Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

You no longer have to sing in English to have a hit

How the rise of Psy and other stars from the east might well spell an end to Anglo-American dominance in pop

Fri, Feb 15, 2013, 09:30


The audience look bamboozled. We’re at the Banter Salon in a thatched cottage in Derry and the Financial Times’ pop critic Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is playing a snatch of a song. The voices, the music and the melody are familiar, but what on earth are those words?

Those words are German and it’s The Beatles singing “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. That was one of Hunter-Tilney’s examples of how pop in the old days was far more international in scope than it is now. Back then, acts like The Beatles and David Bowie went after foreign markets by wooing them in their native tongues.

With a few exceptions, such days have passed and pop now largely employs English as its main lingua franca. European acts may have German or Spanish or Italian as their mother tongues, but they sing in English. If you want a big hit, the rule seems to be that you must sing in English.

That was until a man called Psy came along with a song called “Gangnam Style” to ride a Korean horse and cart through that particular rule of thumb last year. The track was a monster and it suddenly alerted the Anglo-American pop hierarchy that there were millions of people out there who were more than ready for pop in something other than the English language.

It’s Psy time

While many might see “Gangnam Style” as last year’s big novelty record, Hunter-Tilney points to the fact that Psy is just one of many K-Pop and Asian acts already accumulating huge fanbases and getting ready to cross over. Astute cultural observers will not be surprised by this: the late Malcolm McLaren predicted (*) as much in interviews during his lifetime, for instance.

Perhaps it’s time for our pop acts to reciprocate: how about One Direction doing “What Makes You Beautiful” in Japanese?

* Here’s an excerpt from an interview I did with McLaren back in 1998: “I have been on lecture tours across the world in the last couple of years, particuarly in the Far East. I’ve been thinking about why the Asian community have never made a dent or even a contribution to pop culture globally, seeing as they virtually represent half the population of the world and particuarly with China opening up and loosening the Maoist chains of old. But they’re obsessed with pop culture and have created a new genre, a new do-it-yourself genre not unlike punk or hip-hop, called karaoke. Suddenly, you have a generation who are developing an ability to express themselves through music that could make such a contribution as punk or hip-hop.”