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Language Politics in Music





These questions all blow out into larger world language dynamics and politics, but for now, this Icelandic thing has always intrigued me. Starting with the Sugarcubes and Bjork as a solo artist, I always found it interesting that their music was in English. Iceland is a small country of 500,000 or so; maybe making it as a recording artist means you have to appeal to a wider audience, so why not English? But, given the ancestry of Iceland, why not German? (To note, I understand that both modern German and English derive from Porto-Germanic language, that is more clearly Icelandic than either of the other languages in their current state. The point being that Icelandic is close in origination to both English and German.) Maybe it is even as simple as the German-speaking countries of the world still don’t add up to the numbers of English speakers.


Why did two bands from the same country have different languages in their music?



Which other non-English speaking countries produce music with lyrics in English?


Beyond English, are there bands/countries where music is produced often in the non-native tongue? For instance, is there a scene in Italy that puts out music in, say, Portuguese? Or does Argentina have a Japanese-language music scene?


These questions all blow out into larger world language dynamics and politics, but for now, this Icelandic thing has always intrigued me. Starting with the Sugarcubes and Bjork as a solo artist, I always found it interesting that their music was in English. Iceland is a small country of 500,000 or so; maybe making it as a recording artist means you have to appeal to a wider audience, so why not English? But, given the ancestry of Iceland, why not German? (To note, I understand that both modern German and English derive from Proto-Germanic language, that is more clearly Icelandic than either of the other languages in their current state. The point being that Icelandic is close in origination to both English and German.) Maybe it is even as simple as the German-speaking countries of the world still don’t add up to the numbers of English speakers.



Okay, appealing to a wider audience may be a motivation, but then what about Sigur Ros? Their early work is in Icelandic, but then they shifted to “Hopelandic” - the invented language of the albums being indecipherable to English and Icelandic listeners. Instead of appealing to a large group who could understand, they abandoned everything and made it so no one would understand.


This, then, presents the nature of lyrics in music: does the meaning of the words matter, or not?


Modern audiences listening to opera from the seventeenth- and eighteenth- centuries often have no idea what the Latin, Italian, French, or German lyrics mean, but they do understand the emotion and message being presented in those works. The Dies Irae in Verdi’s Requiem doesn’t need translation to be understood as the presentation of final judgement to a planetful of terrified souls. And in contemporary music you find groups like Mono, This Will Destroy You, Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, Caspian, Russian Circles, etc. who fit under the genre base of post-rock but have hints of other genres thrown in. These bands provide a new style of instrumental music that hits the current masses with origins around the world. Either new or old, sometimes, at the best times, the meaning of a piece can make it through a language barrier unimpeded.


So, then, why would the two bands at the show that night be singing in two different languages, despite being from the same country? English, though not pervasive, is readily understood in most Scandinavian countries. Or, maybe there’s a coolness to it. England and the US, more or less, created the music business as we know it today. Perhaps, too, being seen as too ethnic in those countries (UK and US) might make it harder to make the market bridge. The answer lies in talking to the bands, and I haven’t done that; either way, though, the question was one they asked themselves and answered. And it’s a question that is being presented more and more here as Spanish-language songs make bigger and bigger steps on the charts. And K-Pop.


Here, then, is a final, open question: Will world music soon stop being a small section in the corner of the record store, and will we finally start getting to experience music from all over the planet just because there is good music everywhere?

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