Maybe it’s because one of the first bands I really loved as a teenager in the late 1980s was REM, whose frontman Michael Stipe spent most of the ’80s singing in a barely comprehensible murmur, but I’ve never had a problem with listening to music whose lyrics I couldn’t understand.
Yes, song lyrics have been hugely important to me over the last 20 years or so, but I don’t think you need to understand what someone’s singing about to appreciate music (otherwise most English-speakers wouldn’t get much out of opera). So I’ve always liked non-English-language pop music. Despite never having learned French (I did German and Latin at school and then German at university) and not really understanding very much of it at all, I’ve long been a big fan of old-school French stuff, worshiping at the altars of Serge Gainsbourg, Francoise Hardy and Jacques Dutronc. In fact, once upon a time I loved it so much that my friend Claire and I ran a one-off club night called Bon Bon devoted to French pop of all kinds, with a bit of Northern Soul, Tropicalia and random ridiculous fun stuff thrown in. And yes, I played this song. I love you, Jacques!
Of course, we can’t forget Jacques’s one-time ladyfriend Francoise Hardy, who, along with ’60s-era Marianne Faithfull and Mary and Rhoda from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, was my fashion idol for most of college. I adored her music and thought she was the coolest woman ever. Behold:
I discovered Francoise Hardy thanks to my dad’s vinyl copy of Francoise Hardy Sings In English, which is an awesome album, even though it was responsible for an extremely embarrassing few minutes back when I was 20. Having snogged one of my best friends, I was trying very hard to get things back to normal and so invited him over to my house. Things were going pretty well and I was thinking “Okay, our friendship isn’t ruined after all! We’ll just pretend it never happened!” I had put the Francoise album on but had forgotten about one particular song until it came on during a brief pause in our conversation. Just imagine these words ringing out as two people try very hard to think of something innocuous to say:
I was going to say that this wouldn’t have happened if I’d played the French version, but actually he was doing French in college so it probably would.
Anyway! As well as my love of all things French (I strongly recommend tracking down all the albums in the Ultra Chicks series, compilations of the finest yé-yé girls from Paris), over the years I’ve loved everything from Japanese pop to the delights of the awesome Komeda, who recorded their first album in Swedish before moving on to English. But I know that lots of Anglophone folk don’t want to listen to pop music that isn’t in English, which is why lots of international artistes, from A-Ha to Air, have made so much Anglophone music. And which is why I salute those who would rather write decent lyrics in their native tongues, even though it obviously limits their international appeal.
This goes especially for German band Wir Sind Helden. Now, I can actually understand frontwoman Judith Holofernes’s sweet, smart, funny lyrics, and I’m pretty sure that this is part of why I like them, but their jaunty, ridiculously catchy yet bittersweet indie-pop crosses languages barriers. The long-awaited (by Germans, and me) new Helden album Bring Mich Nach Hause (trans: Bring Me Home) came out on Friday, and I was possibly the only person in Ireland who was really excited about it. And rightly so, because it’s great, if a lot more folky and melancholy than their previous work.
Speaking of which, here’s their very first self-released single ‘Guten Tag’, a perfect slice of jittery electro-pop:
And ‘Gekommen um zu Bleiben’ (trans: Here To Stay) which is unashamedly goofy but which I’m including because I love the video and it always cheers me up (possibly because I wish I could take part in a video like this):
And speaking of cool videos, I love this Tin Tin-inspired one too (I often find myself singing this song while pootling around the kitchen):
So surely I’m not alone in my defiantly uncool affection for non-English-language pop music? What are your international favourites? Do you prefer people who sing in a language that you can understand, even if it’s not your native tongue? Or do you, like me, rather like the layer of mystery that comes with complete incomprehension of the lyrics?