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The language of popular music doesn't have to be English

Susie Garrard |  28 September 2016


As much as global business and politics seem to be dictated by English speaking nations, English also holds dominance over globally exported music. In terms of marketed music, there is no doubt that English speaking artists hold sway.

GwennoSo despite the plethora of homegrown talent across the rest of the world, the advent of social media and extensive world travel, why does English still take precedence?

Similarly to the world of business and politics, the major music industry is historically entrenched in the western world. Most of the world's recorded music is controlled by corporations established in Britain or America. The 'big three' — Universal, Sony BMG and Warner — made music their business long before labels in other territories, and control up to 80 per cent of today's market.

This isn't to say non-English speaking artists have zero success. Almost all territories have their own popular artists, writing and performing in their native languages. However, many of these musicians seem unable to break into the wider market, outside of their own countries.

Non-English songs that impact mainstream charts in western markets are usually either dance tracks, or novelty songs — or both. 'The Macarena' (1993) and O Zone's 'Dragostea Din Tei' (2004) were club hits in the UK, and of course the more recently 'Gangnam Style', by South Korean artist Psy, was a global phenomenon.

Exposure is what it all comes down to; radio play, charts and the subtle yet insistent pushing of what we should be listening to. The majority of listeners are willingly reliant on media sources to dictate to them. In 2014, it was estimated that four million songs on Spotify alone had never been listened to. Streaming services account for a major proportion of music consumption today, with readymade playlists slowly surpassing radio.

Playlists are major marketing tools today, and for many listeners these are their primary sources for new music. But even these are monopolised by those major record labels. Earlier this year it was confirmed that 'pay for play' is a real factor in the curation of the most popular playlists. Smaller corporations and artists are priced out of the market, losing out on that global audience.

Indigenous languages, too, are often shunned in majority English speaking Western countries, although perhaps this is changing. The music industry in Australia is increasingly embracing Indigenous artists, notably through festivals like Boomerang. Sydney band Dispossessed meanwhile performs in both English and in language, in order to express feelings and concepts that are drawn from Indigenous culture, rather than white western ones.


"Gwenno argues that, as we live in an increasingly multicultural world, experiencing music in different languages should not be radical, or so rare."


The UK is also home to indigenous languages besides English. Celtic languages, like Gaelic, Welsh and Cornish, are still spoken, but there is a concern over preserving these languages. Often reserved for traditional folk music, it is rare for Celtic music to chart in the UK.

However, Cardiff native Gwenno (pictured) released her debut solo album last year, which is sung entirely in Welsh and Cornish. It met with great success despite only an estimated 700,000 Welsh speakers in the UK. With her ethereal electronic music, Gwenno has a definite political message, and her decision not to sing in English is key to her identity as a musician.

She strongly believes music is nearly always more impactful when sung in an artist's native tongue, even if we can't understand it. Also that by sidelining artists singing in other languages, we exclude a huge number of amazing musicians.

Gwenno argues that, as we live in an increasingly multicultural world, experiencing music in different languages should not be radical, or so rare. She suggests that as English has been appropriated so widely, artists don't feel self-conscious using it. But to sing in a minority language is a bigger decision, as it is loaded with all the questions that come with doing something different.

It would seem fitting that our appetite for global culture and experience should extend to music, and bring as much positivity as the global influence on food, lifestyle and art. It would also recognise the increasingly multicultural societies that we live in. Artists are proving that there is room for other languages on the global music stage, although they may need to convince the industry at large before they can really take the spotlight.


Susie GarrardSusie Garrard is a British writer, currently living in Sydney after relocating from London. Employed in the music industry, her work has appeared in a number of related publications in both the UK and Australia. Often provoking responses with social commentary or politically driven pieces.


Susie Garrard

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Submitted comments

Geoffrey Gurramul Yunupingu has an album "Gospel songs" where he sings All God's Children and Amazing Grace in his native tongue.They are beautiful melodies with increasing power when sung in Geoffrey's own language.Hoping for more treats from him.

Celia 30 September 2016

Well said Susie. The Eurovision Song Contest is a great fraud. They should all have to sing in their own language.

Gavan 30 September 2016

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