Since my last post focued on language in pop songs, I figured I’d continue along with that theme. I think one thing I take for granted as an american citizen is exactly how much the english language has bullied its way to almost every edge of our globe. You can go almost anywhere that has an international airport, obnoxiously shout out “where’s the party at,” and have someone understand you (whether you’ll end up in your boxers tied to a lamppost watching some grizzled anarchist burn up your pasport is another issue). A pretty decent barometer for this is pop music. Now let me admit the shortcoming in the argument I am about to make; there is plenty of popular music, both in the US and abroad, that is not recorded in english. The recent (…semi recent) rise in popularity of both Reggeaton and Rock en Espanol can attest to this in mainstream circles, and critics’ validation of fake icelandic mumbling shows it’s true in indie rock as well.
But still. I spent 6 months in eastern Europe and more than half of the Czech and Slovak pop music I heard was sung in english. Now, there is some historical significance to this; during communism, bands were forbidden to sing in English, and so it’s still, in theory a way of sticking it to the man (even though this particular man is dead and his face is printed mockingly on souveneir t-shirts). I don’t think that’s it any more; I think it’s just that English is pervasive, moreso than Czech, Slovak, Japanese, Sweedish, or almost any other language save for Arabic and Spanish. And so even bands that, honestly, don’t speak english that well, sing in the language (Hey there, Suburban Kids With Biblical Names. How’s it going Guitar Wolf? You too, Lali Puna! Nice to see you, Daft Punk). And we call their attempts charming or cute or primal without ever really questioning whether the only reason they are singing in english is to get an american distrobution deal or to have people sing along on their north american tour. We’ve got it pretty lucky; we’re hosting the pop music party that almost everyone wants to get into. If you’re not into lit-theory, feel free to skip the next paragraph.
The whole thing feels vaguely like something occuring in another artistic medium: post-colonial literature. One of the defining facets of that overstuffed and ill-defined genre is a confrontation of some kind with language. Jamaica Kinkaid rightly argued in her book A Small Place, “the language of the criminal can contain only the goodness of the criminal’s deed.” In other words, works that are responding to colonialism in the colonizer’s toungue experience a sorf of linguistic failure; they cannot described the atrocity or hardship of colonialism in the tounge that conquered them. Post-colonial writers have responded to this dilema in a myriad of ways; Rushdie turns english into a playground, Ngugi Wa Thiang’o, writes in Gikuyu, the language spoken in his region of Kenya, and then later translates each of his books into english himself. The Jaimaican writer Michelle Cliff mixes English with Rastafarian and provides a glossary of terms at the end; the reader must work to understand, even if that glossary can not provide a one to one translation.
I think the most interesting reaction i’ve seen to the dominance of english in pop music is the mixing of English and another language. Malajube, a Canadian band who only sing in french provide slight clues to context in song titles. SDP and Tagaki Kahn scatter in refferences to new york and hype man phrases into their japanese rapping. Jah Batta writes his songs in english, but he stretches or compresses each word until it is barely recognizable; he might be stuck with english, but he’s gonna make that fucker dance for him.
(not to mention bedrock like Francois Hardy, or early Boredoms stuff.)