that bro but it’s harder than you think lol & still feels wrong more than just the sound of it.

        In saying that, like your prediction, David Dallas has overcome that really good coming from Con Psy but I’ve been trying to watch for examples that prove my next claim wrong (but due to my shit internet speed/connection that cant even load a 2min youtube video i’ll be wrong) that he has been able to do so without too much people tripping because of his fair skin colour (same with Tom Scott) with that being an honest observation over time & not an ignorant stab. Same as The Streets (Dry Your Eyes) for the UK who rapped in their ‘true tone’ but Dizzy Rascal, Estelle etc while all sounding english but rap american style.

        For us Kiwi (islander) rappers (maybe bar Mareko sometimes because I felt sometimes he wanted to do the OMC thing when rapping but still rapped a lot of american) I don’t think it suits us (even after a lot of trying).

        For me, I resort to american style because that’s the roots of rapping & all that cutting corners on words sound so much better how they’ve done it (which is why we still spin their records like crazy even beyond top 40) & it’s feels so much more natural & feels more passionate when spitting into that mic with that type of style but still try to keep it ‘kiwi’ where possible. The ‘kiwi’ sound for me is more it’s the content, atmosphere & sound that is behind just the voice. Rapping ‘islander’, well lets just not go there aye; do you know “T’angelo”?! Thought so haha

        OMC has a pass because he wasn’t quite ‘rapping’ & felt that was intentional from Pauly as I don’t think that success carried on after that track?

        New to this looking deeper into music to an amazing extent, so I’m happy to be proven wong.

        Solid write up Michael.

      • stephen says:

        The Feelstyle is interesting in this context. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5cFNp8jpMGI

  8. Must tip a hat to the Go Betweens here, who I suspect started this quiet revolution. They were the first Australians outside Rolf Harris to sound like actual Australians. Martin Phillipps always seemed to me to follow their lead.

    But you know who’s to blame for all this American accent malarkey though don’t you? Mick Bloody Jagger, that’s who.

  9. When I was 17, I heard the Headless Chicken pronounce “can’t” the New Zealand way on a song. It sounded outrageous and strangely liberating. Then years later I heard Dave from Elemeno P pronounce “six” like “sucks” (and he wasn’t even trying to sound Kiwi), which just made the Chickens sound like poshos in comparison.

    New Zealanders aren’t the only people who sing in an American accent. It’s also been noted in British pop (compare Adele’s Cockney speaking voice with her mid-Atlantic singing voice), but it even happens in American music. Regional accents are evened out so everyone’s singing in a similar middle accent.

    Rapping is interesting. I remember in the ’90s there was an argument that it was acceptable for New Zealanders to rap in an American accent because that was a fundamental component of hip hop. But then along came various British rappers using their own accents, sounding really cool, which kind of ruined that theory. But then it was always cool accents – the more street than toff. There were never any posh-sounding UK rappers.

    Things are slowly changing. The NZ accent is a lot more acceptable in mainstream music now than it was, say, 20 years ago. But we’re a long way off before a New Zealand singer can do a Kate Nash or Lily Allen and enjoy international success singing pop songs in their regular accent.

    • didn’t Lily Allen sing in Mockney? ie not her regular voice

      • Oh God, this reminds me – Britney Spears semi-raps in an English accent in her new single “Work Bitch”. Apparently this just happened because the demo was made with an English singer and Brit-Brit liked how she sounded.

  10. Interesting article. Very thought provoking.

  11. Interesting thoughts. I don’t really notice much of an American twang on ‘Royals’ but then, as you say, perhaps that’s primarily due to an ear trained to hear as ‘neutral’ what is actually a mild North American accent—I’m still not completely convinced. To me things feel less fake (in most cases) now than back in the days of the faux toff-English accent (a la Blerta, 70s TV newsreaders etc).

    For sure a distinctive NZ accent is much less common than this ‘neutral-American-whatever’. My first abiding memory of noticing a (non-Māori “My darling Missy…” ;-D) kiwi accent, thick and strong, was Karl Steven in his Supergroove days. I liked it then and I like that he retains it still with his Drab Doo Riffs crooning. But the fact is not every NZer talks with a thick, pronounced NZ accent as I think of it when hearing some sing. To me it’s not necessarily a ‘put on’ thing that many singers naturally produce a more ‘neutral’ sound. Often what stands out to me more (aside from VERY obvious accent affectations) is the lyrical language/imagery employed. To use an example in the article: there was no denying Pauly Fuemana was a New Zealander by his voice but the imagery of a ‘Chevy’ travelling the ‘freeway’ never sat comfortably.

    Anyway, really digging this conversation, so, thanks! ;-D

    • Yeah bro, I agree, everyones got too many different influences that affect their delivery for whatever but lyrical language & everything else but the tone/accent of the artist, we keep kiwi most of the time.

  12. stephen clover says:

    What Kiran said ^^

    Plus; I think and have thought about this a lot, and it’s true that I’m the first to lash scorn upon locals who overtly ape the lyrical mannerisms of other artists / nations (see: a number of GSG/BSB entries of the past.) BUT it has to be acknowledged that the drawled vowels of the Amurrkin (or the drawled vocals of the local imitator) gives rise to much opportunity for phrasing and delivery innovation in song. An extreme example would be Dock Boggs, who often caterwauled his vocals into something approaching an Appalachian throat singer and dragged and drawled his lines out of the end of one bar until they near collided into the start of the next. (See ‘New Prisoner’s Song’ or ‘Sugar Baby’ for e.g.)

    Additionally, it’s not necessarily a level playing field; the idiomatic vocal style is so quintessentially linked to some genres that its adoption — no matter the ethnicity of the adopter — is far more forgivable in some cases than in others.

    Finally: in the latter half of your second paragraph you leave the reader a little confused as to where the line between sincerity and savage irony is meant to be scribed. Ferrinstance, “his otherwise spotless career”: are you serious!? PS. I love ‘Wet Blanket’ but I do not love ‘Come Home’.

    • Michael McClelland says:

      I think a good rule for reading anything I write is: if I’m right, I meant it sincerely. If I’m wrong, clearly it was sarcasm you half-wit

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