Can Americans Learn to Love Non-English Lyrics?

| 10/16/2009 5:31:42 PM

French lyricsAmericans are peculiar. We like ethnic food, as long as it’s not too ethnic. We like foreign films, as long as they’re not too foreign. But we draw the line more starkly at non-English pop music. We don’t widely embrace music that is not sung in our tongue.

What is it about non-English lyrics that so repels us? Elyse Franko proposes on the travel website World Hum that we’re driven by overblown fears:

We English speakers are terrified of not understanding. We’ve gotten so used to speaking the coveted lingua franca that we’ve neglected to give other languages a chance—even if doing so would somehow benefit us. At this point, neglect has turned to fear: fear of miscommunication; fear of traveling outside the realm of English-language tours; fear of ordering the wrong dish from a non-English menu; and fear of misunderstanding the non-English lyrics to an otherwise excellent song.

Franko notes that many artists seeking a large audience are pressured to learn English, and that 19 of last year’s 25 Eurovision song contest finalists sang in English. But she also holds out hope that the tide is turning. After all, she notes, the Swedish “swing-rap-jazz combo” Movits recently performed on The Colbert Report—in Swedish!

OK, so maybe it wasn’t a cultural watershed, but Franko’s central point is well taken: “In this, the Age of the Internet, new music can travel over continents in seconds—why should we ignore good tunes just because they’re not performed in a language we can understand?”

To do our part, we’ve included two songs with non-English lyrics on our downloadable October Utne Reader music sampler: “Culpa de la Luna” by Rupa and the April Fishes, which is in Spanish, and “Surprise Hotel” by Fool’s Gold, which takes the multicultural prize: It’s African-style music played by non-African Los Angelenos and sung in Hebrew by the Israeli-born son of parents from Iraq and Russia. Touché!

Tom Hendricks
10/17/2009 10:33:44 AM

Being an American, I don't mind lyrics in another language. Speaking of foreign language lyrics, I note that the first all world list of best new music, "First World top 40" - has a lot of music in many many languages from just about every continent and many many countries. Utne should talk about it - first world list, no corporate sponsors, no trendiness, no formats, just great specific individual songs. It's a list of about 200 number ones that you haven't heard! Remember things like foreign lyrics that you talk about NOW, were on the list when it was begun months and months ago. Let's support not only what is safe and familiar, but that which is new and exciting too. Thanks.

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