On Loving Music I Can’t Understand

This post originally appeared here on March 28, 2013, as an editorial I wrote for Mind Equals Blown.


This year, May 20th and June 17th have been the biggest dates on my 2013 musical horizon. They’re the release dates for new albums from The National and Sigur Rós, respectively. Those two bands have the ability to evoke some pretty intense emotions from me. And they range from heartbreak (On one particularly gloomy Saturday morning, listening to “Runaway” from The National’s High Violet, caused me to break down into sobs for no particular reason while doing my dishes.) to total euphoria (To hell with the standard wedding march. If I ever get married, I will walk down the aisle to a Sigur Rós song. Nonnegotiable, future husband.). Here’s the big difference though: while The National’s lyrics really resonate with me, I can’t understand a word of a Sigur Rós song, because 99% of their discography isn’t sung in English.

For so many of us, lyrics are one of the things that can cement a band, album, or song as a favorite. It’s the reason you see people with favorite lyrics as tattoos or citing them as life mantras. It’s why we passive aggressively put up certain lyrics as away messages on AIM as teenagers or why we use the #nowplaying hashtag on Twitter. When we find a lyric that speaks to us, it’s like we find a way to express ourselves that has so far escaped us. Likewise, lackluster lyrics – whether they’re mindless, obtuse, uninspiring, offensive, or just plain unintelligent – can be what totally turn us off of certain music.

But if not understanding or identifying with lyrics can be a reason for us disliking music, what happens when foreign bands come into play? Like I mentioned earlier, Sigur Rós’ music is rarely in English. Of their entire discography, English speakers will understand only one song; the rest are either in Icelandic or “hopelandic,” an invented, nonsensical language that has absolutely no meaning whatsoever. As one of my friends once aptly put it, Sigur Rós vocals tend to sound like “whale noises” more than anything else. Three of my other favorite bands are La Vida Bohème (from Venezuela), Kent (from Sweden), and Kaizers Orchestra (from Norway). The only Spanish I know comes from the remnants of a class in junior high, and while my knowledge of German lets me pick up some Norwegian and Swedish, it’s only about one word out of ten. Regardless of that, though, I still don’t hesitate including the three on my list of favorites. I don’t need to understand the lyrics to enjoy the music.

And I find that pretty strange, considering that I’d put quality lyrics as one of the most important aspects of making good music. Another MEB writer reviewed Meir, the second album from Norway-based Kvelertak; she loved the album, and straight up admitted that she couldn’t understand a single word of it, but that the language barrier didn’t get in the way of her enjoyment of it. It’s the same for my love of Sigur Rós and Kaizers Orchestra. But if lyrics are the part of music that really speaks to us, how can we form an emotional connection to something that we can’t understand?

Of course, you can look up translations. For a while, I loved the Kaizers Orchestra song “Faen I Båten” solely for the awesome guitar, but once I learned that the main line translated to “If you took the devil on board, you must row him ashore,” I developed a much deeper appreciation for the song. So we can learn what the words really mean, but even then we’re still depending on someone else’s translation of the lyrics, not our own. When it comes to something like music, when every single word can carry weight, something emotional is bound to be lost from the original. Reading the translated lyrics off some random Internet page is a far cry from hearing, understanding, and interpreting their meanings directly while listening to them.

When it comes to listening to music that we can’t understand at all, maybe that’s the purest way to enjoy. We appreciate it solely for the way it sounds, not for the memories the words dredge up, the connotations they evoke, or the way we can apply them to ourselves. Instead of searching for deep, dark meaning in the words, we bask in them. We let them wash over us. It lets us discover the totally cerebral, chemical, almost hormonal way we react to the sound of music. As someone who, admittedly, can tend to take an academic approach to music (Look…I was an English major. Nerd alert: I like analyzing words and the way they fit together.), simply not understanding – and being okay with it – is an entirely novel and completely relaxing way to listen. Rather than allowing me to connect to the words, music that I can’t understand forces me to find meaning in the sounds and the way they play off each other. Foreign music makes us better listeners. In this case, being out of the loop isn’t so bad after all.

If our enjoyment of music is, at its core, based on the way that sounds play off each other, then I say that hearing music that can’t be understood is possibly the purest listening experience you can get as an audiophile.

Incidentally, La Vida Bohéme released their new album, Sera, last month, and it almost immediately found its way onto the upper echelon’s of my last.fm’s “Recently Played” ranks. I don’t understand a single word of it…but that doesn’t make me any less excited to exuberantly belt it out, horribly mispronounced, mystery-filled Spanish lyrics and all.

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