Turn Up the Tunes, Break Out Your Phrasebooks

Speaker's Corner: Elyse Franko wonders: Is the United States at the beginning of a linguistic musical revolution?

09.09.09 | 8:44 AM ET

Stephen Colbert with members of Movits!

A few weeks ago, Stephen Colbert surprised me by inviting Swedish swing-rap-jazz combo Movits! to play on his show. I wasn’t surprised by the appearance of musicians rather than the usual authors and political figures who make guest spots on The Colbert Report. Nor was it odd to me that they were Swedish—the Shout Out Louds, Mando Diao and, of course, ABBA, are all Swedish bands that have enjoyed some notoriety in the U.S. The strange thing was that the members of Movits! performed for 1.5 million American viewers—in their native tongue.

Don’t get me wrong. I listen to—and enjoy—my share of non-English language music. Duman and Yavuz Çetin are not only great to rock out to, but their songs have been invaluable in improving my Turkish vocabulary; songs by Die Ärzte and Sportfreunde Stiller bring me back to my exchange year in Germany; and though I don’t really understand much Spanish, I’ve been known to go through obsessive bouts of listening to nothing but Manu Chao. But I almost always encounter difficulties when trying to share my favorite foreign bands with people at home. “That sounds kind of cool,” a friend will say flatly while I bounce along to a song by Tomte (German) or Dungen (Swedish). “But I don’t understand it.”

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.

For the past 60 years, the English speakers who sit on the thrones of the music industry have issued a clear mandate to foreign musicians: “If you want us to pay attention to you, learn English.” And if you don’t feel like learning English—well then, we’d better be able to make fun of you. Most foreign-language music that’s gained any popularity in the English-speaking world has seemingly existed solely for comic relief. Does anyone in the United States ever listen to Rammstein without laughing about “how angry” the German language sounds? Would O-Zone, the Moldovan band responsible for “Dragostea Din Tei” (commonly known as “The Numa Numa Song”), ever have become quite so popular if their 21st-century music videos didn’t look like they were straight out of the late 1980s? For that matter, would we know about them at all if a lip-synching, chubby kid hadn’t made the song a YouTube sensation?

So what choice have non-English speakers had but to capitulate and spend six decades flipping through their dictionaries in order to understand the latest hits by Frank Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles and Britney Spears? Knowing that they won’t be taken seriously otherwise, foreign musicians heed the mandate: They learn English, and then they sing in English. Many musicians, like the Beatsteaks (German) and Shakira (Colombian) start out singing in their native languages and switch to English once they realize that global success can only be reached with an Anglophone audience. Others, like The Hives and Mando Diao (both Swedish) just plunge right in and produce English-language albums from the beginning. And it’s particularly telling that, out of the 25 finalists in the Eurovision 2009 contest, 19 songs were performed at least partly in English.

While I understand that having a common language makes certain things easier (international diplomacy, intercontinental transportation and, yes, running the Eurovision contest), it shouldn’t make the speakers of that lingua franca as lazy as we English speakers have become. 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? Anyway, a simple Google search will usually yield a translation in less than a minute.

Stephen Colbert’s invitation to Movits! might just signal the beginning of a linguistic musical revolution in the United States. Certainly, making a change will be a long and tedious process, but it’s encouraging that now, a month after receiving the “Colbert bump,” the Movits! album Äppelknyckarjazz (Apple Thief Jazz) has been made available at the U.S. iTunes store and currently stands at No. 326 on the Amazon.com MP3 Download Sales Rankings. (For reference, Green Day’s “American Idiot” stands at No. 650, OK Go’s “Oh No” is ranked 2,268 and the Rolling Stones’ “Made in the Shade” is 33,287.) Furthermore, the increasing popularity of foreign musicians like Manu Chao, the ultimate musical polyglot, and Icelandic post-rock band sigur rós shows that there might just be hope for non-English language music in the English-speaking world. And I have even experienced my own small victory: I’ve been able to share Movits! with several of my friends—none of whom speak Swedish—and haven’t once heard someone whine, “But I don’t understand it.”

Elyse Franko is a Long Island native, a graduate of the American University School of Communication in Washington, D.C., and a former World Hum intern. During her time at university, she wrote and edited for several campus publications and fostered her love for traveling by spending time abroad in Istanbul, Turkey, and Berlin, Germany. She currently works as a teaching assistant in Vienna, Austria.

3 Comments for Turn Up the Tunes, Break Out Your Phrasebooks

nyc movits fan 09.12.09 | 10:27 PM ET

Great post!

By the way, I’ve heard that Sigur Ros doesn’t even sing in Icelandic - they sing in their own made up language “Hopelandish.” So even their neighbors don’t understand their lyrics (and perhaps the singer’s band mates as well).

And as for great foreign language music, may I also recommend Gotan Project (Argentinian electronica/tango), Julieta Venegas (Mexican pop), Yelle (French pop), and Jovenes y Sexys (Venezuelan indie folk).


Darrin 09.28.09 | 12:11 PM ET

It’s a good point that lyric translations are only a google search away.

The only foreign language song I remember while growing up was 99 Luftballoons, and that song only became popular because there was an English-language version of it.  It’s about time that a national program has aired a foreign language band.  Then again, I live in a city (NYC) where half the subway car advertisents are in Spanish.

John M. Edwards 10.12.09 | 1:47 PM ET

Great idea!

As a famous musician cum writer, I like to see what my favorite people look like.

Call for ms.: Great Photos of famous pro musicians alive since Universal comped via Paramount and Viacom and MTV all our randy faves

I boldly declare myself a Puritan who is better on a Mac laptop but owns shares in round lots in Microsoft.

Big Company portfolio guy

John M. Edwards

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