First of all, a little background information. Although I am a native speaker of Italian, the English language has been a constant presence in my life since I was 7 years old. Languages are not only a passion for me, but also my main professional expertise (I am a language teacher with experience as a translator), and probably my biggest talent, though I have not been able to learn as many as I would have liked. Having learned English at such an early age (something I will never thank my parents enough for), as well as a few other languages along the way, has not only allowed me to meet and communicate with people from every corner of the world, but also shaped the kind of person I am today, and my whole worldview. Therefore, whenever I happen upon people singing the praises of monolingualism, or stating that they do not need to learn any foreign languages because “everyone speaks English”, my hackles rise, and I tend to lose at least some respect for those who utter such nonsense.
While the original progressive rock movement originated in England, and extremely influential bands such as Yes and Genesis are as English as afternoon tea, that same movement put deep-seated roots in other countries whose first language is not English – first and foremost my native Italy, but also places as far removed from Europe as Japan, Brazil and Argentina. Nowadays the practice of English lyrics may have become widespread, especially out of commercial considerations, but in the early Seventies most bands and artists from non-English-speaking countries (with some notable exceptions such as many German bands) chose to use their native languages. Though lack of proficiency was undoubtedly one of the main reasons (since foreign language teaching was not as widespread or methodologically advanced at the time as it is today), this choice was also closely connected to a desire to adapt the new musical trend to the musical and cultural roots of the artists. As any treatise on Italian prog (or RPI, as it is now commonly called in prog circles) worth its salt will clearly illustrate, the whole scene cannot be divorced by its use of Italian – a language that has been often labelled as “the most beautiful in the world”, and which has proved its worth time and again in the history of music, regardless of genre.
Obviously, there is also a school of thought maintaining that English is the only language suited to rock music – which seems to hold more or less true for heavy metal, though not necessarily for other rock genres. In particular, the distinctive features of prog make it an ideal vehicle for just about any language, and not just because it contains extended instrumental breaks that make vocals almost an afterthought. No one who has ever listened to Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Los Jaivas or Ange (to mention three bands from different countries and cultural environments) will regret their choice to use Italian, Spanish or French instead of English, on account of the perfect fit between those languages and the band’s musical direction. Not surprisingly, real devotees of Italian prog are not particularly keen on “translated” albums such as PFM’s Photos of Ghosts or Banco’s As in a Last Supper, and even albums that were originally recorded in English, such as Cherry Five’s self-titled debut or New Trolls’ Searching for a Land, tend not to evoke as much enthusiasm as their Italian-language counterparts.
Indeed, the use of Italian is as much a part of RPI as the passionate, quasi-operatic vocal style or the incorporation of folk and classical elements – and the same holds true for Spanish or French prog. Even an impenetrable (at least for us Westerners) language like Japanese complements the music of Japanese prog bands much better than the often poor attempts at English lyrics – equally often marred by a less than stellar pronunciation (a common problem for speakers of languages with vastly different phonetic systems than English). Conversely, the choice to use English may come at the price of error-riddled lyrics and liner notes, with often laughable results that inevitably end up hurting the band’s credibility on the international scene. The misguided idea that English is a much easier language to master than, say, Italian or Spanish – coupled with the utterly deplorable trend of resorting to those terrifying language manglers, online translators – is the main culprit behind song titles containing visible blunders, or positively ridiculous lyrics which do a band or artist no favours.
In spite of all the arguments in favour of using one’s native tongue, there is still quite a lot of prejudice about progressive rock with lyrics in languages other than English – mostly on the part of people from English-speaking countries, though not always necessarily so. Many native English speakers are not used to hearing other languages spoken on TV or at the movies, due to the prevalence of English in the entertainment industry; some people may even feel threatened by what they cannot understand, while others are hampered by a kind of mental laziness, so to speak. This is especially true in a country like the USA, where English has always been instrumental to the assimilation of newcomers into American society – to the extent that most second-generation Americans do not speak their parents’ language. In general terms, Europeans are more used to hearing different languages, in some cases within their own country, and learning one or more foreign languages (even as a hobby) is definitely more common in Europe than in the US.
A couple of months ago, a shockingly mean-spirited attack on prog with non-English vocals was delivered in a review published on the only mainstream magazine currently dedicated to prog. In his account of Il Tempio delle Clessidre’s excellent debut album, the reviewer stated that “ [...] no matter how hard they might try to build it up, the majority of Italian prog bands have made little impact on the world stage”, and then proceeded to make matters worse by adding that “the blunt, politically incorrect truth is that, in spite of occasional flashes of musical magic,with all the lyrics being delivered in Italian, it’s still an album most would never listen to more than once.” Though it was not the first time that the magazine had taken a swipe at non-English prog, the virulence of the attack was unprecedented.
Obviously, the author of the review was unaware, or maybe intentionally oblivious, of the sizable number of people worldwide whose appreciation of Italian prog drives them to invest large amounts of money in the purchase of both vintage and modern releases. The same might be said for French or Spanish prog, or even for Eastern European acts, all of whom have a dedicated following in English-speaking countries. In fact, the news that Greg Walker, one of the foremost online prog sellers, is organizing a festival for 2012 which will feature bands from Italy and other European countries (most of them singing in their respective languages) has already created a lot of anticipation in the prog community, proving that particular writer’s statement dead wrong, as well as unnecessarily chauvinistic. While people have every right to dislike music sung in foreign languages (and, in my years of frequentation of prog discussion boards, I have come across quite a few that fit this description), the line should be drawn at blatantly untrue statements, especially when informed by a sense of condescension and barely concealed xenophobia.
Personally, I find it rather sad that, in the second decade of the 21st century, there are still people who feel out of their depth when confronted with something even slightly unfamiliar. The aversion to foreign-language vocals might be compared to many people’s unwillingness to taste any “exotic” foods, even relatively tame ones, and it is definitely rooted in a reluctance to step out of one’s comfort zone. However, one would expect a bit more open-mindedness from fans of a genre that proudly bears the “progressive” tag, and the suspicion that there may be some ulterior motives behind statements such as the ones featured in that review leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth. Thankfully, in the far-flung community of progressive rock lovers there are enough people who recognize that understanding lyrical content is nowhere as important as being captivated by the music, and that vocals can often be considered as an additional instrument – regardless of what a singer is singing about. Petty, spiteful comments such as “no one would listen more than once to an album not sung in English” paint their author as a narrow-minded person who is stuck in a sort of late-colonial frame of mind, basically viewing anyone who does not adopt their language as inferior and unworthy of attention. Progressive rock deserves better than so-called journalists supporting such bigoted views.