13 November 2009

Multilingual popular music

Here's an old but still interesting account of singers and songwriters using more than one language in songs. The mass audience has awakened to multilingual writing! Vox populi, vox Dei?

Readers recommend: multilingual songs, by Dorian Lynskey, The Guardian, Friday 11 May 2007:

"Every year, media coverage of Eurovision reaffirms one of the fundamental assumptions underpinning British music's self-image, namely that pop in other languages is intrinsically inferior, not to mention hilarious. Even as music becomes more polyglot (at least half of this week's suggestions, including Air, CSS and Arcade Fire, were recorded in the past decade), the novelty factor lingers.

"Perhaps it's because so many lyricists struggle to make sense in their native argot, let alone anyone else's. Full marks for effort to the Clash (Spanish Bombs), despite doing to the Spanish language what Hitler's bombers did to Guernica, and the Fall (Bremen Nacht), apparently using German gleaned exclusively from Commando comics: 'Ich raus schnell mach von Bremen Nacht.' Achtung, schweinhund! Hande hoch! The most multilingual offering was Madonna's Sorry. It seems she can now apologise for Swept Away in 10 different languages.

"Predictably, French produced the richest pickings, though whether that's a tribute to the unrivalled sophistication of the Gallic tongue or the legacy of compulsory French lessons I cannot say. Faced with changing the gender of Randy and the Rainbows' Denise, and understandably averse to Dennis, Blondie invented a French casanova called Denis, and sang a verse accordingly. Amorous exchange students took notes.

"German industrial metal band Rammstein slip into English to make their point about US cultural dominance on Amerika. 'This is not a love song,' growls Till Lindemann. 'I don't sing my mother tongue.' Ukrainian-born New Yorker Eugene Hutz mixes Russian and English on Sally, a lusty manifesto for his gypsy-punk troupe. 'I ended up being walking United Nations,' he explains in an accent broader than the Dnieper.

"Pixies' Frank Black frequently amplified his alien quality with manic bursts of Spanish, but there's only room for one Anglo-Spanish entry - Venceremos (We Will Win), British jazzers Working Week's elegantly understated tribute to victims of the Chilean junta. Tracey Thorn, Robert Wyatt and Chile's Claudia Figueroa swap verses. Brazil's Jorge Ben mixes Portugese and English on the breezy Take it Easy My Brother Charles.

"Now for some less commonly heard languages. Along with Super Furry Animals, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci flew the flag for the Welsh vernacular in the early 90s. Patio Song does so with unforced charm. Sigur Ros went one better, inventing a lingo called Hopelandic. The ecstatic Hoppipolla, which you will recognise if you've seen any TV trailers in the past year or so, combines it with their native Icelandic. On Satta Massagana, reggae trio the Abyssinians prove their devotion to the Rastafarian homeland of Ethiopia with a refrain in Amharic.

"Bryan Ferry sang auf Deutsch on Roxy Music's Bitter-Sweet, but Ferry and Germany aren't such a happy match at the moment. Song for Europe is not only a better song with a fortuitous title; it has verses in French and Latin, the least pop language of them all. Enfin, Blur's ravishing To the End, reworked as a fully bilingual duet with Parisian icon Françoise Hardy. Et voilà, c'est tout."

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