The European elections will soon be upon us, yet it seems I’m the only one who cares. And I can’t even vote!
But my interest lie less in the politics of Europe and more in imagining what Europe would look like if they really did go all the way, as in the full federal sense, where Germany and France would no longer count as countries with distinctive cultures and languages, but more as bordering states like Michigan and Illinois.
As an American, stuff like that gives me a big thrill, not only because I get to see Europe finally on my own terms, it also lets me imagine what peculiarities each “state” would then have. Would one state have the death penalty and another legal prostitution? What state would getting a driver’s license be easier in and whose accent would sound the funniest?
I bring up the subjects of accents, only because I’m betting a federal Europe would adopt English as its national language, and if so, I think I know what the standard accent would be – mine – or, at least, the accent I’m asked to use whenever I do a voice over for a commercial nowadays.
It’s called the Mid-Atlantic accent, and as the name befits, it lies somewhere between British and American, somewhere I guess between the Isle of Jersey and the coast of Nova Scotia. Somewhere probably where the Titanic sunk. It’s a voice that’s both refined in the British sense, but American in its appeal to a mass audience, and for advertising agencies, it’s the crown jewel of any global campaign.
Nobody on earth really speaks Mid-Atlantic. You can’t go into a bar somewhere and find people telling jokes in Mid-Atlantic. Nor is there an Assimil language software program that can teach it. It’s more of an affect, a sort off-shoot of what was called the “Transatlantic” accent back in the 50’s, which old actors like Liz Taylor, Katherine Hepburn, and Cary Grant used to great success. The Transatlantic, as with the Mid-Atlantic, was designed to evoke WASP aristocracy on both sides of the pond, a sort of accent you might hear a group of high-bred socialites using to converse as they stand around a piano aboard the Queen Elizabeth II as the boat pushes off from Le Havre for New York.
Personally, I don’t remember where I got my Mid-Atlantic. Perhaps it was the private prep school education I had, or perhaps it was my WASPY mom. Or perhaps it’s a result of living in France now for over a decade and learning like a trained dog to hide my American nasal expressions “great” and “yeah” and “oh my god.”
What I do know though is that the Mid-Atlantic appeals to the French ear more. Often a client will say to me before a recording “John we want you to be yourself, but not too American” the “too American” part I guess, meaning too violent, too evangelist, or too obese. I reassure them I promise to behave, and it’s true. All of a sudden, I do become polite and refined. I straighten my posture a bit. I stop complaining. And I start using words like “cheers,” and “brilliant,” and “jumper.” And the client can’t be happier. All of sudden, they have the sensation their crappy product of Nutella has an aura of elegance to it as if it were something Cole Porter might compose a song around.
The funny thing is in the UK or the US you don’t often hear the Mid-Atlantic accent on TV. The voices used there for commercials are a lot more anchored in the local culture. The Mid-Atlantic is for places like Thailand or Russia or Dubai, places that want a neutral English that’s comprehensible (slower), an English you might imagine the child of George Clooney and Tony Blair speaking if he were on Xanax.
Judging from its commercials Apple has recently adopted the Mid-Atlantic only to push it into a more techno-social media area, which leads me to think these advertising agencies aren’t just trying to harken back to a time of transatlantic elegance, but of futuristic hipsterism as well, one stripped of all identity and terroir, one that’s rootless as much as it is boundary-less, a voice capable of merging all these disparate countries of Europe, into one, creepy social media mass.
And it’s true. When I get in the recording booth and put on the headphones I can’t help but think of the Kubrick-inspired computer voice of Hal from the film 2001. Only, this time, I’m John 2014, the New York/Washington transplant who lives in Paris, who you might think is British as he performs his Mid-Atlantic for a French yogurt in Singapore.
Like fashion, music, hamburgers, and cupcakes, accents too are becoming globalized. And perhaps on European election night, not too long in the future, a winner in Germany or France or Greece will give his speech in English, and we won’t even be able to make fun of him because he’ll do it in a perfect Mid-Atlantic accent.