Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Why is English the language of rock and roll?

I first started thinking about this at a Jens Lekman show last month. What would possess a person born in Sweden to sing in a second language? I started to think about other foreign musicians like France's Phoenix, Germany's The Scorpions, or Peter, Bjorn and John, also of Sweden. Why would all of these people not choose to sing in their native tongues? It worked for Autobahn, didn't it?

There are notable exceptions, but for the most part modern music--the vast majority of which is derived from from rock and roll--is sung in English. The French have even gone as far to establish quotas of how much francophone rock must be played on the radio.

There are, I think, some obvious reasons why music is so often sung in English*.

1. Rock and roll was invented here. If you are a foreign musician and you're into rock and roll, then you probably grew up listening to music by English-speaking artists. Singing in English would be a natural progression if you happen to be proficient in English. Which brings me to my next reason.

2. English is the most common second language in the world. If you were going to write lyrics in a dialect that is not your own, chances are it's going to be English. And because so many people understand English, your market appeal is that much wider than if you were going to sing in a language like Swedish.**

I guess those two reasons could just about explain it, but then I start thinking about how hard it is to write a song in the first place***. It seems like it would be 10 times harder to write a song in a language you weren't as familiar with. Music is already such a personal art form that it's hard enough to express yourself in a first language.

I would be terrified of coming off like a cheesy foreigner writing a song in Spanish or something. Imagine if Manu Chau had translated "Me Gustas Tu" into English before recording it. I doubt all the white kids at festivals would be singing along with the lyrics the likes of "I like marijuana, I like you, I like airplanes, I like you, I like your kitchen, I like you."

Furthermore, we can look at other periods of time when a certain type of music developed from a certain language. Opera began in Italian but quickly spread throughout the rest of Europe. Wagner didn't write his operas in Italian. Why is that?

So, all you not scared of leaving comments, why is English the language of rock and roll?

*Of course, as a blogger, I have done no serious research whatsoever and these reasons can be taken as pure xenophobic speculation.
**Sigur Ros is one band I can think of that sings in a Nordic language and has achieved commercial success. Wait, does Bjork sing in Icelandic? I guess that would make Icelandic the language of pretentious art rock.
***Or maybe it's not? Just like at Phish's lyrics and the success they have achieved. Maybe getting a good sound is even more important.


  1. I think you were on the right track that English is the mother language of rock and roll. Even the Beatles learned from blues singing troubadours to become the Beatles. No matter what your mother tongue the original masters and teachers sung English lyrics that just don't translate to Russian or whatever language.

  2. I also think that English is very versatile and for music that's really important. Sarcasm humor, innuendo, they're all an integral part of the English language- I would argue more than other Western languages- and good songwriters take advantage of that.