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Usted no lo hablan? Non-English music is still great

Courtesy of MCT

I was pleasantly surprised last week to find out that German rock band Rammstein, known for its flamboyant and flameboyant stage show was going to be playing nine North American tour dates in May. It’s truly a rarity; the band played its first show in the United States in nearly a decade when it sold out Madison Square Garden in December. Immediately I went to the band’s website to search for ticket prices.

The website proved a tad problematic. It was in German, and there wasn’t one of those handy American flag icons to click to convert it to English. Using my limited German 101 knowledge, It wasn’t too hard for me to figure out that “tickets kaufen” meant something along the lines of “buy tickets.” Nonetheless, the experience got me thinking.

Americans love pop music performed by members of so many ethnic backgrounds. Until they start singing in their native tongues. Then the sales well dries up.

According to Billboard, “ABBA Gold,” the group’s greatest hits package, has sold more than 28 million copies worldwide. ABBA fans know that “Dancing Queen” and “Mamma Mia” aren’t sung in the group’s native Swedish. And what if it was? This is entirely a guesstimate by me, but I’d predict about 27 million less in sales.

ABBA is a relative relic, but the trend continues today. The modern queen of Sweden’s pop charts is Robyn, who blew critics away in 2010 with her “Body Talk” album series. She slides in a few Swedish-language tracks, but the majority of her tracks are in American-ready English. In her defense, she writes great songs regardless of what language it’s in. Others aren’t so blessed.

I’ve never been a big Ricky Martin or Shakira fan, but I gave kudos to both of their new albums in my reviews. Both had one thing in common: they were in Spanish, the artists’ first language. The vocals were fun and alluring; although I don’t know a lick of Spanish, I felt I got more out of “Te Vas” than “Livin’ la Vida Loca.” The only thing I could ding Martin for was the inclusion of English versions of his singles that were far more awkward than the originals.

Unlike Martin, who has no problem converting his music to English to satisfy customers, Rammstein is almost militant in its refusal to speak English. The band has made some forays into Russian, but nothing to pacify its potential American fans. Its embrace of its German heritage is, in a slightly awkward metaphorical way, on par with Toby Keith’s embrace of his American-ness.

The persistent use of German, along with the band’s heavy music, inevitably draws Nazi comparisons from ignorant westerners. Christian Lorenz, the group’s keyboardist, said in an interview with Metal Hammer magazine that the song “Links 2-3-4” (“links” meaning “left”) was an attempt to demonstrate the band’s left-leaning personalities.

“We wanted to show that we could write a harsh, evil, military-sounding song without being Nazis,” he said.

It’s sad really. Not only has speaking German kept them off of the American rock charts, it’s brought them accusations of being fascists.

At the core of the issue is the American obsession with the hook, or refrain of a song. I’ll be gracious and suggest that 25 percent of listeners pay attention to the verses in a popular song. It might be gracious to say that 50 percent of pop artists put any thought into their verses. They know it won’t matter. The fans on the dance floor aren’t singing along with the verses.

Take Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.” It has arguably the most recognizable hook of the last decade. Give a fill in the blank beginning with “I got 99 problems but,” and an overwhelming majority will complete the statement with “a b—- ain’t one.” Now try it in Spanish.

Tengo noventa y nueve (99) problemas pero una p— no es una.

If the song still has the same beat, listeners will get it and dance along, even if they don’t know the words. But they won’t be able to share in Jay’s difficult yet female-filled life story, and will ultimately lose interest.

Do yourself a favor. Get online, find some Indian hip-hop, some Finnish metal or some blues from Mali and give it a shot. People are performing the genres you love all around the world. You might find something you’ve been missing because the language blinders were on. If they do their job right, you won’t need words to feel what they’re saying.  


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