My current Japan Times column discusses language in music. Language isn’t really a concern for English speaking musicians since the language of rock and pop and their own native language are the same thing, but the question of whether to sing in English or try parse rock into their native tongue is something non-English speaking musicians have to consider.She Talks Silence: Holy Hands, Holy Voices
I mention the Soviet Union as an example largely because at the time I was thinking about the column, I’d been reading Artemy Troitsky’s 1988 book Back in the USSR about the history of Soviet rock, and his remarks on the importance of Russian (and Baltic etc.) musicians learning how to make rock work in their own language(s) seemed to chime with my own research about the development of pop and rock in Japan. I’ve also worked, through Call And Response Records, with Slovenian musician N’toko, who writes music in both English and Slovenian with equal skill, and yet writes very different kinds of lyrics depending on the language he’s working in, stating that certain ideas or emotions don’t work as well in one language compared to another. This left me with all sorts of ideas to pursue, some of which coalesced into the article that was finally published, but please read the original article first, because it cuts to the core of my (admittedly pretty straightforward and mundane) thinking about the issue, where a lot of these points are really side discussions.YMO: Solid State Survivor
There were a lot of loose ends though, and there was some interesting discussion about it on my various social media ranting spots. On Twitter, one commenter drew comparisons with the debate that existed in the media in the 1970s over the relative virtues of Yuya Uchida (Flower Travellin’ Band), who sang in English, and Haruomi Hosono (Happy End), who sang in Japanese, over which was the right approach. As in my article, I think this idea that one approach is intrinsically the “right” one is silly. Uchida was aiming for overseas audiences and touring quite successfully off that, and the moment Hosono started aiming overseas (with YMO), suddenly his band’s songs were in English too.Plastics: Top Secret Man
In the new wave era, the Plastics tended to sing in English (although ironically, their most popular song overseas was probably the mostly Japanese-language Copy) whereas contemporaries like P-Model tended to sing in Japanese. P-Model’s debut album contained one English language song, Sophisticated, which at least in part was actually satirising the notion that singing in English was somehow a classier approach for musicians, and might be seen as a sly dig at the Plastics (although surely not an ill-intentioned one given that the Plastics’ Masahide Sakuma was producing the album).P-Model: Sophisticated
A friend on Facebook pointed out that nowadays, “…singing in English has absolutely nothing to do for the benefit of foreign listeners,” and this reminded me of an example from the singer Bonnie Pink, who I remember saying in an interview that her song Love is Bubble was named that way despite the grammar being all wrong, simply because it would be less confusing to the Japanese listeners that the song was primarily aimed at. This is the same as the approach of T-shirt and candy manufacturers, who appropriate English words for their half-understood impact, using them more as punctuation than as vehicles for specific meaning.
The same friend goes on to point out that among many Japanese musicians “Bands from outside Japan aren’t viewed as potential peers or rivals, merely as fetish objects to be studied, deconstructed, and reconstituted or imitated in a ‘Japanese’ way.” This is interesting because it then becomes intertwined with the point that attracts many overseas fans to Japanese in the first place, and raises the issue of whether this kind of appeal is the result of simply appreciating cultural differences or whether there is something unhealthy and exoticising about it. To frame it one way, should Japanese musicians enter into the homogenising global music artistic space or should they focus on their own native environment and cultural peers? To frame it another way, should Japanese artists view overseas acts as peers or rivals, or should they remain inscrutable and aloof like good little orientals? It’s a tangled issue, but overseas fans of Japanese music should ask themselves these kinds of questions.Shonen Knife: I Am A Cat
This also links in with the brief point I mentioned in the article about how non-Japanese listeners tend to either find Japanese musicians singing in imperfect English cute or annoying. There’s a third category I suppose, which is that many of those who’ve been immersed in Japanese music for long enough tend to block it out because they’re so used to it. What I do find interesting is those musicians who sing in imperfect or limited English but make something artistic out of that. Shonen Knife play up their broken English because innocence and amateurishness are a cultivated part of their appeal, and they get away with it, somehow. Miila and The Geeks’ English is rarely incorrect, but they use their limited vocabulary as a set of restrictions that hones and focuses their lyrics into a sort of snotty punk minimalism. The English in Perfume songs is often pronounced in an exaggeratedly katakana fashion (“di-su-ko di-si-ko!”) which feeds into their electropop cyborg image (and no doubt conveniently makes their music easier to sing at karaoke).Miila and The Geeks: Want
Another area I didn’t get the chance to go into is that of Japanese-speaking foreign musicians in Japan. Pretty much all of them that I know sing in English, and while Japanese listeners would no doubt clap their hands with glee and squeal “Sugoooooi!” if they did sing in Japanese, I might be being tremendously unfair to people here, but it’s hard to see it being accepted as anything other than a performing monkey trick or some such gimmick. For English speaking listeners, there’s a different issue. While for a Japanese person, singing in English nowadays might sometimes provoke sneers to the effect that they were putting on airs, an English speaker singing in a foreign language for purely artistic reasons would seem far more alien and provoke much more widespread ridicule and accusations of pretension. For non-English speakers singing in a different non-English language, it’s perhaps different again. Italian singer Angelo Galizia of German new wave band The Wirtschaftswunder is an interesting case, singing in heavily Italian accented German. Quite what it meant to Germans I don’t know, although from a certain angle at least, it’s a great punk statement: “Fuck you and fuck your language! I’ll sing in it for you, but I’ll mutilate it any way I see fit!”The Wirtschaftswunder: Der Große Mafiosi