Global Pop, Local Language

Global Pop, Local Language

Global Pop, Local Language

Global Pop, Local Language


Why would a punk band popular only in Indonesia cut songs in no other language than English? If you're rapping in Tanzania and Malawi, where hip hop has a growing audience, what do you rhyme in? Swahili? Chichewa? English? Some combination of these?

Global Pop, Local Language examines how performers and audiences from a wide range of cultures deal with the issue of language choice and dialect in popular music.

Related issues confront performers of Latin music in the U.S., drum and bass MCs in Toronto, and rappers, rockers, and traditional folk singers from England and Ireland to France, Germany, Belarus, Nepal, China, New Zealand, Hawaii, and beyond.

For pop musicians, this issue brings up a number of complex questions. Which languages or dialects will best express my ideas? Which will get me a record contract or a bigger audience? What does it mean to sing or listen to music in a colonial language? A foreign language? A regional dialect? A "native" language?

Examining popular music from a range of world cultures, the authors explore these questions and use them to address a number of broader issues, including the globalization of the music industry, the problem of authenticity in popular culture, the politics of identity, multiculturalism, and the emergence of English as a dominant world language. The chapters are written in a highly accessible style by scholars from a variety of fields, including ethnomusicology, popular music studies, anthropology, culture studies, literary studies, folklore, and linguistics.

Harris M. Berger is associate professor of music at Texas A&M University. He is the author of Metal, Rock and Jazz: Perception and the Phenomenology of Musical Experience (1999).

Michael Thomas Carroll is professor of English at New Mexico Highlands University. He is the author of Popular Modernity in America: Experience, Technology, Mythohistory (2000) and co-editor, with Eddie Tafoya, of Phenomenological Approaches to Popular Culture (2000).


—Harris M. Berger

In the 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley, a wealthy industrialist asks an earnest young man named Tom Ripley to travel to Italy in order to lure home to New York his ne’er-do-well son, Dickie. It is an unlikely misunderstanding that draws Tom, a restroom attendant who works on the side as a classical pianist, into the world of the powerful and privileged. But seizing unforeseen opportunities is Tom’s defining character trait, and he happily agrees to the industrialist’s proposal. Before leaving, Tom learns that Dickie is a jazz aficionado, and to prepare for his task he quickly educates himself about that music. Arriving in Italy, Tom arranges a “chance meeting” with Dickie, fabricates for himself a new identity as a forgotten college friend, and, playing on his feigned love for jazz, slowly insinuates himself into Dickie’s life. At first cool and haughty, Dickie soon warms to Tom, and their relationship is suffused with homoerotic overtones.

In a pivotal scene, the two attend a performance at Dickie’s favorite jazz club, a raucous basement hotspot in Naples. Early in the evening, Dickie sits in with the house band on saxophone while Tom and assorted friends watch from the audience. At the climax of the performance the group breaks into a rendition of the song “Tu vou’ fa l’Americano” (You want to be American). Another audience member, played by the well-known Italian vocalist Fiorello, sings the lead in Italian, while Dickie, well familiar with the tune, sings along fluently at the mike in the same language. Halfway through the song, Fiorello drags a reluctant Tom up to the stage to join in. In many scenes, the dramatic tension in the film centers on the constant threat that Tom’s deception will collapse. At this juncture it is clear to the film audience—if not to Dickie—that Tom doesn’t know the song and fears that if he can’t sing along, he will lose his credibility as a jazz buff. But Tom . . .

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