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Matthew Boyle: Discover the world through pop

Tuesday 26 January 2021

English speakers have traditionally been resistant to non-English language music. They’re missing out – big time

Tortoise’s student membership programme is supported by our brilliant team of student ambassadors. Each month, starting this month, we’ll be publishing articles written by some of those ambassadors. Here is the latest.

A few weeks ago, I found myself dredging up a long-lost sonic memory, as I blasted out Angèle’s hit ‘Ta Reine’ around my university flat. One of my flatmates, on hearing the song, burst into an excited frenzy. It turns out, she had heard it constantly on the radio last summer while in France. However, she hadn’t had the joy since then.

It made me wonder, in general, about how much the British public is missing out on foreign music. With the exception of José Feliciano’s ‘Feliz Navidad’, which, for one reason or another, seems to appear each year, the UK’s charts are woefully devoid of anything more exotic than Lewis Capaldi’s lilting Scottish tones. 

Of course, some tracks do break through – though not always for the best of reasons. In recent years, Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ was more of a novelty song than something to be taken truly seriously. And Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s once-ubiquitous Puerto Rican reggaeton single ‘Despacito’ only really blew up after Justin Bieber had added his English verse (and subsequently sang a less-than-graceful rendition of the song as a list of typical Mexican dishes).

In other countries, a variety of languages are represented in the charts, with at least both the basic variety of the native language and the current world lingua franca – plus often a number of songs in a language that no one in the country would reasonably be expected to speak. It can be assumed that many people are listening to these songs without knowing what the artist is saying. This is no surprise, as the enjoyment of pop songs often does not come from the lyrics themselves, but rather from the tune and instrumentation.

The explanation for the UK’s narrow taste in music is not immediately obvious. Is it a form of superiority complex that lingers from the days of empire? A nationwide antipathy towards Europe and beyond? As tempting as it is to claim these as reasons for the monochromatic linguistic landscape of the British charts, they’re unlikely to be so. After all, the most well known classical music is primarily written by our continental counterparts.

Perhaps the explanation is a simple one: the British public are not used to being exposed to foreign languages, due to the global dominance of English. In any case, they’re really missing out.

If ‘Despacito’-style reggaeton is something that excites, Barcelona-born Rosalía has been creating her own genre of flamenco-infused reggaeton which has been taking over the Spanish-speaking world. Her tender flamenco performances are home to her most compelling and individual sound, and these are inspired by her idol Camarón de la Isla, a household name in Spain who is also worth discovering.

Italy’s rap scene is one of the most vibrant in the world, and Taiwan’s girl bands and boy bands are producing music with the same, if not higher, levels of production line sheen as K-Pop acts. This is not to mention popular oldies such as Teresa Teng whose ballads have been a staple of China and its diaspora since the 70s, Luigi Tenco (Italian), or Jacques Brel (Belgian). None of these artists are what could be called “niche” – they are all extremely popular in their home countries – but they are far from familiar to English ears. 

It is worth mentioning that, although listening to foreign language music doesn’t require the listener to learn the language in question, it can be an encouragement to do so. Gradually being able to understand the lyrics of a song that you have heard many times before is an incredibly satisfying and even addictive experience.

This process can be helped along by foreign television programmes and movies – which, interestingly, have traditionally been much better received in Britain. The South Korean hit Parasite was the ninth highest-grossing film of 2019 and won a Best Picture Academy Award, whilst Scandinavian dramas such as The Bridge have seen huge popularity in recent years. 

With the UK’s culturally homogenous school curricula currently under the microscope, and our departure from the European Union now finalised, perhaps it’s time to insert some pop into the conversation. Planes may remain firmly grounded, but why not discover the world through music?