Too Foreign for your Own Good, Sing in English.

The recent release of BoA’s English debut, and Utada Hikaru’s 3rd English release switched on my rant button, and prompted me to search for articles on why non-English artists must release music in the language, and oftentimes ditch their native tongue, to get into their market. It is quite nicely touched upon an article by the Telegraph titled “The Language Barrier” by Neil McCormick.

English is the Esperanto of pop, or so they say. This is coming from someone who chooses to write in English instead of Spanish – so who am I to tell you what to sing in? No one. Music is a language on its own, as Shakira puts it.

If music is a language on its own, what makes artists sing in English? The Cardigans’ Nina Persson says “Swedish is very specific and direct and actually quite a harsh language. English has more of a veil to it, more mystery.” Yet we get wonderfully-crafted albums like “Vapen och Ammunition” by Kent whose lead voice, Joakim Berg, sings in his native Swedish.

Perhaps Colombian singer Juanes puts it best, “I feel more natural, more calm and more honest in Spanish. It’s the language I dream in.” – Despite speaking English, he’s never sung in it even though he’s collaborated with artists such as Nelly Furtado, Tony Bennett and John Legend. However, he is still missing the mark compared to the success of Shakira who hasn’t released a great Spanish album since she turned blond and never looked back. On the other side of the story are Ricky Martin, and to some degree Marc Anthony, who released Latin albums in English, but have gone all the way back to Spanish and never truly experienced huge success after the craze for Latin music faded out.

Trying to break these walls, Wyclef, who collaborated with Shakira on “Hips Don’t Lie”, called Chinese musicians Jay Chou and Lee-Hom Wang (Alexander Wang, he’s American) “real musicians” for combining Chinese culture with music, and even ended up accompanying on the piano in Chou’s performance of “Chrysanthemum Flower Bed” and singing to the romanized lyrics.

It’s true that Asian (and many international, as well) artists sing songs in English from time to time, one has only need to look as far as Faye Wong and her Bohemian Rhapsody performance, Clazziquai’s Sweety or Big Bang’s Number 1. Many times, songs can’t even escape the seldom words in English like Salyu’s Ai no Jiken (Love Experiment), and we can even do this backwards and name “Livin’ la Vida Loca” or “Give me just One Night (Una Noche)” to show you how they do it in Spanish. There are also musicians writing and singing in English by choice, and not marketing purposes like Marit Larsen, who has been singing in English but hasn’t released a single album on this side of the world and focuses on the Scandinavian region.

So what are the chances to get recognized by not singing in English? What would be the chances of Jay Chou, whose English isn’t so good, to win a Grammy singing Chinese songs? Hundreds of songs released worldwide each year push the boundaries of language and music by fusing music genres, mixing words and creating something unique that we never get to hear about due to the lack of interest from the public, hence the lack of interest in promotion. Put a bit of the blame on us for not getting interested enough in other cultures, as well as a bit of blame on an industry that keeps on separating foreign music (and films) from the English-speaking content, resulting in the monopoly of the market by artists that are beginning to sound like a re-hash version of one another.

I’m probably sounding critical on music in English, which is not my intent. My problem is with the idea of already successful musicians trying to sing in English just to breakthrough into a market who is unwilling to listen to their music in its original language. Why should a market that feels something is “too foreign” be important, when people who are more willing to listen to something “alien” are more likely to buy your product anyway.

Ghost Writer

Here. There. Everywhere. Punished soul that usually watches what nobody wants, but sometimes gets lucky.

13 Responses

  1. mrckdexter says:

    I think the answer to your question is quite simple.

    Would the average American listen to music sung in a foreign language? No, they would not.

    Unless they're trying to be atmospheric and play Edith Piaf in a cafe or Latin dance tracks in a club, most Americans have no interest in listening to music in a foreign language.

    • YAM Magazine says:

      Yes, but the rest of the world is willing to listen to English music, which is a foreign language. I know a lot of people who don't speak English, and listen to the music.

      So… what's the difference between the average American and the average worldwide listener?

      Is it the same issue with subtitles on film? Because average moviegoers are used to them too.

      • @YAM Magazine, Completely agree with you. It sort of tickles me that the resounding understanding is that if you want to truly be successful, you have to make it in America. The only way to do that is to not only adopt the language, but the trends therein (many of which are just disasterous at best).

        It’s the same idea of an American artist (anybody, for that matter) immigrating to a different country whose language is compeletely foreign to his/her own and refusing to speak the language because English is the only one that matters. Or, I should say, that’s the mindset. It’s actually rather heartbreaking. What’s even more heartbreaking is that anything foreign that makes its way to America is thought of as a fad (ie the “Latin Craze” that swept through the late 90s to the early 2000s). Ethnic cultures as a fad…? Sounds a bit too imperialistic to me, but anyway…

        I find most languages more interesting than English anyway, and I’m a native speaker. How could you NOT want to learn more about other cultures? The world’s way too big to be locked away in your own little one, you know what I mean?

        • amy says:

          @Camiele White, kind of like when you ask someone what languages they speak. And when you speak with someone, generally caucasian – because if you speak with an Asian one you might end up with someone who speaks English, some Mandarin/Cantonese, a dialect and some other language – people are surprised you speak more than one language.

          The regular conversation is…
          – you speak two languages?
          – yes, my parents made me study English/French when I was a kid.
          – I only did French/Spanish in high school but I don’t think anything stuck. I know how to say “insert random word”

          The people that learned the most languages are the ones that are interested in films from those places, so they force themselves to learn for lack of subtitles.

          There’s actually no better way to broaden your mind than absorbing entertainment in different languages. :)

  2. @amy, Completely true. People are completely shocked that I speak Spanish –and not because one of my parents made me or because I had to take it for credit. I started actively learning it on my own when I was around eight years old. I just don’t understand how you could deny yourself the privelege of knowing more about the world you live in. But anyway, that’s just me.

    It’s a shame that the American standpoint is that everyone speaks English and those who don’t live somewhere else/should learn/any other random comment meant to mock other cultures. I don’t know how that works, actually. But, whatever. I shouldn’t rant on about it. It is what it is, I guess. But I just find it completely unfair that thsoe who wish to be considered “successful” can only do so/become so if they learn English and THEN make an album in English that’ll fit the mould of the American masses. Sad days ahead for all :(

    • amy says:

      @Camiele White, the world is your oyster… a lot of Americans just eat chicken ;) – No, seriously. NHK was doing a segment on how eating fish increases the quality of the milk in lactating mothers (don’t ask why I watch these things), and showed an American woman who ate fish only once a year, and had mostly chicken. LOL

      CHICKEN, every friggin’ day of the year.

      • Camiele says:

        @amy, Let me make this clear… People. Be. STUPID! It’s like, really, you ONLY eat chicken. What do your insides look like, man?! O.o

        But, you’re about right. Too much of one thing will rot you from the inside out until you’re too stuck on stupid to change your attitudes. Thus, people too ridiculous to even consider anything else continue to chew on chicken every single day. Doesn’t it get boring?

      • Rodrigo says:

        @amy, But eating healthy in America is expensive, so that’s how the obesity is higher around there – that’s another discussion for another day.

  3. ghost says:

    Damn, these comments are out of control. How did you get from music to chicken, amy?

    • amy says:

      @ghost, simple. Chicken is the pop music of the food chain. Eating horse meat or roasted goose might be considered as radical as listening to french pop music or cpop ;O

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