France: La musique ist der language internazionale

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Mar 4 19:27:05 UTC 2009

Soundcheck Blog
La musique ist der language internazionale
By John Schaefer
March 4, 2009

Making fun of the French has become almost a national pastime.
(Saturday Night Live in 1989: this week the Berlin Wall fell and East
and West Germany were reunited. In a related story, France offered to
surrender.) It’s really not fair, but let’s face it, sometimes the
French just make it so easy. Like the current contretemps about French
singers daring to sing in English. The French government and many
(especially older) French folk believe that to maintain their special
and unique identity as Frenchmen, they must protect their language
from the global onslaught of English.

Don’t these people understand that rock and rap came from
English-speaking countries and that all over the world, young people
grow up hearing, and learning, English as the native language of pop?
Would they outlaw Gregorian Chant because it’s in Latin, or the operas
of Verdi and Puccini because they’re in Italian? (Come to think of it,
I guess this isn’t a new problem, since more than one famous Italian
composer found himself obliged to have operas translated into French
in order to have them performed there.)

Of course, I readily admit that I don’t understand the French
obsession with the purity of their language because, as an English
speaker, I don’t have to. But if the situation were reversed, how
would we Americans feel? It’s a purely hypothetical question, but we
do have some hints as to the answer. Just look at our pop charts -
Americans are among the most resistant people in the world when it
comes to listening to songs in another language.

If the French want an example to follow, they don’t have to look much
further than their German-speaking neighbors. Germany too tried to
nurture its own rock/pop scene in the late 60s/early 70s, with the
result that a whole early generation of German rockers, singing in
German, reached an audience that consisted exclusively of other German
speakers. In the 70s, they got around the language barrier by doing
electronic instrumental work - the so-called krautrock of Tangerine
Dream, harmonia, Cluster, and of course Kraftwerk, whose use of simple
German phrases in “Autobahn” was simply part of the texture and didn’t
scare off English speakers or anyone else.

Kraftwerk would eventually record in English (”Pocket Calculator”),
and Austrian rock/rapper Falco would hit the American charts in the
1980s with songs written in a youthful slang that reflected what young
German-speakers heard when they listened to pop music: namely, a
Spanglish-style mix of English and their native tongue. This was
global music, and if there are now French artists trying to do the
same thing, why would the government and other critics want to stop
them? One ugly answer is racism - France has large immigrant
populations from West Africa and the Arab world, and the right wing in
France claims this poses a threat to the future of French culture.
(Sound familiar?) But the whole point of culture is that it evolves;
if you try to preserve it, you end up with a culture that is stuck in
time -like a dinosaur preserved in a tar pit. And how to do you force
the language issue on a generation that now gets much of its media and
entertainment from a global, digital network? France, it’s time to

Tell us: what do you think of France’s “protectionism” of its native
language? Are we any different here in the States?

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