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The Flipside With Jack White: Why He Loves Accents, But Hates His Own

Amy Walker, an expert on accents, is featured on a new 45 on Third Man Records.MoreCloseclosemore
Amy Walker, an expert on accents, is featured on a new 45 on Third Man Records.

Jack White is an astonishing guitar player, songwriter, producer and craftsman. Last week, I spoke to White about his passion for the work of another craftsman: auctioneer Jerry King.

Today on The Flipside, we talk with White about his love-hate relationship with accents and a new 45 by Amy Walker.

Jack White: Say hello, Amy.

[We sample a bit from Amy Walker's Discourse on Accents]

Bob Boilen: Did you ever have records like that?

White: Yeah. That was her idea. She was like, "I love those books." When we were recording — that's what it reminds me of — the narrator of children's books. So we had to find that sound effect [and] put it in there. But what happens next on the record, I said, "Can we just hand you the newspaper today. and can you read an article — off the top of your head, do each sentence in a different accent?"

Boilen: Let's hear a little of that and when we come back, tell us who Amy Walker is.

[We sample another bit from Amy Walker's Discourse on Accents.]

Boilen: That's the perfect accent for that line.

White: Yeah!

Boilen: Who's Amy Walker?

White: Amy Walker — I found her on YouTube. She has made this viral video called "21 Accents." She's an actress; she was doing an acting exercise about accents where you would just over and over again say the exact same phrase and say it into a mirror or into a camera and say the phrase each time in a different accent. And I think she thought it'd be just some little thing actors would be interested in, but it went viral [and has] 5 million hits now. People loved it and it got passed around. I saw it and [thought], "Ah this is great. [I] wonder if she'd be willing to talk about that on a record, and we can explore the idea of accents and the prejudices associated with them — good or bad, and see if we can get somewhere with it."

Boilen: Did you ever have an accent? Or do you think you have an accent?

White: I don't like my accent. I can't stand my speaking voice. And sometimes I think, I live down south and I'm so jealous of the Southern accent. I love the humor associated with it; the way you can get away with things with a certain accent. And that really appeals to me, too. I'm mean, mine — I'm so like this... Midwestern, where things are kind of annoying. I'm not dissing the Midwest or whatever my neighborhood was — you sorta said, "The TV's ahn. Hey, Jahn." This attacking thing — so annoying. I used to think that some of the things I said [would] offend people, but if I said it in a French accent or an Italian accent, that I would have got away with it, you know?

Boilen: Give me an example.

White: [In standard American accent] "You look beautiful in that dress. I gotta say, you look really hot... but I don't know if you should wear your hair like that." Well, come on, who's — that's offensive. If I said, [in French accent] "You are beautiful. Your dress. But the hair — it's not right. You have to do it — pull it up, like this." And the woman would be flattered. That'd always piss me off.

Boilen: My family moved — I grew up in Brooklyn. I grew up in Queens. You hear my Brooklyn accent, I'm sure — which you don't. When I was 15, 16 [and] came to high school, I was totally intimidated out of my accent. I couldn't say anything and be taken seriously. I really feel that pain and envy of wonderful accents. But really, you go to Brooklyn now — you go to lots of towns now — and the accent, it's going away.

White: It's something that National Geographic should start talking about, too. They have a lot of interesting dying languages in the world, and dying dialects. And some of them, there are only two people left in the world speaking a certain language. It'd be interesting to talk about accents. You made a good point. I think a lot of people who go to Ivy League schools from these tiny towns in the country, in America. [They] probably get there [and] are ashamed of their own accent — how they are going to be perceived, and how they're going to be taken as an intelligent person.

Boilen: I was always fascinated — when I was growing up, the British Invasion happened — and I was fascinated by the fact that, for music and accents, how the accent vanished.

White: Yeah.

Boilen: What do you think that's all about?

White: I don't know. That's just a mystery that nobody knows. I mean, does Australian, South African, English, American — once you start singing, everyone has the same accent. It's very strange.

Boilen: What is that accent anyway that they all don't have?

White: Someone should name that, yeah.

Boilen: Do you think you have an accent when you sing?

White: I don't think so, no. I think it becomes — morphs to that same accent we all have in English vocals. I don't know. I know I'm happier singing than I am speaking. Quote unquote down to. You know what I'm saying? You have that choice when you want to smarten up, you can smarten up and no one will question you, you know? Another thing is the mystery of it, too. My wife could say phrases that she claims, "Oh, we say that in England." But I have no idea. It's exotic, it is exotic for some reason. That's what we talk about on the record, but it's hard to talk about without offending anybody. You don't want to say something like, "Why is the Queen's accent in Britain different from the way people talk in New Zealand?" You can't say one is better or higher-class than the other one. That doesn't really sound right. I mean, don't we feel something when people talk — we immediately feel some kind of judgment when we hear their accent. Sometimes I wonder how fair or unfair that really is.

Boilen: I wonder if your wife was attracted to your accent.

White: I doubt it. I doubt that.

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