Strange Boutique (May 2013)

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


Filed under Features, Strange Boutique

23 responses to “Strange Boutique (May 2013)

  1. (Notification–I’m signed into wordpress, so I’m showing up as deepmusiclistening, but I’ve already posted here as UltimateMusicSnob). As someone who used to sing in multiple languages, I would definitely rather sing in Japanese than English, just for voice-technical reasons. English, French and German are difficult: crunchy consonants, complex vowels, too many words ending on consonants. Italian, Latin, Spanish are much easier, because they’re so heavily loaded with pure vowels, as is Japanese. The Japanese female singers tend to sing somewhat higher ranges than Western pop stars (who can be positively guttural, like Lady Gaga), and having lots of pure vowels helps make those high passages easy to sing and understand.
    On the meanings in the lyrics–I’m a big fan of Yes, and I came to the conclusion that they were just picking words for their sheer raw sound and rhythm, a Gertrude Stein approach to lyricizing. Sure enough, years later found an interview in which Jon Andersen admitted precisely that. I get the impression that at least the English lyrics in Japanese songs (and some of the Japanese lyrics as well) are also more sounds than meanings. It’s a very composer-ish approach to music, as opposed to a poet’s approach (Bob Dylan) where the words are everything, and the music just a carrier for the words. I MUCH prefer the former.

  2. > English, French and German are difficult: crunchy consonants, complex vowels, too many words ending on consonants. Italian, Latin, Spanish are much easier

    Do you really think so? That’s funny, I’m Italian (By the way, sorry for my bad English :D) and I always thought English was the most musical and malleable language for both poetry and song Lyrics :D. I see many Italian bands writing their songs in English, not because they are heading for international market (most of them don’t even have many fans here in Italy), but because they claim they find it easier to “express their feelings” using that language. The funny thing is that lyrics turn out to be nonsense anyway, so you can tell the whole thing was a shortcut to write something which would sound “cool” and fit with the music at the same time. I tend to reject bands who adopt that kind of behaviour, but that has nothing to do with “nationalism” or me being a snob or disliking the English language, it’s just I feel that by singing in English those bands are loosing theire uniqueness. Ian Martin did mention “Mashina Vremeni” in his Japanese Time article… I’m quite a fan of another Russian band, Zvuki Mu, but I feel that if they would have sung in English they wouldn’t have had that much of an appeal to me. This is mainly because I think of the language as of a musical instrument, and I feel a difficult and complex language as Russian, German, Italian but also Japanese, is something that would force you to rewrite your melodies according to it. The same is with japanese music, I tend to appreciate much more japanese musicians using japanese in their lyrics, I think is a distinctive trait which gives their music something special and unique. Sorry if I sound like astupid fangirl by saying this :3.

    • “I always thought English was the most musical and malleable language for both poetry and song Lyrics”–I agree as far as poetry and Lyrics for content goes. English has hundreds of ways to put nuances on how a thought is expressed.
      I’m just thinking (as a former opera singer) about how I’m going to have to manage my vocal technique in order to sing “ich liebe dich” in a gentle, romantic, lilting way–on a high A flat. Yikes. Do it just a tiny bit off, and it sounds like I’m trying to insult someone. Vowels help that A LOT.
      I don’t lose *any* of my appreciation of Japanese bands and singers when they’re singing in their native language, but that’s just because my attention always goes straight to the pitches and rhythms, anyway. Nearly all I care about is the music, and I will intuit what it means from that. I can’t even understand lyrics sung in English by American rock bands, so the experience is not that much different, as far as my own tastes are considered. One generally doesn’t get much in the way of profound thought from popular music lyrics, period, right? If I want marvelous language and insight, I’ll go straight to Auden, Shakespeare,etc. OK, and maybe Suzanne Vega, [very] isolated bits from George Harrison, Springsteen, Neil Young, etc.

      • I’m kind of with @deeplisteningmusic i that I rarely listen to lyrics regardless of the language — really good lyrics have the power to raise a good song to a higher level, and really bad lyrics have the power to ruin a good song, but if the song sucks musically, then it just sucks and most of the time it doesn’t really matter. That said though, I think I was a bit over-simplistic in the original JT piece where I said that basically bands should just sing in whatever language they want, because to me, some artists clearly sound better singing in one language rather than another. I’m a fan of Zvuki Mu, and Peter Mamonov has a great way of wrapping his tongue around the Russian language. In Japan, a group like Bossston Cruizing Mania clearly have to sing in Japanese too ( because the lyrics really are a vehicle for saying something and if songs like theirs were going to be delivered in English, they’d need a completely new singer (basically, they’d need Mark E Smith).

