Image of traditional dancers at the 2015 Korean Cultural Festival in London.
“Music is a language that doesn’t speak in particular words. It speaks in emotions, and if it’s in the bones, it’s in the bones.” – Keith Richards
By Michael Ray
‘Despacito’, ‘Gangnam Style’, ‘Hey Macarena’, songs we all know and love, all with one major similarity: most of us don’t know what the lyrics mean.
Occasionally, international music breaks into the world market and quickly becomes a household song. But why does this not happen more often? Are English artists more popular because we simply enjoy following and interpreting the lyrics more? Or do we just not go looking for music globally?
We sit down with Leah Freddie May Caffrey, Chair of Manchester Met’s K-Pop Society, and Chloe Labiak, a final year student and avid music listener, to get their thoughts on whether we should give international music a fresh chance.
Leah wasn’t always a Korean music fan, “When I was younger I mostly listened to pop-punk styles of music. But in 2015 a friend sent me a dance routine from the group BTS,” she tells us. “After that, she sent me more dance routines and I was hooked.”
Chloe enjoys songs from a large variety of music genres, from relaxing instrumental music, to alternative metal and rock and many others, including Spanish sung songs. She explains, “I enjoy listening to Spanish songs when I am in a holiday mood as I often traveled to Spain on holiday when I was younger and the songs help relax me.”
Neither Chloe or Leah can speak the languages of the music, yet their interests remain and the songs still hold personal meanings. In fact, both have made progress in learning a different language entirely, Japanese.
The existence of instrumental music shows us that we don’t have to have understandable vocals to enjoy a piece of music, so why not add on a non-understood language? It certainly works. At ‘The Game Awards 2017’ held in Los Angeles, ‘NieR:Automata’ won the Best Score/Music award whilst featuring songs with lyrics in a completely fictional language. We ask for Leah’s opinion on why foreign language songs and instrumentals seem to be separated.
“Someone is more likely to be invested in a foreign language song because people are more noticeably involved.” She adds, “Instrumentals are just not personal in the same way.”
Most people have sung a song and lost track halfway through a verse, or said the wrong word entirely and been forced to mumble until they can continue following the music. When, ‘Hey Macarena’ is played, aside from the words ‘Hey Macarena’, a large amount of people enjoy just making sounds in the vague rhythmic pattern of the song. We extend this to the activity of misheard lyrics, where word combinations in other languages sound like our own and produce hilarious results.
There are multitudes of reasons to give foreign music a chance. See Chloe, who says she associates listening to Spanish music with “feelings of a holiday mood and childhood memories.”
If another language has the power of invoking similar feelings in others, it’s worth exploring.
For Chloe it is not just Spanish music; she also listens to German music, explaining, “It’s alternative metal/rock because it can drown out noise when I study.” Without the distraction of English lyrics, she can focus more on her writing.
Leah also adds reasons why K-pop is something people should give a try, if they haven’t already. She says, “At the end of the day, the music often has a strong beat and catchy rhythm… you can often find songs that will lift your spirits or get you dancing.” Leah continues, “Korean music tends to have a much higher production value… and the videos are much easier to enjoy at a surface level without the need to understand the language.”
Listening to another language’s music may seem strange to many people in countries with English as the dominant language. However, for much of the world it is not uncommon to hear songs entirely in a language they do not understand, or even songs that use the native language for chunks of the song and opt for English as a stylistic choice for the chorus.
As a result, other countries are accustomed to enjoying, or at least hearing, non-native music. As Leah points out, “it’s hard to imagine another language dominating the music stage in the near future.” She elaborates “if you look at Eurovision it’s mostly sung in English, there’s just a wider market to appeal to in the West for English songs.”
Sadly, this means we miss out on a large amount of potentially amazing songs because our music is so separated from everyone else’s. If we want to hear more music we must actively go and look for it, but it is worth at least giving it a shot and seeing if you find something you can enjoy, like Chloe and Leah have.
Leah recommend some of her favourite Korean songs for newcomers to try:
Seventeen – Very Nice
Red Velvet – Bad Boy
BTS – DNA
Akdong Musician – How People Move
Day6 – How Can I Say
Chloe also offers up her favourite Spanish tunes:
Mayonesa – Chocolate
Shakira ft. El Cata– Rabiosa