This title from the Ha’aretz newspaper caught my eye. Why do Israeli singers sing in English rather than Hebrew? The debate is an old one, and has been mirrored in many countries. On the one hand, there are the people that worry about cultural identity. On the other, are performers that either don’t care or want to reach that elusive “international” audience. The issue in Israel is not really any different from that of France, Germany or Turkey. But the Ha’aretz columnist Ben Shalev brought up an interesting point
No matter how widespread the use of English becomes, it will always remain the second language in most countries around the world. Inevitably, people are always that little more comfortable in their mother tongue – whether they are listening or writing lyrics. The mother tongue lets them connect faster with the listener, offering more scope for subtlety and nuance.
The upper hand
This is where mother tongue writers will always have the upper hand. What would France’s Massilia System, Belgium’s Jacques Brel or Egypt’s Oum Kalsoum be if they had to bend themselves to fit into English lyrics?
Shalev’s point is that “More and more singers are focusing on lyrics, while musicians for whom the text is just icing on the cake have stayed with English.”
More and more singers are focusing on lyrics, while musicians for whom the text is just icing on the cake have stayed with English.
In other words, those that really have something to say, do so in their mother tongue. The others get by with English lyrics. There is a degree of truth in this, although Ruth Dolores Weiss writes well in both languages. One of the comments on the article made another interesting point: “Most Israeli music is not Israeli but American pop, jazz, blues, rock – whatever. The only true Israeli music is the ethnic music like Sheva, Bustan Avraham, Argov, etc…. Groups who play the music from the region or from the land”.
Jumping borders, is French-speaking rap really French or just American music dressed up? And just how Irish is U2’s music – and is this of any relevance?
From a songwriter’s point of view, these are questions to be answered individually. I’ve never written lyrics in anything but English, although there are times when I simplify it knowing it will be sung and listened by non-native speakers. If I could write lyrics in French, I certainly would.
Is cultural identity something that songwriters should worry about? Your comments are welcome.