When I last wrote about pronunciation in pop music, Ben Zimmer directed me to Peter Trudgill's article on the subject. After months of not reading this article... well, I read it. It's very good. In fact, the book I found it in, his On Dialect, is very good, and surprisingly accessible for a layman like me, and it will surely be fodder for a number of posts.
Trudgill's thesis is twofold: first, that over the course of the sixties British groups went from emulating "American" pronunciation - not dropping post-vocalic /r/s, monophthongizing /aj/ to /a:/, frequently using /ae/- to not doing so. Secondly, he shows that the advent of punk brought an increase in markedly British, and particularly working-class Cockney, features.
In the broad outlines I agree with Trudgill. His data is pretty remarkable - he has a graph showing the Beatles' use of postvocalic /r/ steadily declining throughout their careers. Remember, though, that Americans themselves tend not to use postvocalic /r/ when they sing (outside of country music). My feeling is that the de-Americanization of British singing pronunciation in the sixties can be described as the emergence of a sort of trans-Atlantic standard singing pronunciation, or perhaps a growing awareness on the part of British singers that if they wanted to sing like Americans, then they shouldn't out-American Americans by using post-vocalic /r/s.
The main quibble I have with this article has to do with Trudgill's assertion (which figures throughout the book) that in an attempt to Americanize their pronunciation British singers hyper-corrected their rhotacization, inserting "intrusive" /r/s even where those with intrusive /r/s don't really have them. That this is the case is undoubtedly, umm... the case. But two of the three examples he provides are problematic. The first is the Beatles' version of the old chestnut "Till There Was You" on their second album, "With The Beatles" (1963). In their version, Paul McCartney sings "There were birds in the sky/ but I never sawr them winging." Trudgill thinks that this proves that McCartney wanted to sound American but misanalyzed when it is us crazy Americans have /r/s. I think that the underlying point is entirely plausible, but I'm sure in this instance that McCartney was just trying to be goofy and self-mocking so that no one could tease him for singing a moldy oldie like "Till There Was You."
Another example Trudgill provides is from the Kinks 1966 song "Sunny Afternoon," where Londoner Ray Davies sings "My girlfriend's run off with my car/ and gone back to her mar and par." Except he doesn't. I listened to the key moment repeatedly and heard neither "mar"(which would be a typical and authentic example of "intrusive" /r/) nor "par", which is par-ticularly striking because he does sing "car" with a pronounced /r/. Were he to sing "par," it would strike me as a clever and funny sort of stretch of a rhyme, not a misanalysis of American rhoticity.
Trudgill's third example, Cliff Richard's 1961 "Bachelor Boy," is a solid and incontrovertible example; "a bachelor" becomes something that is so rhotacized that to me sounds like "her bachelor" or "your bachelor." Haven't heard of Cliff Richard? I hadn't either, but then in one of those weird coincidences that either supports or disproves my belief in the fundamental absurdity of the universe, my favorite music journalist, Sasha Frere-Jones, mentioned him in an article in this week's New Yorker. In this article, an intriguing analysis of the role of British pop music in America, Frere-Jones claims that British musicians who get famous here tend to "lack identifiably English accents." This may be true, but the lack of accent is largely a symmetric one.
As for Cliff Richards, Frere-Jones calls him "England's answer to Elvis Presley." That I'd never heard of him underscores the surprising insularity of American pop music, which is sort of the point of his article. Frere-Jones has a fascinating, albeit perplexing blog that is definitely worth checking out.