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Grace Elizabeth Hale

Grace Elizabeth Hale is the Commonwealth Chair of American Studies and Professor of History at the University of Virginia. She has written for many publications including the New York Times. Her books include Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South (Vintage). Her current project is Cool Town: Athens, Georgia and the Promise of Alternative Culture in Reagan’s America. Before graduate school, she played in band and owned a café and music club in Athens.

“Reckoning: Michael Stipe and the Southern Sound of Early R.E.M.”
In the early summer of 1983, just as critical praise for R.E.M.’s first album Murmur began to build, Michael Stipe told an interviewer for Rolling Stone that his lyrics came from his Southern environment. His Athens friends knew he wrote down things he heard people around town say, a kind of found art practice. Members of the band sometimes described this way Stipe had of collecting phrases in order to explain his lyrics and deflect the inevitable questions about their meaning. Stipe too described his songwriting as stitching words together more for their sound than for their meaning. His voice, he argued, was simply another musical instrument.

From the band’s 1980 founding through its 1985 album Fables of the Reconstruction, fans and critics’ attention to Stipe’s lyrical ambiguity distracted from another key characteristic of Stipe’s singing voice—his frequent deployment of a deep Southern accent. In that same early Rolling Stone interview, Stipe made a rare comment about technique. “If we steal a lot from one type of music, it’s country… On the vocals, I go for what I call the acid “e” sound, which is that nasal thing where you take the sound “e” and make it as terrible as you possibly can. Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline knew a whole lot about it.”

This paper will examine surviving live recordings of R.E.M. including an audio tape of their May 30, 1980 show at the 40 Watt; a video of an October 10, 1982 gig at the Pier; and a video of live performance on Nickelodeon’s Livewire program on October 10, 1983 as well their albums Murmur and Reckoning to explore how female country singers influenced Stipe’s vocal style. More broadly, I argue that sounding “Southern” enabled four suburban kids with not particularly Southern roots to remake and redeem sincerity and intensity as authentic rock moves.

“Southern Accents”
This panel explores the ways in which singers’ Southern accents complicate traditional understandings of race, region, class, and belief at different points across the 20th century. Whether its iteration is intentional or not, a Southern accent aligns its performer with both the historical South—a region marked by the ongoing ramifications of slavery, Jim Crow, and a dominant political culture grounded in white supremacist conservatism—and the imagined South, a culturally constructed fantastical landscape immortalized in music from “Dixie” to “Proud Mary” to “ATLiens.” Popular culture trains audiences to hear Southern voices as part of that fantasy, turning their accents into evidence of the South’s atavistic exceptionalism in which the “grain” of the voice reflects both regional and racial distinctions. Yet to hear the Southern accent as a simple outgrowth of a singer’s unreflexive cultural or biological essence belies the artistic choice to perform that marker of regional character. Regardless of an artist’s regional roots, using a Southern accent signals a political choice to position one’s self in juxtaposition to the South and all its cultural legacies. Singers as diverse as Elvis Presley, Michael Stipe, and O.B. McClinton have performed versions of the Southern accent, rooting their art in a region heralded for its role in the construction of American music and derided for its place in the making of American racism. The singers analyzed within this panel have used their Southern voices to praise, protest, and ultimately transcend expectations about the South and the combination of race and region represented in the performance of a Southern voice.

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