This post was inspired in part by a comment from Stacie over at Gemini Girl in a Random World. I like giving credit where it’s due.
I am hopelessly monolingual. In spite of a year of high school French, roughly the equivalent of two years of German, and a lifelong residence in Southern California, I am fluent only in English. I know some random words and phrases. I can be polite in French, German and Spanish (say please, thank you, you’re welcome). I can order beer in Spanish. I can count at least to five (so, I could theoretically order five beers in Spanish). Beyond that, I’m pretty darn useless, multi-linguistically speaking.
Which is why it makes perfect sense that I love music in other languages. From “99 Luftballons” to Los Lobos’ traditional songs, I really enjoy hearing how musicians express themselves in words I don’t have any hope of understanding. It’s not really the words that matter in music, no matter how much emphasis I personally put on lyrics. It’s the feeling behind the words that matters most, and if that feeling is genuine, anyone can understand the meaning.
I also enjoy it when the singer does the heavy translating for me, when they sing words in both English and another language. One of my personal running jokes is that all the French I know comes from songs, which is actually not that far off. (One thing I actually do remember from high school French is that “Aloutte” is a really sadistic little song.) Paul McCartney sang about “Michelle, my belle.” And Billy Joel declared “C’Etait Toi”
I understand every word in this song, because Mr. Joel kindly sang the same lyrics in both languages for me. (I’m pretty sure he had to have someone translate it for him; Billy Joel has never struck me as particularly linguistically gifted. Although I could be wrong. Feel free to correct me if you know anything about his ability to speak any other languages.) It’s kind of hard to put a finger on the emotions behind this song though. The words say it’s a break-up song, but the music seems light, almost cheerful. I know this kind of masking is a well-used technique, but it doesn’t feel like anything is being hidden from the listener. Joel’s not that manipulative, anyway. He’s a straightforward kind of songwriter. The lightness comes in part from the choice of instruments, including a lovely accordion in the background. But it also comes from a kind of self-deprecating awareness that Joel is magnificent at. One of his saving graces as both a songwriter and a human being is that he knows exactly how difficult he is to deal with, and he refuses to shy away from it. He might be prone to maudlin sentiment and melodrama, but he’s not stupid. And he won’t tell his audience lies: “I’m looking for comfort that I can take from someone else. But after all, there is no one that can save me from myself. You were the only one.” That’s something that needs no translation, no matter what language the words are in.