        It depends on the kind of music too, and don’t think you can just replace one language with another easily without changing the kind of music you’re playing. In this sense, I don’t think the best language for an artist to sing in changes so much from place to place as from style to style. In order for Russian bands to make “Russian rock” they had to completely change what rock was. Ditto for German bands, Japanese bands, Yugoslavian bands, Spanish bands etc. Even making American rock’n’roll work in British English had to go hand in hand with a change in the music. So singing in one’s native language is important in developing a country’s own musical vocabulary, but once you’re past that, people are going to want to sing all kinds of music, and it’s going to mean that different languages become appropriate. I think British music is kind of limited by its refusal to consider any language other than English, for example — although if a Japanese band tried to sing in Italian, I’d probably approach with extreme caution! (I had this idea with my own band that it would be awesome to have a Japanese girl rapping in Italian, but since none of us spoke the language, we just made her read out the names of football players in a really bad accent — it was a joke that we all thought was awesome, but everyone who listened to it thought it was stupid, which it kind of was.)

        With She Talks Silence above, I think Minami Yamaguchi could be singing in any language and it wouldn’t make much difference to the music since the vocals are so indistinct and washed out, and in fact, I think it would be cool if she took it to the next step and did the whole Cocteau Twins by making up her own language based purely around sound. But in any case, all the songs I link above are in English and I don’t think any of them would necessarily be improved by them being in Japanese.

        It comes down to doing what works. Some people use English just to sound cool or because they’re too lazy to make the songs mean anything, which is a bit stupid, but in Japan at least, there’s a kind of subtle pressure in the scene that tells people that they should be singing in Japanese (with the subtext that “because you’re a Japanese band), and while it doesn’t always come from a negative place, it feels a bit like bullying and makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.

  3. The opera world has had this argument for ages, from a different angle: Should we perform a German opera (“The Marriage of Figaro”, Mozart, classic case) in German because that’s how Mozart wrote it, or in English so our audiences can understand all the clever things the librettist put into it (and there are a LOT, in that one). Given that there are pluses to both sides, the fact is that changing the languages changes EVERYTHING: in vocal technique, in musical phrasing, in the **sense of the libretto’s text** (to me that’s a big no-no, but you can’t escape it when translating, some things will be lost), and in just the overall aura and feel of the music coming out of the singer.
    This is where I connect to the parallel discussion in international pop music. There is an aura, a feel, to the line いつまでも このままで
    ずっと、いたいんだ that can never be duplicated in English. It would feel too ordinary, too prosaic, in my native language. No doubt phrases like “Let It Be” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” have the same aura in the other direction, for native Japanese speakers.
    Of course, Japanese/German/Italian/etc bands can pick whatever language they want, for their music. The point is, how does it serve the music, and it makes a big difference, as ifmartin states above. The inflection of the language itself constrains the rhythms and pitches the songwriter chooses for his line–and the process often happens in the reverse order, tune first, and then fitting properly evocative words to pitches and rhythms that are already determined.
    For my listening, I come to J-Pop precisely FOR the things these bands and singers do that is what I could never get from Western musicians (and they provide an enormous amount, for which I’m deeply grateful). If what they do is in Japanese, in a melody too high for singers who are not Mariah Carey (i.e., all other Western pop singers), I’m all for it. If it’s an English phrase, presented by a Japanese singer doing it in a way that a Western singer would not, then the singer has a headstart on my interest right there. I WANT to hear what the Japanese singer does with it–that’s kind of the point (Nakata, “feeling alright”, e.g.). Sing in Japanese, English, Italian–1st, 2nd, 3rd, 10th language, I’m good. Whatever it is, love your music, sell the song.
    The nativist, political aspect, I can’t speak to. I couldn’t care less about it. Music is above that, far above.

    • Man, everything is political, and placing art above politics is a profoundly political move!

      • Well….meta-political, anyway: talking now about the relationship of art and politics per se, instead of the actual politics of Japan, nativism, language, bands, etc. Ideally, it would be metapolitical by omission, as in: “The language we choose to sing in is chosen on the basis of how the meanings and sounds of the language match and support what we’re doing with the music. Period.”

  4. Thanks for mentioning Soviet rock as a parallel. I would add that there was a repeat of the history recently in Russia. In 2000s, together with the wave of post-punk revival there were many new bands singing in English again and music journalists were writing about a long-awaited modern “real English” sound that came finally to substitute the outdated poetics of soviet school rock.

    • (Since you asked, I took the YouTube video down to a link rather than an embedded video, but it’s no problem either way for me.)

      What you say here highlights the difference in approach of those embedded in the local scene and those attracted to it from the outside. There’s a desire within both communities for something “different” or “distinctive”, but different from what? Distinct from what? On another thread here, I’ve been mentioning Judy And Mary, who are an extraordinary band from an overseas perspective (and a great band period actually), but their format and style has become such a cliché in Japanese rock that I would happily club to death the next band I see with three dudes and a kooky girl singer with a high pitched voice squeaking out major chord punk-pop melodies. On the other hand, someone who only hears American pop coming out of every bloody radio, shopfront and TV commercial might have the response that “Well, it’s better than more of that Lady Gaga rubbish!”

