We got Rock Band 3 a little while ago, and it comes with Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, which OStone really likes, so I’ve listened to that a few times.
The first two lines caught my attention as a phonologist: “Her name is Yoshimi/She’s a black belt in karate”. The rhyming words in both lines are Japanese. In Japanese “Yoshimi” would end with the high front vowel /i/, while “karate” would end with the mid front vowel /e/. That is, the vowel in the first line is a full step higher than the vowel in the second.
But in English, neither of the vowels are pronounced the same way. The English pronunciation of “karate” raises the final vowel to /i:/, as it does with most Japanese loanwords ending in /e/ (“kamikaze”, “karaoke”, etc.), and the singer (Wayne Coyne?) pronounces it as such. This is because English doesn’t use /e/ as a vowel at all. The closest English vowels would be either /ɛ/ or /eɪ/. But lax vowels like /ɛ/ can’t normally appear at the end of words, and /eɪ/ interacts with stress and meter differently than /i:/ and doesn’t like to appear like this at the end of a word when the preceding syllable is stressed. So in this position, the Japanese /e/ is bumped up to the third or fourth closest English vowel, /i/, and we get /kǝɹ’ɑ:ti:/.
Now I just said you can’t use lax vowels at the end of words in English. Except when you’re singing Rock music. In the name “Yoshimi”, which would also end in /i:/ in normal English, we see Rock and Roll vowel laxing to [ɪ]. Rock music is often sung in or influenced by a standard Rock and Roll accent, which includes laxing of word final [i:]’s, archetypically in “baby” to “babih” (/beɪbi:/ to [beɪbɪ]).
My Phonetic Analysis professor once asserted, “You can’t make a tense vowel in that position or you’d lose your recording contract.” (Though The Flaming Lips don’t seem to have lost their recording contract over the tense vowel in “karate”.)
Now the tense/lax distinction in vowels is squidgy. Actually vowels in general are squidgy, but this distinction is particularly squidgy. But lax vowels are generally held to be lower than their corresponding tense vowels, along with whatever other characteristics distinguish them, which are not always agreed upon.
In Japanese, the first vowel would be a full step higher than the second ([i] over [e])
As sung in English, the first vowel is a small step lower than the second ([ɪ] under [i:]), due to the combination of how “karate” is borrowed plus Rock and Roll Vowel Laxing being applied to “Yoshimi” but not “karate”.
(Note: the whole first verse is “Her name is Yoshimi/She’s a black belt in karate/Working for the city/She has to discipline her body”. So the not-quite rhyme in the first two lines under discussion is only part of a verse-wide rhyming structure. I’m not critiquing the rhyme at all, I’m being amused by the reversal of vowel heights.)