by David Sugarman
When song lyrics started to be printed on LP covers (I know I’m showing my age), a wonderful resource for English language-learning was created. In more recent times, dozens of lyrics websites have sprung up, and I’m sure there’s barely a song of any vintage for which the words can’t be found online. Generations of music fans have been able to grapple with unfamiliar words in a foreign language, ending up by understanding and assimilating vast amounts of English from singing along, picking up the music of the language from the music itself. Numerous French people have told me that their English owes more to The Beatles than to studying or travelling.
The sorry fact is that French popular music has never been particularly popular outside the French-speaking world. This is not to denigrate la chanson française. The giants of the genre have played a colossal part in defining modern French culture. But sadly, the remarkably rich lyrics of Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel, to name but two, are precluded from playing much of a part in the French-learning experience for most foreigners because they don’t have a rock backbeat. Their influence has little impact outside the confines of the domestic market. Maurice Chevalier, Sacha Distel, Charles Aznavour and Céline Dion (who’s actually from Quebec) are some of the rare French singers capable of giving entire performances in English.
In exceptional cases, the star quality of a French singer is such that Brits or Americans are prepared to pay good money to go along and not understand a word. When Edith Piaf sang a song called J’m’en fous pas mal to English-speaking audiences, I hate to think what they thought it meant. (“I really couldn’t give a damn” gets close, by the way, but it’s very idiomatic and includes an element that is not really vulgar but may give the impression of being so…).
Informal speech patterns are a staple ingredient of English song lyrics, of course. “It doesn’t mean a thing if it hasn’t got that swing” doesn’t quite work, somehow! When loose grammar works in lyrics, we accept it easily. Singers are “in character”, it’s their natural expression. Though it can be completely incongruous: is anyone else as irritated as I am by the Malaysian Tourist Board ad on TV in which an Asian woman sings, “It don’t matter how and when”?
It sometimes amazes me that people who have learned much of their English from song lyrics don’t commit more solecisms in their speech of the “I ain’t got no” or “she don’t” variety. By and large, French song lyrics tend not to break grammar rules, although there may be a healthy dollop of slang to negotiate. English people trying to improve their French could do worse than download a few French songs on their iPods and, doing their best Piaf imitation, belt out: “Non, je ne rrregrrrette rrrien…”