      In fact, I for one would welcome more Lady Gaga type stuff into the Japanese pop scene because it would bring something provocative, socially-aware, and just plain modern sounding into a pop scene that hasn’t changed much since the late 90s — Yasutaka Nakata can’t do it all by himself! — and in a much more limited way, that’s sort of what K-pop started to do before it all got gutted of anything interesting by its contact with Japanese talent agencies. If then everyone started making Lady Gaga type stuff here, I’d of course immediately start complaining about it, capricious sonofabitch that I am.

      • “I would happily club to death the next band I see with three dudes and a kooky girl singer with a high pitched voice squeaking out major chord punk-pop melodies.”
        Are these others writing and performing their music at the skill level of JAM? JAM’s drummer is extraordinary, for one.
        There is such a thing as working in an idiom someone previous made, and doing it better than anyone else (Mozart, Brahms), and then there’s inventing a new sound and being among the first (Ramones, Beethoven), an innovator.
        I don’t fault the Mozart’s for a second (and the two often coincide in one artist or band), but I kind of lean toward Innovator. It’s when those following on not only don’t innovate, but do less well than the Innovator, that things fall apart. Then we’re just left with copycats.

      • miffy

        And if you are staying in South East Asia, you will dislike Kpop as it permeates everything. I have mention this before in a previous article about perception being influenced by the surroundings. I would love more articles peeking behind the Japanese music industry since our musical taste diverge so much. Like what happen to the J-Urban scene? It seems to have just died…

      • @miffy: I think it works over time as well as geographical location. It’s a dilemma I’ve found myself on the other side of when talking about punk and new wave with people who actually lived through it, in that we sometimes have wildly different ideas about bands from that era that can’t just be accounted for by simple different strokes for different folks. Because (the odd half-remembered fragment of XTC or Julian Cope on Top Of The Pops aside) I got into most of these bands 20 years or more after they were first around, I’m listening to them out of context, or rather listening to them in the context of what’s around now. The opinion of someone who heard this bands in “real time” will often bring the context of the times with them, so bands who were considered simply copycats of other artists get short shrift whereas that would be irrelevant to me, listening to all of them out of time.

        It helps to be able to see them from both sides really. As a listener, we’re entitled to perceive it all from within a timeless bubble if we want, but no artist works inside a bubble like that, and we’re cutting ourselves off from an important part of the creative process if we don’t consider the context in which the music was made. I suppose I pick and choose which side to look from. With Japanese music, I’m concerned about the creative environment in which musicians operate, so I err towards a contextual perspective, but with a lot of other music, I chuck all that out the window (until it comes time to write about it, of course).

      • @deepmusiclistening Judy And Mary’s output was and remains head and shoulders above all their copyists. Sometimes it’s hard not to blame them for the monstrosities they spawned, but it’s not really their fault.

  5. sorry for the embedded youtube video. make it be a link if possible

  6. > although if a Japanese band tried to sing in Italian, I’d probably approach with extreme caution! (I had this idea with my own band that it would be awesome to have a Japanese girl rapping in Italian, but since none of us spoke the language, we just made her read out the names of football players in a really bad accent — it was a joke that we all thought was awesome, but everyone who listened to it thought it was stupid, which it kind of was.)

    This reminded me when, back to the 90’s, Kahimi Karie (I love her), recorded this mess called “una giapponese a Roma”: Italian networks marked her as a clown since then, while musicians as Cornelius or Pizzicato Five where respected and appreciated and played by mainstream radio stations. Seven years later Lisa Ono released “questa bossa mia” in wich she covered several Italian popular songs from the 60’s, and sold lots of records. Great Italian pronunciation, with a slight Portuguese accent (

  7. ifmartin, I don’t know where your agent is putting out your stuff, but a topic like this, language in pop music as it crosses international audiences (or stays at home) would be *perfect* stuff for a placement in Esquire, Atlantic, Harper’s, New Yorker magazine, if pulled out to longer form. J-Pop and K-Pop are right at the cusp of that kind of attention now. Just a thought. I think any of those mag’s would be lucky to get your writing.

    • Not sure there are many agents out there clamouring for ten percent of nothing!

      There may be a book out of this at some point, but it’s a case of trying to find a framing device that would allow me to talk about all the diverse aspects of music in Japan that I’m interested in without it seeming completely chaotic and unbalanced.

