Arcade Fire, Super Furry Animals, Jennifer Lopez and the art of codeswitching


Music may be the food of love, but does it matter what language it is delivered in? Getintothis’ Paul Flanagan gets all Google Translate on us.

Arcade Fire‘s bilingual identity is reflected in the codeswitching between French and English in their lyrics. But how pervasive is this in popular music?

In the title track to Arcade Fire’s latest album Reflektor, the Canadian outfit continue a trend which they have made their trademark in the eight years they have graced the spotlight of modern music.

One hundred and five seconds into the eclectic lead single from the band’s fourth LP, Régine Chassange takes over vocal duties from husband Win Butler, singing “entre la nuit et l’aurore (between night and dawn), entre les royaumes des vivants et des morts“. Butler then joins his wife and the lyrics return to the English in which the frontman started the song: “If this is heaven, I don’t know what it’s for“.

This switching between English and French reflekts [sic]the linguistic identity of the band’s native Canada which, since the Official Languages Act of 1969, has recognised the two languages as equal.

The band’s home city of Montreal is the hub of the bilingual community in Canada and was the site of the pioneering bilingual education programmes in the years following the OLA. Indeed, the enigmatic Chassange is the daughter of Haitian immigrants in Canada and the French influence on her upbringing complements Butler’s more Anglophone background in a way which has much in common with the linguistic environment of their home nation.

Each of the band’s four albums to date features elements of this bilingual French-English identity, with Une Année Sans Lumière lighting up 2005’s debut album Funeral.

Dark Waves/Bad Vibrations from 2008’s haunting Neon Bible features the lyric “Run from the memory, je nage, mais les sons me suivent” (the sounds follow me), while the spooky Black Mirror bears the line “un, deux, trois, dis mirror noir!”. On 2011’s career summit The Suburbs, the song Empty Room (an album high point) closes with the line “toute ma vie est avec to i-moi j’attends, toi tu pars” (all my life is with you- I’m waiting, you’re leaving

Arcade Fire are hardly the first band to have used bilingual codeswitching in their songs, but not all artists could be said to employ this particular style as a mark of their identity.

Catatonia’s storming International Velvet (1998) has the famous chorus “every day when I wake up, I thank the Lord I’m Welsh“, which breaks up a song which is otherwise delivered in singer Cerys Matthews’ native tongue.

Super Furry Animals own three impressive records in popular music. They recorded the top 40 hit containing the most obscenities in 1996’s The Man Don’t Give a Fuck, while they also have the accolade of having released the EP with the longest name ever in 1995’s Llanfairpwll… etc. In 2000’s ‘Mwng, they were the first band to have a Top 20 album recorded entirely in Welsh.

Similarly, Jennifer Lopez released Como Ama Una Mujer in 2007, a Spanish-language album which reflected not only her Puerto Rican family background, but also the desire to adopt the sensitive and romantic tone associated with the language.

French electronic outfit Air merged French-delivered verses with the relentlessly catchy Anglophone chorus of their biggest hit to date, 1997’s Sexy Boy.

While these artists have used their native languages to reflect their own cultural identity, the same cannot always be said of acts who have chosen to switch between languages within their songs. The adoption or mixing of another language within songs can help to communicate ideologies and identities desired by the artist.

Just as Jennifer Lopez opted for Spanish as a medium for her more delicate material, Madonna’s 1987 chart-topper La Isla Bonita got the public’s tropical juices flowing, while Geri Halliwell’s commitment to plagiarising the former’s every move led her to release the similar-sounding and equally successful switch-hit Mi Chico Latino in 1999. Were it not for Halliwell’s Spanish mother, it would be much easier to judge!

The Manic Street Preachers are another Welsh band to incorporate different languages in their lyrics. La Tristesse Durera from 1993’s Gold Against the Soul incorporated the French language of the famous comment by Vincent Van Gogh, who told his brother that the sadness would never leave, as he lay dying from a self-administered bullet.

Similarly, their adoption of German military terms on Revol, the shouty post-punk single from the following year’s career high The Holy Bible, fitted in with the military imagery and vicious polemic which so characterised the last days of the band’s time with estranged guitarist and lyricist Richey Edwards.

Backin 1961, Elvis Presley had a UK number 1 hit with Wooden Heart, a song based on a Bavarian folk song which switches between English and the German dialect of Swabian, a prestige variety spoken in Stuttgart, among other places. It was thought that the partial retention of the original language would give the track a kind of folk authenticity which would make it attractive to the listening public.

More recently, Muse embraced the renaissance vibe by singing big chunks of a song in French on 2009’s somewhat overblown space-rock epic The Resistance.

Franz Ferdinand have embraced their Germanic name by switching in their songs, never more memorably then the outro to 2003 debut single Darts of Pleasure, in which Alex Kapranos delivers the sublimely ridiculous lyrics “ich heisse Super-Fantastisch, ich trinke Schampus mit Lachsfisch“. Yes, that’s “my name is Super-Fantastic, I drink champagne with salmon“. It makes more sense than a lot of their English lyrics…

What are your favourite switch-hits?

Further reading on Getintothis:

  • The music battle for our soul – are you in or out of the box?