Sunday, September 21, 2008

Pop Music Is Better In A Foreign Language

I've been listening to a lot of unfamiliar music lately. I can't help but do that periodically, and thus the record and CD collection keeps on growing. I've had the most fun unearthing great old (i.e. 1977-1982) Punk stuff I haven't heard before on sites like Killed By Death, Good Bad Music, and 7 Inch Punk. These sites are a treasure trove of obscure bands like Breakouts, Modern Warfare, Hugh Beaumont Experience, Le Ritz, Frantix, Crap Detectors, The Huns, and a whole slew of other bands, many of which never released anything beyond one or two 7" singles. (And if anyone out there has any Brainbombs stuff you want to part with, let me know immediately. I wish I'd found them when stuff like Burning Hell, Genius & Brutality, and Urge To Kill were still in print.)

I've also been checking out some Hip-Hop, in particular Chamillionaire (I saw the Hip Hop Police / Evening News video while doing some music video research, and it's possibly the best Hip-Hop video I've ever seen, so I was hooked), and anything I can get my hands on by Dangermouse (the genius behind Gnarls Barkley, and the Grey Album -- which in my opinion is the gold standard for mash-up, and one of the best Hip-Hop anythings ever released).

Both genres underscore the fact that popular music often has stupid lyrics because, more so than mainstream rock or pop, there is often enough decent (not always intelligent, but at least clever) writing going on that the unbearably bad stuff really stands out. Hip-Hop suffers from this more than Punk, because it is driven by the lyrics, whereas with Punk it's easy enough to blather incoherently behind a wall of distortion (and often a fine idea, one which Death Metal fortunately takes to its logical conclusion).

Writing pop lyrics isn't easy, though. Many older forms of pop music (what we now call by names such as folk, world music, renaissance song, etc.) were structured around storytelling (most music that wasn't was liturgical or martial or otherwise ceremonial, and generally is classified differently). Since there was no three-minute radio format, songs could be as long or as short as needed to tell the tale, and "concept album" type collections of multiple songs used to tell a single tale were also an option. Even with those relatively liberal format constraints, it's still not easy to write something that is simultaneously engaging, thought provoking, and metrical. Throughout the ages, most pop music has been vapid and dull. Now add the additional constraint of the (roughly) three minute contemporary pop format, and it gets much harder. Fortunately (for them), many pop lyric writers seem to eschew trying very hard.

Further complicating things is genre constraints. Hip-Hop, for example, seems to have a requirement for at least one of the following tracks on every album: "don't mess with me because I'm tough and I'll smack you down," "I had it bad but now I'm rich and/or powerful and those of you who doubted me all suck," "the police are always giving me trouble," and "that woman left me for another guy and now I hate her. " Even an artist like Chamillionaire who has smart tracks like The Morning News and The Evening News is still obligated to make less engaging fare such as Pimp Mode. Punk, also, has its genre obligations, which are actually fairly similar to those of rap: poverty, street violence, run-ins with the police, and bad relationships.

Few if any Punk bands (even mainstream Pop-Punk like Green Day) have ever embraced the "I'm a player" stance of mainstream Hip-Hop, instead sticking steadfastly to rebellious conterculturalism. This, to me, is preferable to the "player" type tracks in Hip-Hop, and part of why I enjoy Punk -- even in English - - quite a bit more than most Hip-Hop. That doesn't mean there aren't silly, boring, or stupid Punk songs (those are legion), but the stylistic mode is different and so when the best of the Punk bands put out so-so tracks, the manner in which they are inferior to their best work is different than with Hip-Hop acts.

Which brings me to the title of the post. I am a big fan of pop music (including Punk, Hip-Hop, Metal, etc.) in languages that I don't understand. This allows the vocals to just become another textural element in the soundscape, and though I can't understand the words, the emotional tone of the vocalist still rings through. That is often the most compelling part of pop vocals, anyway. Instrumentals are also enjoyable, but the human voice is an instrument itself with many interesting sonic possibilities. Songs in foreign languages maintain the different layering, both emotionally and texturally, which sets vocal music apart from instrumentals -- yet at the same time, I don't get jolted out of a song by inane lyrics.

So, if you're in a band, and you have the ability to sing in any language other than English -- for my sake, please do.


hatsumi said...

Wow, do I feel dumb... You know, I never thought about it that way. I, too, really enjoy listening to pop music in foreign languages, but I never thought about WHY. I hate pop music in English. Thanks! :) I don't feel bad about liking foreign pop music

Erich said...

Thanks for this great text! I can totally relate to the language issue: When I started discovering Pop music in the 70s, I had not the slightest grasp of the english language and everything I liked was sung in english. Only with time, I started taking interest in the lyrics, so I bought myself a dictionary and began translating song titles. It all made no sense to me though. I translated word by word and it only furtherly mystified the lyrical contents at first. Well, stubborn as I am, I sticked to it and eventually I picked up this and that in the coming years. Up to now, I never took proper english class, which sometimes helps me still when I decide I don't want to understand this or that. Funny is: My mother, who at the age of 74 is a absolute AC/DC, Motorhead etc. fan, speaks not one word english and whenever I visit her and she turns up one ofthem cds (probably to impress me), she sings a long in a purely phonetic language - just like I used to, 30 years ago.
Oh, btw: Check Paul Chain on my blog. He too sings in a language that sounds english, but is not.

(type during work, no spell checking. thank you)