All countries have their own distinct musical traditions. The development of popular music in the UK and USA has had a large influence on the modern output of other countries, with many musicians writing songs in English instead of their native languages. Cultural influences are now combined with the technological possibilities of the Internet, streaming services, and international exposure and recognition via social networks and platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Bandcamp.
In this context, what are the legacies that remain tied to individual countries and their music industries? Why are Swedish producers still behind some of the world’s most popular music? Why do French radio stations still insist that just under half of their musical airplay consists of songs with French lyrics? Why do some bands achieve more success at home, while others achieve fame and exposure as an export to other countries?
Music and NationalityIn a recent article in the Financial Times on ‘How Sweden Became a Pop Music Powerhouse’, the author looks at some of the classic regional identities that used to define pop music. Some of the examples listed include ‘Merseybeat in Liverpool’ and ‘Philly Soul in Philadelphia.’ Hip-hop is also described as the most ‘roots-obsessed’ of all musical genres. However, as the article points out, these boundaries have been greatly expanded in recent times. Our recent article on YouTube Optimisation used the example of Kollegah, a German rapper whose success on YouTube shows that hip-hop has been developing Europe for a while now, contributing to a genre that used be a genre defined by a strictly defined American background. It seems that you no longer have to come from a certain place and social type for your music to be appreciated.
Music and LanguageThe early hip-hop scene in Europe claimed its own identity by using specific references to the artist’s own language and culture. There was a preference for the mother tongue in spite of the obvious American influence, which continues to this day. British rap artists took a while to develop the confidence to use their own accents instead of mimicking American influences, but the market there has also developed to reflect the culture of the artists’ own experiences. European hip-hop artists since the 1980s and 90s show that there is a lot of importance attached to your home country and native voice. Hip hop has developed especially well in France, the most famous example being MC Solaar who achieved fame for his fluid style, and defined the scene in Paris in the 1990s. This shows that language can be used as an expression of local identity, yet genres can be manipulated across national boundaries.
However, there are also many successful bands of all genres from the whole of Europe who sing in English, or even in a mixture of languages. The Bianca Story from Switzerland sing in French, English and Italian, reflecting the diversity of their home country, but making their music accessible to many international fans. Phoenix and Daft Punk are examples of French bands that have earned international fame singing in English. However, due to the fact that a minimum of 40% of radio airplay has to be in French there, the same 2% of songs are played 70% of the time!
Why do so many international artists sing in English? It may be due to the familiarity and connection with the language, due to songs heard on the radio, vinyl, tape or CDs while growing up. Before the Internet, there was more of a divide between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ music – traditional and less famous bands were connected with your native language, and famous bands were connected with ‘popular’ or ‘international’ music, more often sung in English. Now that people can make and listen to a much broader spectrum of the music, these definitions are being redefined. There are artists like Sigur Ros from Iceland who have reached huge fame with their own language, showing that the situation is extremely fluid, and depends upon your own style and artistic decisions.
ConclusionOur increased exposure to music from different cultures has created major changes for artists and listeners. Music that could never previously have reached an international audience is becoming increasingly respected and recognised, but some national stereotypes and preferences are still defining some countries’ musical output. For example, Sweden is a top exporter of pop songs, often written and recorded by extremely talented producers who are a traditional part of the country’s musical history. Nordic music festivals like Ja Ja Ja bring focus upon the whole region as a special and unique part of European musical culture. However, these producers are also often the secretive figures behind major American or Korean pop stars, showing that their musical identity is not only linked with Scandinavia, but is part of an international scene.Physical mobility is much greater than it used to be. Many artists and producers don’t live and work in their native countries. They create music which can be toured, heard and sold all over the world. Information about where musicians are from and where they live is always interesting on a biographical and personal level, but it no longer necessarily defines how their music sounds.
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