International Music and the Western Industry

Last week Kali Uchis released her second studio album, Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios.) The album was highly anticipated, not just because of the critical and commercial success of her debut album Isolation, but because this was the first work that Uchis had released that was predominantly sung in Spanish.

The album was praised by many fans, with critics applauding the venture into bringing Latin music more into a western sphere. But there still appeared to be some listeners who bashed the use of Spanish in the album and declared their disappointment in the singer as they couldn’t understand her lyrics.

Uchis later acknowledged the comments on Twitter  – “Today I drop another song in Spanish which means another day of disappointment for my English speaking fans.”

Unfortunately this is a common theme within western music. It has been a long known fact that for an artist to be deemed as a ‘success’ they need to break the west, or more specifically America. But for artists such as Kali Uchis, who grew up in a Colombian family where Spanish was predominately used, surely she should be able to make the music that she wants to make, in a language that she feels represents her and the music she is producing. Why should an artist be forced to release a song in English just to cater for an audience who are unwilling to see the beauty and emotion in other languages and cultures.

So much music that has immense success in the west has been international music. In the summer of 2017, the music video for the track Despacito by the Puetro Rican singer Luis Fonsi, became the most viewed YouTube video of all time and held that record until earlier this month. The song was in Spanish yet was widely known and enjoyed by many western listeners.

Another example would be Rosalia, the Spanish singer from Barcelona. In 2018 she released the track Brillo featuring the Colombian star J Balvin, followed by the track Malamente later that year. These releases were a colossal success across the UK and US and she’s gone on to feature on tracks with the likes of Travis Scott, Pharell Williams and James Blake, who are all vastly known artists.

But it still feels like their success has been overlooked. Aspects of audiences enjoy a detour from the sometimes over-used algorithmic pop and will happily embrace a more ‘exotic’ sound. Yet after a single summer another artist brings out new music in a different language and the criticisms against artists embracing their language start up again.

When talking about this topic it is hard to ignore the phenomon of K-pop and the ongoing growth of the genre. One band who seem to wholly represent this growth is BTS. The group, who first appeared on the K-pop scene in 2013, have bulldozed their way into the western music scene over the past few years and have accumulated an extremely large and loyal fan base, both in Korea and the west. Yet, there were still the same nagging critics that the music wasn’t in english, therefore couldn’t be understood and ultimately wasn’t worth listening to. As a result of this BTS recently released their single Dynamite, which was their first song to be released entirely in english. Dynamite was an immense success and secured the group with their first number 1 spot in the US Charts. In an interview BTS said that the reason for the song being in english was to be able to connect more with their international fans, but some fans theorise that the choice for the change in language was to keep up the momentum of growth within the western industry. But was it worth it? K-pop encompasses a lot of the Korean culture, its shift into the western world has educated an audience who otherwise wouldn’t have looked twice at the country that is so rich in historical customs. The language is such a big part of this and BTS releasing a song solely in english seems more like a marketing tool than a connection with fans.

At this point its probably worth mentioning Angèle, the Belgian singer and songwriter notorious for not caving into a western audience. The 24-year-old has amassed a large international audience, but without intention. Throughout her successful career she has not made a strong effort to break into the US market and instead decided to produce music she wants in the language of her choice. This attitude is evident on her latest collaboration with pop sensation, Dua Lipa, on their single Fever. Dua Lipa’s parts are in English yet Angèle sings in French, the song has still been embraced by both artists fans and there’s limited criticism in reference to the language.

It would be exceptionally easy to continue listing examples of where both the western industry and audiences have failed international artists. Especially in the times that we are currently living in, it seems strange to be upset about the language that the lyrics of the music you are listening to is in. But it still doesn’t make sense on why there is a negative stigma around international music, surely it is something that should be embraced and celebrated. It allows audiences to learn about other cultures and to hear the beauty in their languages’. Why should an artist have to produce music in a language that they feel may not convey the emotion they want just to achieve the same critical and commercial success as an english-speaking artist, surely the lack of knowledge of the industry and the audience of cultures other than their own should be punished not the artist.

By Abbie Aitken

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