Speaking Our Language: Can The UK Embrace Foreign Pop?

Dissecting a multi-lingual pop world with Christine and the Queens, Brodka...

Britain has always defined itself through pop music, continually used the charts as a mirror for the national psyche. From Harold Wilson giving The Beatles' MBEs to The Sex Pistols' racing up the charts in the Jubilee year, from Britpop underpinning New Labour's imperial phase to Dizzee Rascal expressing hidden post-Millennial anger, music has continually shifted and evolved in tandem with – and sometimes even ahead of – the country itself.

Yet it's always been in one language: English. A glance at the charts will swiftly reveal this, with only the odd novelty single – step forward 'Gangnam Style' – able to break up this monolingual rut. Comparisons with continental chart countdowns are also revealing, with the likes of Italy, Germany, and Spain all proving to be far more receptive to ‘foreign’ language songs than their UK counterparts. Indeed, the Spanish public actually voted for an English language song to represent them at Eurovision this year, while it’s difficult to imagine Graham Norton introducing a Spanish entry for the UK.

It's more than a little odd; after all, the UK charts are as multi-racial as anywhere in the world, reflecting the multi-faceted country we live in today. With polls for the EU referendum suggesting that the country simply can't make up its mind over EU membership, it's somewhat apt that pop music should reflect this half-in/half-out status.

Christine and the Queens started the year as virtual unknowns in this country, despite being a verifiable phenomenon in their native France. Deft, artful pop music, the creativity and gender fluidity mark the project out as sitting in a distinctly British lineage – think Bowie, Kate Bush, and more. Ironically, despite being birthed in London, Christine and the Queens couldn't get their music heard in the UK until they translated their album 'Chaleur Humaine' into English – cue rapturously received performances on Later… and The Graham Norton show, leading to the album hitting the number one slot on iTunes.

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For me, language is like an instrument.

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Speaking to singer Heloise LeTissier, it seems that this bi-lingual nature strikes a chord, accentuating the free-play of identity – both sexual and gender – that occurs in her music. “Actually, I kind of like it. From the beginning I'm always switching. For me, language is like an instrument. So if you pick French, you have a rhythmic thing going on… if you pick English it's always poppy and bouncing. I always love to shift back and forth in-between the two.”

“If I could, I would write songs in Spanish and Italian and Portuguese,” she adds. “I would use every instrument I have.”

Many of the songs on 'Chaleur Humaine' began as sketches in English, before finding their final form in French. So, in a fashion, Christine and the Queens' breakthrough isn't a diversion from their path, so much as a return to it. “Well, it's definitely different writing, for me, because French is my native language, so I can actually be more playful, and witty, and subtle. English is more naive and direct. But that, again, is interesting because sometimes you can actually shift. It's like having two split personalities, as well.”

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It's like having two split personalities, as well…

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The experience of Christine and the Queens demonstrates how multi-lingual abilities can provide increased artistic breadth, allowing for new changes to be taken, new directions to be sought out. For Polish singer Brodka, however, this multi-lingual status was sought not only for artistic reasons – but because she felt an international audience simply wouldn’t accept her music in its current form.

“Since I was a child, I remember pop music being sung in English,” she says. “All the biggest pop hits are English songs. It's hard to break this rule. The bigger barrier is not the language, but nationality. I would like to be treated the same way as British or American artists when I sing in English. It's much harder for a non-British/American act to break through in the international market.”

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The bigger barrier is not the language, but nationality.

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It shouldn't really be this hard for Brodka. Her musical CV is an incredible embarrassment of riches: after winning the Polish equivalent of Pop Idol at the age of just 16 she then went double platinum, becoming a household name. Undoubtedly talented, she then rebelled – new album 'Clashes' is her first English language record, and it's a phenomenally broad fusion of punk anger, lilting folk textures, and gorgeous, rippling electronics.

“Sometimes it's much easier to write in English than in Polish,” she admits. “All the demo versions of the songs for my new album were in English. Creating a vocal line is easier when you can just stream some random English words without even thinking if it makes sense. In Polish I would never do that. The information that language sends to your brain is much faster in your native language.”

“Writing the final lyrics however is just as hard in both languages,” the singer insists. “Just the challenges are different. Polish is so much more difficult in terms of structure so it's more complicated to fit it in a song, and the words are also usually longer. In English one must be very careful not to sound trivial, so the challenge is to figure out how to be original and yourself without trying to hard.”

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In English one must be very careful not to sound trivial…

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Growing up in a household that spoke little English taught Brodka the value of songwriting, that somehow a meaning that went beyond language could seep through. “Polish radio was full of American and British hits,” she reflects. “Even though not everybody can understand the lyrics, people sing together with the radio. My mum knows many international hits even though she doesn't understand a word. That proves the power of the composition itself.”

Sadly, though, British music tends to place barriers against foreign language composition, with their innate power then denied an audience. Yet with only 1 in 4 British adults able to speak a second language to any ability whatsoever, it's perhaps not too surprising that commercial radio and television – those explosive primers to mainstream success- shy away from playlisting or showcasing material that their audiences wouldn't easily understand. It's a curious détente.

When Clash profiled the Swedish music industry earlier this year, it found a recurring theme – that children bathed in English and American influences from a young age were better able to speak to those audiences, allowing Sweden to make astonishing growth in the creative industries. No one can deny Britain's status as a pop superpower, but you can't help but wonder how long we can retain this stature, when some of the most creative, addictive, and forward-thinking pop music is being made beyond these isles – and we simply refuse to listen.

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