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Music: transcending language

Nov 22, 2019
The universality of English has long made it the predominant language of pop music – but this could be all set to change. With Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber’s smash Despacito; to the recent Havana by Camila Cabello, the Spanish invasion is in full swing – and this isn’t the only language to hit the charts. So as we enter the 2020’s, can we expect to see more global artists take centre stage?

With K-Pop groups selling out stadiums, and Catalan superstar, Rosalia, claiming the crown of most streamed female artist, it seems likely. But what magical principle allows a song to transcend language and appeal to everyone, including those who can’t understand a word of it? In the case of Edith Piaf, the Parisian Chanteuse who gifted the world ‘La Vie en Rose’ and ‘Je Ne Regrette Rien’, we don’t need a translator to understand she’s singing about something we can all relate to: love. With each note of her two biggest songs wrought with unmistakable emotion, both remain instantly recognisable decades later – suggesting tangible passion could be the key to universal success and longevity.
Christine and the Queens PHMG Blog
That would explain the rise of fellow Frenchie, Christine and the Queens, the alter ego of a young, queer woman brought into existence by their life-altering encounter with a group of drag queens. Whether singing in French or English, Chris steals the show at practically every festival she plays with her impassioned performances and electrifying choreography. Is an impressive live set the key to getting fans to look past the lyrics?
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It certainly worked for Bjork, who has continued to release music in her native Icelandic throughout the entirety of her forty year career. As much a visual artist as a musical one, you don’t need to understand what she’s saying to get lost in her other worldly mixture of classical, avant-garde, and pop. In fact, she’s acclaimed for introducing the UK market to not just a new language, but new genres and sounds. Simlarly, Dussledorf-based Kraftwerk are widely considered the fathers of electronic music. Their repetitive German language vocals play second fiddle to the ground-breaking sound of their synths and drum machines which have been making waves in since the 1970’s. They paved the way for the dance music of today, and artists like Peggy Gou, who can be seen playing headline slots across the globe. Gou mixes popular tracks of the day and samples throughout her ever popular sets, but without fail, it is her own Korean language singles that get the biggest response every night.

Gou’s success is no anomaly. In 2019, Korea is a musical tour de force, with all-girl K-Pop band, Blackpink, selling out Manchester arena in May, and a shop dubbed ‘a multi-fandom store for any K-Pop fan’ opening in Shoreditch following BTS’ Wembley stadium performance. British K-Pop fans praise the multi-faceted talents of their icons, many of whom can act as well as sing and dance, but the internet and social media cannot be ignored when discussing the rise of the European-Korean hybrid genre. Why does it matter what your heroes are singing about when they look good, sound good, and you can feel at home and accepted in a huge, online, fandom?

But what about when language is disregarded all together? Just as Ella Fitzgerald used her voice as an instrument, scatting and improvising melodies and rhythms, Russian-born Regina Spektor has always experimented with the full potential of her voice. She explains her decision to mix English, French, and Russian, with made-up words and sounds:
phmg Regina Spektor Quote
With a language reportedly dying every two weeks, it seems music could be the key to keeping the histories and stories behind them alive.