Way back when I was backpacking in Europe for the first time, it wasn’t as easy as it is today to carry around a load of music. We were well past the dawn of digital music, and iTunes and iPods already existed, but they weren’t exactly ubiquitous and I didn’t have one yet. I think I probably had a discman with me, but what a battery drain that was, and not very convenient.
Anyway, I relied heavily on whatever I was hearing in my environment in terms of music. One of my first music memories of that trip was sitting in the common area of the YHA in Copenhagen writing about whatever I’d done that day and realising, as some recent American rock music played on in the background, that I had yet to hear any music that was not in English. Whatever local radio station they were playing was all the same stuff on the radio in the US and the UK.
I get that popular music transcends language barriers and all, and that even before digital music got really, really big, the internet spread popular music much further afield than it would have gotten on it’s own. But NOTHING in Danish at ALL and I’d been in the country at least 3 days at that point. It was kind of… disappointing.
(It’s perhaps interesting to note that this is the trip on which I first observed ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ bringing people of all cultural backgrounds and languages together. EVERYONE knows (and loves) that song, and will pretty much immediately join in singing it when it comes on. Anywhere. Including on a rickety old television in a fast food shop. I mostly put this down to Freddie Mercury being magical and charismatic as hell, but who’s to say someone singing in another language can’t manage this?)
Well, they sort of can. Recently, YouTube announced that they had to upgrade their counter because Gangnam Style had been viewed so many times that it surpassed their current upper limit.
Now, Psy is no Freddie. NO ONE is Freddie. But Psy is singing in Korean, and EVERYONE knows this song. We may not be able to sing it all, but I heard Gangnam Style come on in, of all places, an Irish pub in Bergerac, France about two years ago and I was straight up thrilled about it. This can happen. Non-English music can be this big. And it SHOULD be, so much more often than it is.
In any case, back to that trip, where I continued to hear mostly English music through Denmark, Sweden, Germany and the Czech Republic. From the minute I noticed it in Copenhagen, I started paying attention to music normally meant for background, in shops and restaurants and everywhere. And it was mostly English-language pop most of the time. Then one night in Český Krumlov, I went out with the people staying in my hostel and we ended up in a crazy, cavern-like basement club where a band were playing some pretty proper hardcore metal. AND SINGING IN CZECH. It was fantastic! But you’ll note, this was a local thing, and not on the radio. And this seems to be one of the issues.
I was speaking to someone at my work Christmas do the other night about Eurovision (WHICH I LOVE) and how it’s a shame everyone’s always singing in English. 29 of the 63 winning songs have been in English. The UK have won 5 times, and Ireland 7, so take them away and that’s 17 winners that felt success was more likely in a language other than their own. Including ABBA of course, whom history has shown they probably made the right choice.
HOWEVER. It’s worth noting that 14 winning songs have been in French, all from countries with French as an official language. And none of those countries were ever English language winners. So why is it that French speakers seem to believe in the power of singing in their own language so much more than everywhere else? At least in terms of Eurovision. Because that conviction has clearly paid off, and they need to share it.
English is marketable and money makes a lot more choices than cultural pride it seems. It’s not like that’s surprising, but it’s a little sad. It’s fantastic that so many people learn and understand English. I feel lucky to speak one of the most widely spoken, and therefore useful, languages on this planet. But I wish marketability wasn’t partially responsible for stifling the use of other languages in music and art. The more we reward people for favouring English over their native tongue, the more variety we lose. And where’s the fun in all the radio stations of the world sounding exactly the same?
Refreshingly, when I was in Finland this summer, Johanna and Carolina were playing the radio station that played only Finnish music, which I was super happy existed. Of course there was plenty of English music floating about, and I was there for a festival full of bands singing mostly in English. But I also got introduced to the Finnish pop hit of the summer, among many other things, and it was great.
I’ve also mentioned one of my favourite bands Movits! here before. They’re Swedish and they perform completely in Swedish. And I have spent a lot of time with Google translate as a result, but I really love that they refuse to change what they do, and they have apparently been asked to (and asked why they don’t) many, many times.
I don’t always know what they’re saying, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s awesome music. And I’ve also been introduced to a lot of new music in Swedish just through checking out the people they work with. There’s a huge Swedish hip-hop scene and a lot of it is really, really good. Some of it is in English, but most of it is, very adamantly, in Swedish. And I love that.
Zacke (also great) and Movits! did this song, Spela Mig På Radion (which translates as ‘Play me on the radio’) and it’s basically about all the things they refuse to do just so they’ll be played on the radio. Not only is it a great track, it’s a good fucking point. They do their thing and they do it well, and the soul of it would be completely dead if they switched over to English (or used autotune or anything else) just so they could gain more popularity, in or out of Sweden.
Even if I knew another language well enough to write for an audience in it (I am shamefully mono-lingual), even if I’d been speaking it most of my life, I don’t think it would ever be as rich and layered as what I can write in English. And why should anyone feel they have to water themselves down just to be understood? In ANY language.
Being in an English-speaking country, it’s kind of hard to discover a lot of new music in other languages. The internet helps, but it’s actually quite hard to get a hold of full albums and things, even on Spotify. It depends on the artist, but a fair amount of the Movits! back catalogue isn’t accessible in the UK. I had to order imports to get their first two albums, and I bought their most recent one AT their show in Sweden. It’s getting easier, and some artists are more available than others. But initial exposure is difficult, and licensing probably makes it moreso.
Music in other languages is not just something you stumble on the way you (and the rest of the world) stumble on stuff in English. I wish this would change. I wish I could say I thought the whole Gangnam Style phenomenon was a sign of things to come, but unfortunately I don’t think it is. The success of that seems more based on novelty than anything else. But I guess it’s a start.
I do hope more artists will start standing their linguistic ground, because only good things come of it. Did anyone ever imagine that the thing to bust YouTube’s assumptions on statistics would be a song in Korean? I doubt it. So who knows what’s next?
In the meantime, anyone got any good non-English recommendations for me?