Starman and the doctor, sparkling in America

David Bowie criss-crosses the Atlantic to gather the ar sounds he needs for Starman. One ar is British, one is American. Starman is British English, sparkle is all-American.

Why bother with the switch, for just one syllable? To bring all the hope of the future swooping into his listeners’ hearts and minds:

David Bowie crafted the floating, woozy, spacy soundscape for Starman with care, selecting words with gentle, open, rhyming vowel sounds to build layer after layer of ‘cosmic’ atmosphere: low, radio, window and slow. Laying, lazy, wave, fade and haze. Loud, sound and out. Light, worthwhile, sky, tonight and fright. 

And, of course, the lazy la,la,la at the end of the song. Every single sound is there for a reason. The melody and the words wrap around each other.

In among all that smooth British/London pronunciation, you notice David using a different, unexpected pronunciation when he sings the ar of sparkle. You noticewhether you notice yourself noticing, or not.

After David sets you up to expect a smooth London pronunciation of ar in starman after starman, you notice him changing to an American ar for sparkle.  You wonder whyYou notice because every other ar, indeed every other word he sings, is sung in his usual London accent. You notice, because suddenly he is singing like a Hollywood film.

And your mind wonders, in that split-second moment of noticing, why David did it. You try to find an explanation. To solve the puzzle. At lightning brain-speed.

America was strongly associated with space exploration when David Bowie wrote his song. An American r perfectly suits a space age scenario. If he had simply rolled his  r instead of adding the American flavour, it would have sounded ‘foreign’ but unplaceable. The American strengthens the sound picture. Especially to his British audience. Sparkle sparkles more brightly in American English. It sounds magical, modern and slightly surreal. A random ‘foreign’ would have been a distraction.

David used American pronunciation to spotlight single words in other songs too. Listen to him singing the name Buddie in Drive in Saturday. Here, it’s not the space age but the whole world of Hollywood film that he calls into his audience’s mind. Simply by pronouncing the name Buddie with an American accent:

American singers return the favour by using British English pronunciation to throw the spotlight on individual important words. Liza Minnelli does it powerfully here.

If you’re singing in English: Don’t sing Starman as Starrrrman, with a rolling, energetic r, unless you’re performing a distinctive Gogol Bordello-style cover. You’ll need to rebalance the whole song if you lose the weightless ahhh of starman.

Remember: when you put your tongue in position to roll an r, you shorten the vowel sound of the a before the r. The energy of the word will change as the shape of your mouth changes.  You’ll crush the expansive, spacy sound of the word starman. You’ll throw the lazy, spacy, floating feeling of the song off kilter. You’ll destroy David Bowie’s carefully constructed mood.

If that’s your choice, go ahead. But do it for a conscious, creative artistic reason – don’t do it because you can’t be bothered to get the English ar right. If you can open your mouth for a doctor and make an aaahhh sound for her, you can sing a proper English ar.

Moving your tongue moves the air in your mouth. It affects the sound of the vowels around the r. Yes, really. The English ar needs stillness. You keep your tongue still for the doctor. If you want to sound right when you sing in English, keep it still for the music.

It’s useful to be able to emphasise a word without straying outside English pronunciation. But remember: before you can start using an American accent to powerful effect, you need to get your British accent right. Or vice versa. Otherwise your audience won’t notice any clear difference when you switch from one accent to the other. Subtlety needs clarity as a counterpoint.

David Bowie is British, so he chose his words with a British English pronunciation in mind. The words are balanced on that basis.

Let’s start with your British accent. Your perfect ar sound. Pull on your multi-coloured jumpsuit. Strap on your blue guitar. Apply extra mascara. Be Ziggy Stardust. Be Ziggy Stardust at the doctor’s. Look in the mirror and sing “aaah.”

Then sing “There’s a staaahman waiting in the sky…..” Perfect British English pronunciation. Remember to cross the Atlantic to sing sparkle for extra space-age atmosphere.

Lesson over. Shake that glitter from your hair.

© Sing Better English, 2014


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