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.