15 November 2010

So that Susan Boyle has been back in the press, promoting her new album just in time for the Christmas rush.

I hear she's being quite inspirational too, telling people how all they need to do is work hard and turn up to lots of auditions.  The trouble is, for SuBo it's not just about how good she is.  She's a very talented singer, but she really isn't the "best".  There's a few rough edges and she pronounces some words very oddly.

SuBo's success is down to being... well, not the prettiest picture in the gallery, and standing up and singing well despite getting laughed at by an audience and judging panel who seemed to believe that anyone who isn't naturally gorgeous can't sing.  She is, basically, a novelty act - a one-off.  There are people who have worked harder than her and have as much or more talent than her that remain as unknown as she was only 2 years ago.  This is not through lack of effort, it's just a lack of lucky timing.

This is a pervasive trope in our modern world: "try hard enough and you can be the best!"  It's like the American parent in the old black-and-white films telling the kid that one day he can be president.

But there are over 300 million people in the USA, and there's a presidential election once in every 5 years.  That means in a average lifetime, you'd expect to see about 15 presidents.   So about 0.000005% of the US population will ever be president.  1 in 20,000,000.

The odds for popular singers are a bit better, but you're still relying on a whole lot of luck.

OK, so what's this got to do with language?

Well, have a look at this article from the BBC's From our own Correspondent.  French bands are increasingly singing in English.  His article focuses on the angle of choice, freedom and cool, and skips past the question of success, but I find it hard to imagine that an ambitious young French singer doesn't have at least half an eye on the international success of Daft Punk.  But this is new only because we're talking about France.  If we step slowly backwards in time, we can see the Latin American stars (Shakira and Ricky Martin), Dutch electronic dance music (remember the Vengaboys anyone?) and on back through to Sweden where acts like Roxette followed on from cheesetastic Abba.

The number of international success stories is low, and it's a fair assumption that for every break out artist there's a hundred or more that didn't make it, and who're doing the same thing -- which means singing in English.

The desire to be the best, the biggest, the worldwide hit is discouraging people from being happy with being good locally, and it's taking people away from their own languages.

Take a look at the show Rapal on BBC Radio nan Gaidheal and BBC Alba.  Over the years they've supported various bands from within the Gaelic community, but for the most part these bands sing exclusively in English.  They're chasing the bigger audiences, but sadly the odds are stacked against them.  It's a shame to see talented young people waste their time chasing the unobtainable rather than making a genuine impact in their own small part of the world.

No comments: