Why English Speakers Love Foreign Language Music

“There are myriad emotions our acute sense of collective irony has muted, and earnestness may be chief among them.”
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Anglophones are notoriously insular when it comes to consuming foreign culture. We’re picky, limited, and disinterested in straying from our comfort zone. There are logistical reasons for this; we have a functionally infinite amount of English-language culture and an education system that has only started taking foreign language instruction seriously in the past decade or so. But as the tentacles of Anglophone culture reach into increasingly isolated areas of the world, it’s difficult to ignore that the opposite is also happening.

So, what is it about listening to foreign music that English speakers find desirable? 

To say it’s to “better understand other cultures,” while perhaps true, rings stale and disingenuous in the age of voluntourism and debates over cultural appropriation. Perhaps we listen to foreign music not to better understand other cultures, but for better access to emotions and ideas that have atrophied under the ever-expanding umbrella of Anglophone cultural life. There are myriad emotions our acute sense of collective irony has muted, and earnestness may be chief among them.

Sometimes, the desire to reach a “world” audience is deliberate. That Spanish-language artists like the Colombian band Bomba Estéreo or the French-Spanish singer-songwriter Manu Chao have found audiences in the US is unsurprising. Though he sings primarily in Spanish, Chao has recorded music in at least nine languages—French, Spanish, Portuguese, Galician, Greek, Arabic, Italian, English, and Catalan. His obra, a textbook example of cosmopolitanism, also appeals to the roughly 53 million Spanish speakers in the US and the millions more learning the language in school and on Duolingo.

By this same logic, though, both Chao and Bomba Estéreo are poor examples of the access to atrophied emotions I mentioned above. They’re popular artists in the Anglophone world precisely because the cultural gap between them and us seems trivial, popular because they seem like merely translated versions of artists we already adore. While singing Chao’s “Me gustas Tú” with my former partner—a Portuguese native—we’d jokingly translate the lyrics into Portuguese in real-time because it was so easy to do so. Anyone, anywhere, who has taken a 100-level Spanish class in their lives can follow along:

Me gusta marihuana, me gustas tú / Me gusta Colombiana, me gustas tú / Me gusta la montaña, me gustas tú / Me gusta la noche, me gustas tú

We can say the same for a song like “El Alma Y el Cuerpo” by Bomba Estéreo. On YouTube, a live version recorded at KEXP in Seattle holds more than seven times the amount of views as the studio version. One of the top comments? “Don’t get a single word out of this song, but this is probably most [sic] beautiful tune in this world. Sometime is worth to [sic] listen the music with heart instead of ears ;)”

Another: “Cosmopolitan - a Lithuanian lady recommended this. I hope she finds out I took her advice....”

The irony is not lost here—foreign artists most likely to captivate Anglophone audiences are likely those whose worldview already corresponds with that of the Anglophone world. In some way, this is one response to the age-old question inveterate travelers ask themselves: Are they enraptured by the inherent differences between people or by their essential sameness? For this piece, it’s probably better to consider an artist who is wildly popular in his language, but virtually unknown outside of it.

I habitually return to the catalog of the late Venezuelan rapper, Canserbero. He has a half-dozen songs with over 100 million views on YouTube, all of which, on the production side, are relatively conventional boom-bap records. We need to scale back to realize how absurd this is—that an artist from a country of 32 million people with music superficially comparable to that of Atmosphere could have such a massive fan base is hard to believe.

I suspect his popularity is due partly to his elevation as a national “poet-artist” rather than musician proper; small countries venerate literary figures in a way largely foreign to Americans. I think of the Fernando Pessoa statue at the very heart of Lisbon in Baixa Chiado, or the gigantic Walter Scott monument on Princes Street in Edinburgh, or the Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin that connects the River Liffey to Guild Street.

A substantive literary homage in somewhere like midtown Manhattan seems nearly impossible. We need not look further than the reaction to Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize win in 2016. Although he was the first American to win since 1993, the most vitriolic disapproval came from those who should have had the most to celebrate: American intelligentsia. This is part of why Canserbero’s popularity is so fascinating—he managed to transcend national boundaries and become a Latin American cultural mainstay but skipped the Anglophone popularity boomerang effect that Latin American artists often benefit from.

I want to stress how topical Anglophone rap comparisons like Atmosphere are: Few Anglophone rappers fit Canserbero’s song model, and of those few, none come close to rivaling his popularity. Many of his songs extend well past the five-minute mark, and if hooks/refrains are present, they make up a negligible percentage of his lyrics, which are often passionately unironic. His obra is wildly uneven, but it’s also unimaginably ambitious. Most of his work goes for broke; he’s perpetually trying to “capture it all.”

This all-in approach is one I find more outside of Anglophone music than in it—in the age of irony, the all-cards-on-the-table form has been summarily dismissed. Perhaps it’s more about era than language, though.

