American Honey and God’s Whisper

What you see while you listen affects what you hear.

Seeing Andrea Arnold’s heart-rendingly glorious road movie American Honey made me hear Raury‘s God’s Whisper as the mesmerising background to a tribal dance. In the film, the song’s lyrics flicker in and out of awareness, like sparks coming off the bonfire. You hear and you don’t hear. God’s Whisper is now ‘fixed’ for me as a dance trance with hope, truth and youth at its heart.

For me, savior, with its soft central and spacious, floating ior, sways as a move in the dance: important, but not a bragging shout. I played the song, sound alone, no video, to a British 20 something. His reaction? “Typical 17 year old, calling himself a *saviour.” Words speak differently when you hear them blind. How does savior strike you? Brag or encouragement?

God’s Whisper is a masterful choice for the final scene in American Honey. The lyrics: “I won’t compromise/I won’t live a life on my knees/You think I am nothing/I am nothing” are youthful hope in the face of terrible circumstances. The way Raury emphasises the soft sounds of compromise and knees, after their long vowel sounds (ise/ees) gives the listener time to focus and think about what’s being said. It gets the listener ready to pay attention when the sounds reappear in “We are indigos/Living lives we chose”. 

Singing compromise with an unusual stress pattern: compro-mise, gives Raury room to emphasise the at the beginning of the line, and of the song. To claim his space. He bookends the line like this: won’t compromise. The isn’t restricted to “I, Raury”. It’s like the I of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. The singer sings it, but the audience owns it.

When Raury expands his into We are indi-gos, we’re not surprised. Anyone under 20 would have understood his message as inclusive already. Anyone over 30 will have understood that he’s singing about his own generation. The racial rainbow of his friends in the video make it clear that he’s singing for all youth.

If you plan to sing God’s Whisper, be sure to make the unusual stress patterns feel natural and smooth. Swapping the usual English pronunciation of indigo to God’s Whisper’s indi-go needs to be a magic trick, where the audience sees the finished product, not the hours of practice. What your audience hears in performance needs to sound easy and unforced. Indi remains a coil of energy; it doesn’t lose its propelling power, or disappear into the shadows. Indigo is an important word, with its new meaningGo mustn’t sound like an angry stomp. It’s a strong step in the dance. The same with compro-mise or intu-i-tion. Don’t overdo the difference from the usual. Do it, but don’t overdo it.

If English isn’t your first language: be sure to give the relaxed space it needs. is crucial in this song, but is one of those words that a lot of English students take for granted. It’s one of the first words you learn and, when you speak, you can get away with a constricted I. It doesn’t sound good, but people will understand you because of context. When you sing, it’s a different game. You cripple your song unless you give space and depth. Look here for more information.

Raury talks about the song, and his intentions on the BBC side of the Atlantic here and closer to home here. If you’d like to know more about the music that has inspired him, you’ll enjoy this interview.

By the way, if you’re an American reader: could you tell what the smoky things that look like fireworks that people keep lighting and waving around in the video are called? They appeared in American Honey quite often, but I couldn’t work out what they were. They’re not flares or fireworks and I’m guessing they’re something you can buy in a supermarket? I’ve never seen them in the UK. I’d love to know what they are.

© Sing Better English, 2016

* British spelling for a British voice.

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11 thoughts on “American Honey and God’s Whisper”

    1. Hi – thanks for that. They look similar, don’t they? The kids in American Honey seem to have a daily supply of some kind of smoke candle thing that they wave around. It intrigues me, partly because I’ve never seen kids with them in the UK and also because they must be something you can buy on the road, in a regular supermarket. Unless every shopping mall in the centre of the US has a specialist pyrotechnic shop!

      Thanks again for your kind detective work!
      Best wishes
      Elaine

      Like

      1. That’s a good way of putting it – ‘make your own scene’. I guess it’s like lighting joss sticks in your apartment to declare difference when your parents come to visit and solidarity when your friends come over. It’s the apartment side of things that’s missing.

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  1. Hi Elaine,
    Pardon me if it’s a bit off-topic but something strange is happening to me, it’s about the word ‘often’ – and how I am changing its pronunciation – slowly accepting both ways of saying it.
    Are there two ways of saying it?
    Recently in Portugal we changed the spelling of some words in which there were silent consonants: baptismo is now spelled batismo, the silent p disappeared from the written form of the word!

    If I pronounce the ‘t’ in often – am I just ignoring an important rule and being influenced by the songs I listen to?

    have a nice weekend!
    josé

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi José – you’ve got your finger on the pulse of the English language, as a living, growing and changing creature! The option of pronouncing that central ‘t’ is moving towards more general acceptance. Music leads the spoken language. And you’re not the only one to feel themselves changing ‘standard’ pronunciation because of how English sounds in song. You’re like someone picking up a different accent after moving to another part of the country.

      At the moment, always pronouncing the ‘t’ of often is still unusual. To my ear it sounds a bit Downton Abbey or old fashioned professor-like. But there are times when the word needs that central sharpness of the ‘t’ – for emphasis. I don’t usually pronounce the central ‘t’, but if somebody questioned my attendance at the gym, I’d say “I often go to the gym”, with the ‘t’ pronounced strongly, (to ‘prove’ my commitment to health and fitness!!). But I’d ask the question “How often do you go to the gym” without sounding the ‘t’.

      I hope that’s some help. Basically, the ‘t’ of often, at present, in speech, is used for emphasis (which is one reason you hear it in song – to call attention to the word). It’s not standard, in the south of England where I live, to always pronounce the ‘t’.

      As a non-native speaker of English, you leave yourself open to intrusive criticism if narrow-minded native speakers hear you always say ‘often’ in general conversation. They’ll assume you ‘don’t know any better’ and they will ‘correct’ you. Other Portuguese English speakers will ‘correct’ you too. But you can point out that the Queen of England says ‘orffen’ rather than ‘often’.

      What do you think about the change of spelling in Portugal? Didn’t the p in baptismo give the word a slightly different ‘feel’? It’s a bit like the silent ‘b’ on lamb or thumb. They give a roundness to the end of the word, even though we don’t pronounce them as a ‘b’.

      All best wishes
      Elaine

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  2. Thank you, Elaine, for your enlightening answer.
    I have to blame Downton Abbey for what is happening to me 😀 , that and a few songs I have been listening to.

    From now on, I know exactly how/when/why to say it!

    Old guys like me felt a bit sad and reluctant about all these changes (1990), we had to say goodbye to silent consonants and much more – words like acção, coleccionador actual óptimo are now simply ação, colecionador, atual, ótimo.

    Young guys like me hadn’t been born yet (1911) to pity the disappearance of words like phosphoro, phleugma, prompto, diphthongo that became for some reason fósforo, fleuma, pronto, ditongo.

    Languages need to change to become perfect tools – we should be familiar and learn how to use them correctly, we can do great things with them!

    have a nice weekend and thank you for spending your precious time answering my question!

    José

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you, José – it’s a fascinating process, isn’t it? A little like pruning a rose bush in the hope of more blooms in the future.

        By the way, I asked my 17 year old son how he and his friends pronounce ‘often’. Usually without the ‘t’, but sometimes with the ‘t’, he said. So there’s the voice of Southern English youth. The ‘t’ of ‘often’ is like a sword in a scabbard – you use it when you need to. It’s available, but kept in reserve.
        Best wishes
        Elaine

        Liked by 1 person

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