It’s the lingua franca of the music industry and the raison d’etre for many people wishing to extend their language skills. Not just Britain’s most successful export to the world, but the first thing you hear when most people start to sing.
Yes, without English, most artists in the rest of Europe, not to mention the world, stand significantly less chance of getting themselves noticed. Sadly.
In the UK, we take it for granted than virtually anybody from Scandinavia will sing in English. And that is increasingly true of countries such as Germany, Spain, and even France. When bands tour the UK, we expect them to address us in English. And when UK bands play in the rest of Europe. Well, you know.
For the past few weeks, German garage pop band Gurr have been co-headlining a UK tour with Brighton-based Yonaka. It is an interesting combination, with no guarantee that both bands will appeal to everyone who buys a ticket.
The one thing they do have in common is both primarily sing in English. In Southampton a few days ago, members of Gurr almost apologised for performing a song in German. ‘Please don’t leave,’ they begged.
Nobody did, as the song turned out to be one of the best in their set. Afterwards, I asked guitarist Laura why the band didn’t perform more in their native tongue. It was, as I suspected, a commercial decision.
It had always been their ambition to make it big in the UK. Maybe in the United States as well. But didn’t they perform in German when they are at home? Apparently not, and as a result they are less popular in Germany.
It is, of course, entirely up to Gurr and other groups which language they use in their music. Many British bands would welcome the opportunity to have that choice. But it has to be said, anybody walking into a Gurr set who knew nothing about the band would be forgiven for thinking they were probably American.
Not such a wide world
This is partly due to many central and eastern Europeans speaking so-called ‘American’ English, as well as pop music’s tendency to quash cultural and linguistic differences and throw up a default based on familiarity and, to some extent, ignorance.
Returning to Scandinavia, take a listen to this track by Danish singer Marie Fjeldsted. Sorry that should be Penny Police. A great voice, agreed, but does it shout out Denmark? No. It might as well be the next Lana del Rey single, not that there is anything wrong in that.
By choosing to be known as Penny Police, Fjeldsted has probably said all that we need to know about the power and predominance in music of the English language.
Just one song on Hinds’ debut album is in Spanish and I wouldn’t put money on there being any more on their second. Daft Punk and Justice, meanwhile, show it is better to be French with an English-sounding name, or one that transcends language.
Even west African singers such as Baaba Maal have attempted to sing in English with, it has to be said, less than impressive results.
Not that any of this matters particularly if we simply want to enjoy the music. But maybe occasionally we want it to represent something more in terms of an artist’s culture and the country from which they originate?
To some extent, Welsh bands have shown it is possible to create a popular following that respects language and culture while avoiding the ‘one size fits all’ model that might appeal more to their record companies.
Will others follow suit? I wouldn’t bank on it. Though UK artists could, if they wished, take a lead and start singing in other languages or at least addressing audiences in their native tongue when they leave our shores this summer and play what the British affectionately call ‘European’ festivals.