The sort of sprawling, flawed, and perpetually grasping “hysterical realist” novels of the late ‘90s and early 2000s that literary critic James Wood discusses in his essay on Zadie Smith’s White Teeth are worthy literary comparisons, but have since fallen out of mainstream literary favor. Whether art is made better by an aesthetic that prefers tightly bound coherence over unfocused ambition is debatable—and likely depends on individual taste—but in casting the former out of favor, we assuredly lose something.

There’s something about this catch-all approach that, for us, feels dated—we’re in the age of specialization, where a Ph.D. thesis monograph on, say, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird might exceed the length of Lee’s entire body of work. In our cynicism toward flailing, unfocused intellectual ambition, we miss out on the sheer vitality inherent in the process.

It was precisely this restless vitality that attracted me to Canserbero’s work. His delivery is often gravelly and commanding, though, in his interviews, his demeanor is closer to graduate student than rapper. The capacity for optimism in his music is matched only by his penchant for the apocalypse. We see this strange disconnect on the production side, too, where his choices vary to almost unimaginable degrees.

Canserbero’s boom-bap tracks have aged remarkably well, whereas the more hardcore rap-rock choices inevitably belong to the aughts. “Es Épico” (It’s Epic) is a six-and-a-half-minute-long story about a man who, finding himself dead, debates with the devil and tries to figure out a way to escape hell. Complete with an obligatory reference to Dante, the song is true to its name—like Slick Rick’s “Children Story,” it is a coherent epic from start to finish.

Canserbero’s song titles aren’t difficult to translate literally, but they’re difficult to translate culturally. “De la Vida Como Película y Su Tragedia, Comedia y Ficción” sounds like a fake-deep college freshman wrote it when translated into English: “Life as a Movie and Its Tragedy, Comedy, and Fiction.” The song, really, is about life—I promise I’m aware of how corny this sounds. It’s about the difficulty of living in a world full of other people who are simultaneously the source of our pain and joy.

Calling a work “unironic” feels like an insult, but I use the word most straightforwardly. Canserbero’s music possesses an earnestness (a word that, ironically, doesn’t exist in modern Spanish) that feels foreign to similarly popular Anglophone music. In one of the last interviews before his death, during a discussion of his hectic tour schedule, the interviewer asks, “Ah, so you’re a citizen of the world?” 

Without smiling, Canserbero responds in the affirmative. At what point did we decide that to call oneself a citizen of the world was no longer acceptable and reserved only for vaguely new-age trust-fund travelers? 2010? 2005? Even the large tattoo on his left shoulder—ALL WE NEED IS LOVE in blue capital letters—wouldn’t be unacceptable in any English-speaking country. It is too soppy, too maudlin for our tastes.

To speak plainly: It seems to me that Latinate languages have a higher pain threshold for sincerity (or a lower one for irony), and this feels clear to me while reading or watching television in these languages. And yet, this phenomenon is undoubtedly most evident while listening to music.

Maybe Spanish speakers would disagree with me. Perhaps Canserbero’s work is imbued with irony and my perception of it as earnest has more to do with my distance from Spanish than the music itself—I am not a native Spanish speaker, and I haven’t been “inside” the language in the same way that I have with Portuguese while living in Portugal and Brazil. If this is the case, and the only resolution I can arrive at is to encourage you to engage more with foreign-language material precisely because of your distance from it, so be it. Part of the beauty of foreign-language work is its freeness—violeta will never mean the same thing as Violet, the name of the street I grew up on.

Such a model of engaging with foreign material is, however, an unsustainable practice—violeta will eventually come to mean something in my relationship with Spanish if I spend extended time in a Spanish-speaking country or continue to engage with Spanish-language culture seriously. This is also the reason I suspect that language-learning continues to hold my attention. A language becomes imbued with meaning once you’ve had meaningful experiences in it, which, for my money, is the only way to become fluent.

Portuguese was a tabula rasa for me when I first arrived in Portugal. Still, two years in Portuguese-speaking countries and two fairly serious romantic partners later, certain words and phrases have inevitably become saturated by my own experiences. Truthfully, violeta has already become heavy with its own meaning in Portuguese. It was the name of my cousin’s cat that I lived with for five months upon first arriving in Portugal. I’m not sure the feeling was mutual, but upon moving to Lisbon, I acutely felt Violeta’s lack.

If we accept the idea that speaking different languages allows for a discrete compartmentalizing of the self, perhaps the same should be true for music in different languages. Just as translators must continuously choose between keeping the essential foreignness of a phrase or sensibility and sandpapering it down for the sake of an English-language readership, consumers of foreign music must make the same choice. Go for the alien, the provincial. Go for what rejects the comfortable filter of cosmopolitanism.

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