  8. “a framing device” — You’re the writer, only you can say, of course. That’s my [ sort-of ] apology for putting my 3rd and 4th cents worth. I can see several ways to go at it. If the book were to be something like “The Globalization of Music Culture” (worst title ever, I know), then you have ALL of Japanese pop music, underground/indie and otherwise, to use as the example cases that you walk your readers through, returning to your favorite bands and their evolution across multiple chapters. Giving a concrete and attractive example repeatedly from different angles is a classic way to give readers a ‘hook’ on a topic of complexity and broad scope.

  9. There are two main arguments Polish bands tend to justify their preference for English.

    One is that English lyrics are much more easier to sing (and write) than Polish because of much shorter words and higher vowel/consonant ratio (sorry deepmusiclistening). Recently, a rapper called Ten Typ Mes has written a post about how much more difficult it is to rap in Polish. He envies his American colleagues all those one-syllable words which make up like 75% of US/UK rap lyrics.

    The second argument is about personal music interests. Young generation of musicians here in Poland has grown up mostly on US/UK bands. It’s natural for them to use the same tools – including the language – as their idols. They also feel a part of global, not local scene. And secretly hope English will help them cross national borders.

    In this debate I’m somewhere in the middle. I understand pros and cons of each choice. Each artist should make that choice on his or her own without any pressure from outside. But I’d like to mention two reasons why using local language might be a better idea in the long run.

    1. As a listener looking for interesting non-US/UK music, I’m always disappointed hearing a Japanese, Korean, Brazilian or Ukrainian artist singing in English. Especially if accompanied by strictly Western music. If I stray away from the Pitchforks of this world, it’s because I want to hear something *different* than what they offer. I’m a fan of the Music Alliance Pact, an initiative covering music from over 40 countries. But 70-90% of each month’s selection is sung (and played) in English. It could as well come out from Boston, Glasgow or Toronto. So I stop most of the tracks after 15 seconds. So I’m afraid many bands don’t gain, but actually lose potential foreign listeners by choosing English, Think about it:
    – People from outside US/UK who are tired of US/UK music will usually lose interest the moment they hear English in a Japanese, Polish or Brazilian song.
    – People from US/UK who are tired of their own music will feel exactly the same.
    – People from US/UK who love their own music have got enough of it themselves to bother with import.

    Eventually it seems that singing in English can only attract local public hungry for global music. Which is OK, but somehow absurd at the same time (Ersatz?). Ian has mentioned Perfume in the original post. My two very favourite Perfume songs are ‘Polyrhythm’ and ‘Natural-ni koshite’, because they include unique production I haven’t heard anywhere else and a language I couldn’t hear anywhere else. Being special is what draws attention, not being normal,

    2. Japanese, German, Polish and probably a half of all existing languages might be ‘difficult’ to sing and not compatible with Western inspirations. But the history of music show that from such difficulties and incompatibilities great music arises. Think about Chopin (Eastern parties meet Western sophistication), Bartók (Balkans, Hungary, Slovakia and Turkey on a single score) or Stravinski (Russian tradition destroyed by French avant garde under Californian sun). Think about blues and jazz (Africa meets Europe on American ground), rock’n’roll (Elvis was a black man) or hip-hop (black street in a white city inspired by Caribbean MC’s and German robots). Difficulties bring tensions, but the process of reducing those tensions can lead to something very fresh – even whole new genres of music – and that’s the reasons so many people love tropicalia, J-rock or K-pop. As long as there’s a J or K in front of the English word.

    • Your comments on Polish rap are interesting, and I think because of the heavy emphasis on the rhythm and flow of the vocals, rap is an area where language has perhaps more impact than anywhere on the actual form of the music. I mentioned about the Slovenian rapper N’toko above, and while obviously there are big differences between Slovenian and Polish, they’re both Slavic languages and seem to have some similarities. I mostly release his English stuff and another label releases his Slovenian language material and there are clear differences not just in the sound but also on the subject matter, and he has to think about and approach his music in a completely different way depending on which language he’s writing in. His Slovenian stuff is way more political and socially conscious, whereas his English stuff is much more free-flowing and playful, which he says just doesn’t work not just rhythmically but also culturally within the Slovenian music scene.

      Zig Zig (Slovenian language)

      Superhuman (English language)

      Your points about the value of local language are good ones, but there’s a difference between saying that something’s good for the health of the scene overall and for a musician individually. Even a band who makes music in a Western style, I’m not sure the term “ersatz” is always appropriate actually. I mean, why is a British band playing 60s mod music in 2013 any more authentic than a Japanese band doing the same? We copy and fetishise music forms through time as well as across space, and there’s a space for music that burrows into subcultural niches in that way, whether we agree with it or not. But more importantly than that, you can see from the examples in the OP that singing in English doesn’t necessarily mean you’re copying English language music, so maybe the important question isn’t so much what language the artist uses as why they choose that language and what they do with it.

  10. Exactly, like with all other tools.

  11. Pingback: フィナルFriday~11月29日 « Jim Haku

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