Pop in English, from elsewhere

International Terminal
What is it about popular music, sung in English, that originates from outside of the English-speaking world? This is a topic that’s occupied me for a few years now. Not in the least because I didn’t grow up speaking English, or in the English-speaking world. My own relationship with popular music has been one of love for the sounds, textures and rhythms before I was ever able to appreciate, or even understand, the lyrics. Words, for me, have always remained secondary. This makes my experience of music very different to that of most people I know. It’s also influenced how I have approached and consumed the music I’ve loved: I can still sing/hum Stevie Wonder’s harmonica solo in the Eurythmics’ “There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart)” note for note, but I could barely tell you what the song is about. Conversely, I struggle to truly appreciate people like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.

The world is full of people who don’t speak or understand English. Yet English is still the single most important language for singing popular music. While it’s the lingua franca of pop and widely listened to everywhere from Russia to Argentina, it’s not necessarily understood by those listening. And of course it’s not really necessary to understand the words to appreciate great music. (What’s interesting is how the music may be adopted by another culture but its level of ‘cool factor’ may not be fully understood; witness Queen’s undying popularity in South America, or the somewhat surprising, though nothing short of delightful, Siegeszug of Germany’s Rammstein in North America.)

Pop sung in English is almost completely pervasive. There are strong movements in a variety of geographies in support of rock sung in the native tongue (Rock en Español or Deutschrock come to mind), but the majority of artists from outside the UK-US-Canada nexus that have achieved any kind of international exposure sing in English. And I think their music is often particularly vivid: it has a musical ‘sheen,’ a certain glow that often elevates it above their peers’ output from the UK-US-Canada.

I don’t think there are any ‘accepted’ theories about this anywhere, so I’ll posit a few thoughts and suspicions, and we’ll see if they fit. I think that artists from ‘elsewhere’ who sing in English treat pop music like something special, something that doesn’t really belong to them. The associated danger is that they’ll make it into a cliché – and the less accomplished do that quite readily. But there are many instances where pop from elsewhere is more beautiful and reverential, a musical hommage to pop and everything associated with it. Is there something like a ‘beautiful cliché’? Let’s maybe call it an archetype instead.

A-ha are an interesting example of a band from elsewhere. The three Norwegians found international exposure and acceptance in the early-to-mid 80s with a string of hits. What most people missed was that they were serious songwriters, with excellent English lyrics, and that Morten Harket’s pronounciation was as highbrow Brit as the news on BBC World. A-ha dropped from view for many years in the 90s but have since returned with several excellent, mature pop albums that are culturally switched-on, beautifully written and produced and a great enhancement to their body of work (Minor Earth Major Sky, Lifelines, Analogue and the wonderful live How Can I Sleep With Your Voice In My Head?). Perhaps Norway’s proximity to the UK had something to do with it. A-ha continue to create archetypal pop music, and – I think – the lyrics are at best an equal part in the overall mix.

How does geography influence artistic merit? Does being from the fringes mean that you’re more driven and focused to create? Or does it mean that you’re able to ‘try on’ certain aspects of musical or ‘youth’ culture without being fully in it, fully committed to it? Does this outsider’s point of view give you the power of not doubting?

Sweden’s Millencolin are a skate-punk band, in a vein similar to the Descendents. They play fantastic, driven, energizing pop-punk that’s melodious and full of hooks. And their English lyrics are, well, questionable :) It all sounds perfectly okay until you listen closely and you realize it’s just slightly off. It’s the subject matter, the song titles, and the turns of phrase. None of it is completely bad… or maybe some of it is, but the undeniable spark of the music more than compensates for it. At least for me – but I’ve already confessed that I don’t care much about lyrics. Favourite song title: “Biftek Supernova.” Awesome.

Is writing pop songs a struggle in the absence of having a complete command of English? I think it is, having tried my hand at it once or twice when I was a teenager. The English-speaking listener expects a certain level of subtlety and wit, and songs whose lyrics sound ‘off’ stand out like sore thumbs. I wonder, though, if their awareness of this encourages artists from elsewhere to ‘try harder’ musically and therefore compensate for the not-quite-right lyrics.

I think there may be other geography-related factors in play too. Europe typically has better music education in schools, so perhaps more European kids emerge from the system being able to play an instrument. And what about the influence of ‘national musics’ on popular music from outside the UK/UK/Canada? I’m not sure I have any further insights about these; they’re just thoughts.

Other examples of great elsewhere-pop that are worthwhile suspending one’s disbelief for are Germany’s The Robocop Kraus (seriously), Sweden’s Shout Out Louds, Germany’s Fury in the Slaughterhouse, and a few others.

In another post, I’ll look at country music from Australia. In the last few years, Singer/songwriters like Kasey Chambers and Keith Urban have consistently created music that’s more ‘American,’ archetypal and expressive than most of the North American country music industry’s commercial output. And their North American nasal ‘twang’ is simply fantastic.

Today's Desert Island Disc: De-Phazz, Daily Lama
Listening to: Calexico, Carried to Dust
Listening to: Idan Raichel's Project
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