3

Are songs in English more likely to be successful? According to the organisers of the Eurovision song contest, yes, they are. The Eurovision song contest is an annual international music competition which has attracted an impressive total of 52 participating countries to date, ranging from Ireland to Azerbaijan, to even, amazingly, Australia. But despite the contest’s pan-European (and now pan-global) calling, its official website tells us that in the years since 1999, there have been 17 winning acts singing in English compared to only 4 winners in any other language. Does this prove the common preconception that writing songs in English is a condition for success?

 

In many ways, we can argue that music is increasingly international now. Two of the biggest hits of the 2010s, Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ and, more recently, Luis Fonsi’s ‘Despacito’, were both written in languages other than English and subsequently became global sensations. The increasing popularity of international music genres such as K-Pop among both Western and non-Western audiences is remarkable, and it’s not confined to Asia: many artists from Europe (or writing in European languages) have also done remarkably well in the last decade, as we’ve seen with hits like Willy William’s ‘Ego’, Álvaro Soler’s ‘El mismo sol’, Michel Teló’s ‘Ai se eu te pego’, and so, so many others.  

 

At the same time, it has also often seemed to be that many of the last decade’s most famous international performers only truly broke into the global superstar category when they started releasing music in English. Shakira had a strong following in Spanish-speaking countries from the nineties, but she only became a huge name internationally when she released her English-language album ‘Laundry Service’, and she is arguably still much more famous internationally for the songs that she has released in English. Céline Dion originally wrote songs in French, yet her most widely-recognised (and successful) songs are in English, such as ‘My heart will go on’. Have things changed since the 1990s and 2000s, or do songs written in English still have something of an advantage in creating mainstream success?

 

Music and language are very interconnected concepts, and as translators, it stands to reason that many of us should also be huge fans of music. What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you think it’s still true that songs in English are more successful, or are people’s attitudes changing in this sense? Do you know any songs that were originally written in another language?

 

Let us know your thoughts (and song recommendations) below!

19 comments

  • 1
    Avatar
    rocypa

    Hi Katrina,

    Here in Brazil there are a lot of good songs in Portuguese, but songs in English are more melodic, they are more beautiful to hear. I think the main reason is the sonority of the words spoken in English.

  • 1
    Avatar
    Katrina Paterson

    Really! I'm surprised you say that, since I always think of English as being quite a 'rough' language, particularly compared to Romance languages. It's hard for me to be sure, though, because it's my language, but at the same time I just think that English is so direct and so lacking in nuance compared to other languages. I'm glad you like the English songs, though! Is there a dialect of English that you particularly like in music - American, British, Australian, etc.?

  • 1
    Avatar
    Yasemin Ünlüsoy

    This might be a sign or perhaps an outcome of diminishing linguistic diversity in the world. Currently, almost all fields are dominated by the English language, so are the preferences and tastes of people. I would like to share a lovely TED Talk that I came across a few weeks ago. I believe our community of translators and language specialists would enjoy this since it is very related to our profession. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKK7wGAYP6k  

  • 1
    Avatar
    rocypa

    Hi everyone. The American dialect sounds better for songs. The English dialect is clearer to understand the spoken words because they say the words without an accent. I like more rock and roll. I like Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Queen, and others.

  • 2
    Avatar
    nugunya

    Hi there, 

    I would like to tell everyone about my story. It may sound absurd, but as an ordinary Asian, I won't forget the day I got to know BTS actually sing in Korean even in their worldwide hit numbers.

    I didn't realize that until my son asked me what BTS said in Korean in their song. It is because we believe only singing in English is the key to gain global popularity. This sense behind K-pop would not be the same as Latinos sing in Spanish in the U.S., we are too far from English-speaking countries and I feel simply wonderful to know language learning boom comes after their success.  

    And thanks to such a huge success of K-pop, it could sound more absurd though, we even feel some sense of cultural superiority like how "Parasite" film director Bong Joon-ho praises BTS, that is, they make us feel culturally powerful and influential around the world. 

    But as everyone knows, music is not universal language. And of course they are also popular in Korean domestic market, K-pop is actually made up of highly strategic marketing to be universal. Hit makers try to convey Korean sense of aesthetics on totally American-approved style of music, try to show them like tasty toppings on quite vanilla ice cream. In fact, English is the best language to be merged into, because we can fully make use of its wide acceptance of non-nativeness!!        

  • 1
    Avatar
    Katrina Paterson

    Hi everyone, and thanks for your contributions!

    @Yasemin - I love Lera Boroditsky! Yes, I agree with you - I think that our community would really enjoy learning more about her thoughts about how language shapes the way we think. Thank you so much for sharing her TED video with us - I'm looking forward to watching it! 

