Rock Around the World

One of the things that is almost taken for granted is that for rock and roll, the language of the lyrics is in English. This is not to say that there aren’t songs written and performed in French, German, Tagalog, Romanian, Spanish, etc., etc., etc.

In India there are 22 different “official” languages and more than a 100 more; Hindi is the number-one official language with English in second place. There are some 1.38 billion people in India, so even if only 24% of them spoke English it would be as many English speakers as there are in the U.S.

There are some 300 languages in China, with the main ones being Mandarin, Wu, Min and Yue. There are 1.4 billion Chinese, so it would probably be comparatively easy, numbers-wise, for a band to go quadruple platinum with a recording in Yue.

There are several theories about the dominance of English when it comes to rock. One of which is that it is fairly well accepted that rock was established in the U.S.

I was in a bar in Dresden, Germany, a few years after the Berlin Wall fell; the entire bar was full of what would be considered in the U.S. kitschy decorations: Elvis, Marilyn, Harley-Davidson, mainly in DayGlo.  It was clear the former Ossis were all-in on what is arguably one of the greatest American exports of all time.

Rock (as well as its predecessor, the Blues) made its way across the Atlantic to the U.K., where it was picked up with what can only be described as unusual zeal (unusual because (1) there is that indigenous British reserve and (2) it was seized by, primarily, an array of art school dropouts and so it is hard to imagine that those guys—and they were, by and large, guys—would be enthusiastic about anything). One could make the argument that the British bands took Rock and made it into something that has a breadth, width, depth and resonance that Elvis, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran and others never imagined.

One of the characteristics that binds the U.S. and the U.K. is that English is the predominant language. Yes, there are millions of people in the U.S. who speak other languages, and although there is no “official” language in the U.S., English is the linga franca.

In the U.K. Welsh, Gaelic and Ulster Scots are also spoken; still, when you think of Badfinger, The Waterboys and Big Country, the occasional fiddle or bagpipe notwithstanding, it is of a song in English. And no Rock band in history have had a bigger impact than that group of Liverpudlians, whose accents remarkably disappears when they sing. (Ringo could be the exception to the rule.)

A theme that has been part of Rock (and Rock adjacent genres) throughout its history is cars. “Hod Rod Lincoln” and “Route 66” from the 1950s; “Hey Little Cobra” and “G.T.O.” in the 1960s; “Jeepster” and “Mercedes Benz” in the 1970s; “On the Road Again” and “Little Red Corvette” in the 1980s; “Life is a Highway” and “Everyday is a Winding Road” in the 1990s; “Leave the Driving” and “Camaro” in the 2000s; “Red Camaro” and “My Ol’ Bronco” in the 2010s; and “Drivers License” in the 2020s.

As the auto industry moves into the age of electric vehicles, there are certainly questions about whether anyone is going to be writing songs about Teslas or whether “Mustang Sally” will be reimagined as “Mustang-E Sally.”

Not only is the auto industry culturally important, but it is economically significant, with a global market size on the order of $3.8-trillion. Auto manufacturers want to make sure that they don’t diminish in size, so part of their efforts to maintain relevance is to tie part of their promotions to music.

There were two recent developments that underscores this.

Consider this press release opening:

BEIJING, Sept. 23, 2022 – Universal Music Group for Brands (UMGB China), the global brand partnerships division of Universal Music Group (UMG), today announced that it has signed an agreement with leading carmaker Shanghai General Motors Buick (Buick) for a first-of-its-kind collaboration that will see the companies launch a new original musical project inspired by the carmaker, titled “Guang Zhi Suo Xiang (Where Light Lives)”. The song has been released globally on Republic Records China. 

The release goes on to say that the auto manufacturer has a “Friend of Buick Brand,” a Chinese musical performer Liu Lingfei (a.k.a., Liam Liu).

Buick in China has a theme song. Realize that this isn’t an appropriation of something that already exists and so there is borrowed interest (e.g., when Cadillac appropriated Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” in 2001). This is a deliberate, calculated approach.

Aaron Wang, Chief Financial Officer and Head of Brand Partnerships for UMG Greater China, is quoted in the release:

“Buick and UMGB China are both dedicated to building a stage for outstanding music performance that can resonate with people. The co-creation of the theme song explores the possibility of harnessing music as a powerful medium to connect with targeted audiences. We are thrilled to help Buick infuse their brand concept through music, and to create culturally relevant and artist-driven content that will resonate with current and future Buick owners in China.”

In some ways this is not unlike Dinah Shore’s twice-weekly singing “See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet,” which was arguably a success because Chevy became the leading sales brand in the 1950s.

Meanwhile in Seoul, Hyundai, which has signed BTS, one of the biggest-selling bands in the world, as one of its “global ambassadors,” has engaged the band to create a Hyundai-specific version of one of its songs, “Yet To Come,” which is now “Yet To Come (Hyundai Ver.),” for the biggest sporting event in the world, the quadrennial World Cup.

The song is described by Hyundai as “a British rock remix version” of the K-Pop band’s original.

Jaehoon Chang, President and CEO of Hyundai Motor Company, said of the undertaking:

“As one of the most influential global artists in the world, BTS and their music greatly influence our society to develop in a positive direction. Through the World Cup campaign with BTS, we hope to create an opportunity for people all over the world to unite towards one goal of sustainability and cheer each other up.”

“All over the world.” Yes, the lyrics are in English.

Video: BTS – “Yet To Come (Hyundai Ver.)”

Via Goal of the Century.

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