In the last few years, I realised that I have been listening almost exclusively Japanese and Mandarin songs. In the past, the English songs I listened to tended to be Oldies from the 50s and 60s. After songs from that era, there is a big gap. I have never taken to contemporary songs even during my growing up years.
Recently, I wondered what is it about Mandarin and Japanese songs that drew me to them and not English songs.
The first answer that came to my mind was that I do not like songs without a nice melody. It seems to me that contemporary English songs tend to be heavy on beats, and for some songs that is all there is. I think I more or less stopped listening to English songs after Debbie Gibson (call it bubble gum pop if you will, but I like them).
A Picture Paints A Thousand Words
Then, I realise that there is something else that draws me to Japanese and Mandarin songs. Something that is lacking or lost in English songs – evocative, poetic lyrics.
Recently, I listened to a talk where the speaker described the English language as being a functional, practical language direct to the point. Perhaps he was describing the way it is being used now, but that made something click in my mind.
For example, when describing feelings of love, it seems that English songs tend to very direct – “I wanna hold your hand…”, “I can wait forever…”, “Lonely, I’m mister lonely…” are some examples. Though nice songs all of them, they do not provide anything more than telling the listener “the facts”.
On the other hand, Japanese and Mandarin songs like to use imagery to describe the singer’s feelings. They paint pictures in your mind. These images allow you to know and feel what they singing about. These images are beautiful and that is what seems to be missing in English lyrics.
For example, an excerpt from the song “M” by Princess Princess (Click to Listen):
You are only in my fantasy
肩の向こうに見えた景色さえも So once again
Leavin’for the place without your love
The translation in the bold section goes something like this:
Like stars returning to the forest
Your little nuances spontaneously disappear
Along with the playful person I once was
The lyrics paints a picture of breaking dawn. The singer looks on and sees stars slowly fading into brightening sky above the forest. She realises that she is losing her memory of her loved one. With that a part of her has also started to disappear. You will be hard pressed to find something like that in an English song.
Take another song, this time an Enka by Sakamoto Fuyumi titled “風に立つ” (Kaze Ni Tatsu – Standing Against the Wind) (Click to Listen):
雨風にたたかれて 頭(こうべ)をたれる ときもある
The rough translation goes like this:
There are days when we are blown by the mountain air, when we can puff out our chests.
There are also times where we are beaten by driving rain and hang our heads low.
But as long as we live, in life there are mountains, valleys and winding roads. Therefore, in life, we can only push on.
Again, the lyricist paints a picture and as the music flows, you can almost feel the rain on your face as you struggle up that winding path. This is a beautiful, powerful song of encouragement.
Here is a much loved Chinese song by Ah Mei – “听海” (Listen to the Sea) (Click to Listen):
The rough translation goes something like this:
Listen to the sound of the sea crying
Sighing because someone is heartbroken, and yet doesn’t realize it
That person cannot be me, for at least I am calm
But my tears, even my own tears will not believe me
Listen to the sound of the sea crying
The sea is too emotional weeping till the sun rises
Write me a letter, and let it be our last covenant
Telling me how you felt when you left me
These songs paint pictures and let you see, explore and then allow you decide how it felt to you. They make each song personal to the listener. That is where I think they are special.
Of course, there are English songs that also use lyrics like this – “Vincent”, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” – but somehow the Mandarin and Japanese lyrics paint more evocative pictures in my mind.
Perhaps the languages were influenced by Chinese poems and Japanese haiku. Precisely how, I do not know. All I know is that I am so grateful to be able to understand and appreciate these beautiful songs.