    @rocypa - You say that the American dialect sounds better for songs, but you know that the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Queen are all English bands, right? ;) I'm interested that you say that it's easier to understand British English in speech, since lots of people say that it's the other way round and they are more familiar with the American dialect because of films and television... Interesting to know! 

    @nugunya - I didn't realise that K-Pop was so strategically marketed! As naïve as it sounds, I assumed that it must be really authentic. I'm curious about BTS now - I'm going to look them up! 

    Feel free to chip in with more suggestions and comments!

  • 1
    Avatar
    rocypa

    Hi Katrina, you are right.

    I said only English examples, so I will give now only American examples: Aerosmith, The Eagles, Guns N' Roses, Pearl Jam, and Metallica. They are good.

    I think that it's easier to understand British English in speech because the spoken words are slower and clearer. Here in Brazil, there are more movies with an American accent, that is the reason some people say that it is easier to understand, but I have already traveled to the USA, and I know what I am saying. Difficult to understand what they say. I had to keep asking them to repeat the sentences slower all the time.    

     

  • 1
    Avatar
    Katrina Paterson

    Very interesting! It's amazing how much variety there is between different English accents, in terms of their sound and their level of intelligibility. For me, among the most difficult English accents to understand are New Zealand and Irish. People think that Australian and New Zealand accents are really similar, and here in the UK, a lot of us are familiar with Australian accents thanks to soap operas like Neighbours (and those fly-on-the-wall documentaries about airports). But when I went to New Zealand, I could barely understand a word of what anyone was saying, and sometimes I would ask for something to be repeated more than once and still not understand it. And I grew up in England! Irish accents can also be super-tricky, I think not so much because of the accent but because of the cadence. But Irish English is so beautiful. Languages are such diverse creatures...

  • 1
    Avatar
    rubens.loureiro

    Hi there!

    As a Brazilian musician myself, I tend to think that the key for English to be worldwidely successful as a "pop language", when it comes to any kind of genre, is the fact that it is a MONOSYLLABIC language. That makes songwriting easier, as you can convey hte whole meaning of a word into one single note, and then explore the colors of each and every word on a verse without breaking the flow. It turns out to be, to my ears, a more-straight-to-the-point kind of composition.
    That, allied to the obvious dominance of the English language, especially in a pre-Internet Western world.

    On the other hand, I've always felt Brazilian-Portuguese songs are way more poetical and even more colorful than English ones (not to be compared to Simon & Garfunkel, probably the best writers in English I've known). Words are longer, and the writer has a lot more to deal regarding metrics, good rhymes and other structural and phonetical aspects (even more than the "original" Portuguese).
    The easiest way to compare both English and Brazilian-Portuguese in songs is listening to "The Girl From Ipanema", which I find a lot more beautiful with Tom Jobim than with Sinatra, and "Waters Of March", also a Jobim composition, but full of monosyllabic words in Portuguese, and extremely well recorded in English by David Byrne.

    All this train of thought comes from a person who find it pretty interesting the way K-Pop has reached so many music fans nowadays - including so many Brazilian youngsters - but only has a good ear for English, Spanish and a bit of Italian.

    I can't stand songs in French, though.  X^O

    Edited by rubens.loureiro
  • 1
    Avatar
    Katrina Paterson

    Hi, Rubens!

    That's a very interesting point that you raise about English being a monosyllabic language and therefore well-suited to music. I'd never thought about that (I wonder if anybody else had?). Perhaps, as you say, that's a detail that it takes a musician to spot. If we think about it, it does seem that a lot of song lines in English contain virtually only monosyllabic words (like 'Take what you need, and be on your way, and stop crying your heart out', which is one of my favourite song lyrics, from 'Stop crying your heart out' by Oasis). 

    Why don't you like songs in French?!

  • 1
    Avatar
    Alexander

    I guess one of the reasons why so many artists prefer to sing in English is that so many others do the same. It has not always been like this.

    In the 1950s, Édith Piaf was successful internationally with songs in French like "La vie en rose", "Non, je ne regrette rien", and "Milord". In the 1960s, most winning songs on the Eurovision song contest were in other languages than English. And in the 1970s, the German song "Du" became a big hit (or should I say Schlager), also here in the Netherlands.

    And even while English is currently fashionable, that did not prevent a Japanese song to become popular only a few years ago on the Dutch radio. While I could not understand a single word of it, I loved to hear it because of the cheerful melody and voice. The main reason why I chimed in on this forum is that I saw a chance to finally find out what the guy was singing about. If only I could make clear which song I have in mind, here at Gengo there must be someone who could solve this little riddle for me.

    So how does one search on the internet for a specific song without remembering a single word of it? The only search term I could think of was "Japans liedje". Bingo! The very first result was Kyu Sakamoto singing "Sukiyaki", and it was a pleasure to hear it once again, and this time also see his cheerful face.

    However, one of the other results was an article saying it is actually a sad song. Talk about misunderstanding due to cultural differences! And according to this article, it's not about sukiyaki either: that title was made up in America, where this "cheerful" song became popular in the 1960s but the audience had difficulties pronouncing the original title.

    To my big surprise, the search result right below Kyu Sakamoto was the Dutch duo The Blue Diamonds singing an English version of "Sukiyaki": "I'll take my Sukiyaki / And make my Sukiyaki / The only queen to be seen in old Nagasaki." Which brings me to another reason why artists may prefer English: in the native language, one is more aware of any literary shortcoming than in a foreign language. And for many people, English is the easiest foreign language. (That's why it is the lingua franca on the Gengo forums.)

    At least this seems to be true for The Blue Diamonds. No doubt you know them from their song "Ramona" that made them world famous in the 1960s. And yes, that song was in English as well. So perhaps there is some truth after all in the statement that as a rule of thumb, singing in English is essential for artists seeking international fame.

    Interestingly, the Greek singer Nana Mouskouri, famous enough, took yet another approach. In her performances in the Netherlands, she often sang "Op de grote stille heide" ("On the vast, quiet heather") in Dutch. A cappella, making any flaw in her pronunciation perfectly audible in the otherwise silent concert hall. Yes, one could hear she is not a native singer, but who cares? She made noticeable efforts to overcome the language barrier and get in closer contact with her audience, that's what counts.

  • 1
    Avatar
    Katrina Paterson

    Hi Alexander, thank you for your lovely and thoughtful comments. First of all, could you tell us a little more about the song in Japanese that you'd like to know more about? Is the song that you referred to the 'Sukiyaki' song itself, or is it another, different song that you're thinking about? If you can tell us a little bit about the song and the approximate year in which it was released, we can try to shed some light on this topic for you! 

    That's very interesting what you say about not knowing that 'Sukiyaki' is a sad song. I had the same experience with Adriano Celentano's 'Il tempo se ne va' (here). I always thought it was a super-cheery song, and then someone who actually knows Italian told me that it's a bittersweet tale about realising that your children are getting older and living their own separate lives. And for years I thought that Bronski Beat's 'Smalltown Boy' song (here) was a carefree dance classic, but then when I watched the video and read the YouTube comments I realised that it's about the harrowing experience of a young man having to leave his town in order to escape homophobia. Now, whenever I hear that song, it makes me feel desperately sad. 

    That's great to hear about Nana Mouskouri singing in Dutch. A lot of artists wouldn't have the courage to sing in a foreign language, and I think that this is where artists' true talents really shine through, since I think it's the truly great performers with the amazing stage presence who are best able to pull something like this off. It sounds like Nana Mouskouri's performance had real character, and the fact that she was brave enough to do it a capella is quite staggering! 

  • 1
    Avatar
    Katrina Paterson

    Alexander - following on from my previous comment, I listened to your 'Sukiyaki' song and you're right - the singer looks super-cheerful. I was aghast when I read further down the YouTube comments and discovered that he died unexpectedly in the deadliest single-aircraft accident in history. What a sad end for such a great performer. I have to say that when I listened to the song, it sounded a little sad to me (I don't know Japanese either), but I'm not sure if I thought this because I listened to the song already with the knowledge, from your comment, that the song is sad. In any case, it's a lovely song with a timeless quality that makes the singer's death feel all the more poignant. In fact, I had to turn the little tracker back to 0:00:00 and listen to it again after the first time! Thanks for this lovely suggestion (and I really recommend that everyone else listens, too - it's a great tune!)

  • 1
    Avatar
    Alexander

    Hi Katrina, thanks for both of your comments. Yes, the song I'd like to know more about is the 'Sukiyaki' song I referred to, by Kyu Sakamoto. While I first heard it only a few years ago and this recording is clearly much older, I recognize both the melody and the voice, as well as some details in the accompanying music. Perhaps someone decided it would be a great idea to bring this recording back on the radio. (And I agree!)

    When I first heard it, I imagined he was expressing his happiness about the bright world on a sunny day, or maybe he was sharing with us some figurative sunshine after his beloved one had come into his live. Now that I know it's actually a sad song, I can sense some sort of pain in his voice too, yet I keep seeing joy on his face. I've been told Japanese people don't show their emotions easily, but even if that's true, I cannot understand why an artist would smile while singing a sad song.

