The Israeli Blogger Ido Shacham has asked in a recent post: could Hebrew be the next Icelandic? He was referring to the enthusiastic international media coverage given to the debut album of Vaadat Charigim (Exceptions Committee), an exciting new Israeli shoegaze band who sing exclusively in Hebrew, and to some media attention given to my own band’s forthcoming album, which is part Hebrew part English.
Ido seems a bit sceptical as to the chances of a significant number of acts singing in Hebrew breaking into the international scene. At most, he says, liking songs sung in Hebrew can become a passing hipster fad. Generally speaking, he concludes, anyone seeking to succeed outside of Israel will continue to sing in English.
As a general rule, Ido is probably right. But I think that shoegaze and its surrounding musical world might be a bit of an exception. I don’t think it was a coincidence that it was Sigur Ros who succeeded with music in a “foreign language,” opening the way for the old Icelandic. After all, in shoegaze the vocals are in any case pushed into the mix, and the emphasis is not on the words but on the music and especially on the sound and the production. MBV’s lyrics, for example, were never that poetically amazing, in fact I at least listen to their vocals more as another instrument in the arrangement than a text to be followed and understood. To take a more recent example, most of the time I have no idea what Beach Volleyball are singing; the vocals are buried so deep in the mix, and are so drenched in effects, that they could just as well be in Hungarian. But it doesn’t stop me from falling in love with their album. In shoegaze music, there are many levels of enjoyment you can have even without having recourse to the lyrics. On the other hand, it’s obviously harder to enjoy a singer-songwriter or a rap artist in a language you don’t understand.
Additionally, shoegaze to begin with is geared towards people with a more “artistic” attitude, who are looking for new sounds and for audio adventures, and therefore might be more open to hearing a different language. Although on the one hand globalisation means that English is taking over the world even more forcefully than before, on the other hand it also means that people, especially those who consider themselves “alternative”, are more open and used to hearing different, less hegemonic languages, and not necessarily in a new age, orientalist, exoticising kind of way.
Moreover, I know a lot of music lovers who don’t even listen to the lyrics, definitely not the first few times they hear a song, even if the vocals are in English and even if they are placed relatively high in the mix. What captures their ears, or doesn’t, is the melody, the harmonic progressions and the sound. In Israel people seem to be lyrics-centred, in fact many Israeli rock songs are made mainly of words and don’t actually contain that much music, not in terms of the tune and the arrangement, and certainly not in terms of the production. The typical Israeli mix consists of very prominent vocals way upfront (maybe together with the drums), and some nonessential pleasantry played by the rest of the instruments somewhere in the background. No wonder traditional Israeli rock has found it difficult to succeed abroad.
We should also remember that we are at the point of a wide-ranging revolution in the way new music gets to people and the way they consume it. This revolution is on-going and we don’t really know where it’s going to lead. In the previous decades there was an almost impenetrable barrier of record labels and PR companies that decided in advance what the audience, in their view, wanted to hear. These mediators didn’t give any chance, to begin with, to music in languages other than English. Today, because of blogs and internet magazines and podcasts and all the rest, there is a more direct line of communication between artist and listener, and we have a chance to discover whether the music police of old was right or wrong about the language question. This is a completely different era and therefore it’s difficult to judge the possible success of anything, including music in languages other than English, on the basis of what has gone on before. In the meantime, being sent to the Exceptions Committee is not that bad either.