    When searching for the song itself, I overlooked the story of Kyu Sakamoto's untimely death. Hitting on such horrible details is the downside of digging a level deeper, yet it's worthwile to get a more complete picture, just like it's worthwile to have a better understanding of the songs you referred to ('Il tempo se ne va' and 'Smalltown Boy'). So I do hope someone can tell me more about the meaning of this 'Sukiyaki' song.

    And yes, Nana Mouskouri set a great example by singing in the language of her audience. The applause she received on this recording after the first few words proves how much her performance was appreciated.

  • 1
    Avatar
    Katrina Paterson

    Hi Alexander, thanks for your response! If it's the 'Sukiyaki' song that you'd like to know more about, our Community Manager Lara should be able to help with this at the start of the week, as she knows Japanese. I'm also curious to know more about this song! 

    If you found out about Kyu Sakamoto's untimely death through me telling you, then I'm really sorry for being the bearer of bad news in this sense! It's always so sad when talented musicians are cut down in their prime, as often seems to happen in the music industry, sadly. I still remember when Amy Winehouse and Dolores Riordan died, and in both cases I was devastated at the loss of such brilliant, talented women. I suppose that artists always live on through their music, though that's a small consolation for dying. 

    I think that a lot of apparently happy songs conceal real sadness and pain. To again come back to Dolores Riordan and the Cranberries, their 'Linger' song is so upbeat and catchy, but the lyrics are so, so cutting. I think that's true of a lot of songs from the nineties, but also in general. I suppose that to us, it's difficult to detect the sadness in Kyu Sakamoto's performance because we in Europe are generally used to associating smiling with happiness but I've heard that in Asia smiles have many different meanings (like they say that Thailand is 'the land of a thousand smiles' but every smile means something slightly different). It seems that both the song and the performance raise many interesting questions, and the fact that we've said so much about it as two people who are Dutch (right?) and English makes me think that music, even in languages that we're not familiar with, has an ability to make an impact on all of us, no matter where we come from. 

    I'm sure that Lara will be able to shed some more specific light on this topic tomorrow!

  • 1
    Avatar
    Alexander

    Hi Katrina, thanks for the update. I never realised, but it makes sense to me that there is much more to a song than is apparent at superficial listening. After all, artists live their own lifes and may well find inspiration in sad experiences.

    And yes, while for English and Dutch people like you and me a smile always expresses happiness, it may well be that Kyu Sakamoto's smile actually matches the sad song he is singing.

    Now that you mention the saying about 'the land of a thousand smiles', I recall reading somewhere that a tourist in Thailand who gives a generous tip will be rewarded with a friendly smile; but if you give too small a tip, you will get a smile that tells you exactly how they feel about it, if only you get the message. :-)

    I look forward to Lara's comments!

  • 1
    Avatar
    Lara Fernandez

    Hey guys -- I see I've been summoned! 

    I checked out the "Sukiyaki" song by Kyu Sakamoto and, while I wasn't entirely familiar with it, it did ring a bell somewhere in my memory. When I first read Alexander say that it was actually a sad song, I was expecting something tragic, but as I listened on, it felt kind of sad, but also hopeful to me. I love how it starts with "Ue wo muite arukou, namida ga koborenai you ni" (I walk looking up, so that my tears won't fall down) and I think that kind of sums it up for me -- I carry my sorrow, but I keep looking up, I keep going, I don't give up (but the sorrow is always inside) almost :) 

    I also did read the comments under the YouTube video and found some comments from Japanese people about how the song gave them hope in post-war Japan, how it carried them over, and I think this is the feeling that I resonate with the most. I also found this article on the meaning of the song! Have a read and let me know what you guys think!

    Oh, and about Kyu Sakamoto's smile as he sings I found this video that explains the reason for his smile, he wanted to make those watching him smile too, and be an encouraging presence for them.

  • 1
    Avatar
    Alexander

    Hi Lara, thanks for your insightful comments. An encouragement to keep going despite sorrow, yes, that could very well explain both the smile and the statement that it's actually a sad song.

    Thanks for pointing to the article too, which I found very interesting. I also watched part of the video, but since it's in Japanese it did not mean much to me. Still, judging from your summary, it ties in well with the other pieces of the puzzle.

    Very inspiring!

  • 1
    Avatar
    Katrina Paterson

    Thanks from me, too, Lara! I'm looking forward to checking your links out! 

Please sign in to leave a comment.