The Day Room is a column by Philip Cosores featuring stories from the music industry that shine a light and brighten the corners.
To say that the US has traditionally had an icy relationship with non-English music would be putting things nicely. Since the inception of the Billboard charts, six predominantly non-English songs have gone to No. 1, the last being “Macarena” for an incredible 14 weeks. Sure, there have been other success stories, recently Psy’s “Gangham Style” (which went to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. and No. 1 almost everywhere else in the world) and Andrea Bocelli’s “Con te partirò” (which really took off in America when released as a bilingual duet with Andrew Lloyd Weber alumni Sarah Brightman). There have also been a number of successful artists who have crossed over into English from other languages, like Shakira and Ricky Martin. Pitbull’s newest music video, “Como Yo Le Doy”, blends English and Spanish together in the same song, something that will appeal to certain parts of America where English and Spanish commingle just as seamlessly. How this Pitbull song, or his current tour with Enrique Inglesias, plays outside of major cities is less certain. Still, others have maintained their native tongue while finding success as touring outfits and earning acclaim from the music press, like Cafe Tacvba and Caetano Veloso.
These are notable exceptions, and there have even been entire genre movements, like K-pop and Ranchera, whose marketplace reality doesn’t translate as much as we would like in the pop world. But Yelle isn’t part of a movement. They don’t have a gimmick or a novelty single. The duo of Julie Budet and Jean-François Perrier make earnest, straightforward, artistic dance pop. In French. And with it, they’ve found modest success.
“I think people also recognize Yelle because we sing in French,” Perrier says during a long phone call with the pair. “It’s kind of an identity. I know radio stations would like us to have something in English to be easier to be on big radio, but it’s something we could not do easily right now. Someday, maybe we’ll be able to write some good stuff in English. But, it’s also about the quality of writing. We don’t want to write just lyrics about, like, getting your body on the dance floor tonight. The idea is to have something of high-quality in the ideas. The ideas that we write in French now, we can’t really write in English.”
And so, they don’t. And who could blame them? Yelle are songwriters, expressing themselves in their native tongue, and any expectation for the duo to change their language just to broaden their appeal is ridiculous. Still, it doesn’t take much looking around to start wondering if breaking through in a significant manner demands it. According to Yelle, that is not even a consideration at this point.
“It’s really important to us to express ourselves in French,” Budet says, “like, to play with words in French. So it’s kind of complicated for us to think about doing things in English.”
Finding meaning in Yelle songs demands a certain amount of work for the non-French-speaking American masses, something, though unlikely in concept, the band has seen happen.
“I think people that really love Yelle actually go ahead and Google the lyrics and try to figure out what we’re saying,” Perrier says. “It can be fun. It’s like a game trying to figure out what we’re saying. You can get a little more into it when you have to work to figure out what we’re saying. For example, a few weeks ago we were playing Los Angeles and we saw a group of girls singing along, but they were just singing along to the sounds. It is really cool because it reminded us of being teenagers and listening to English songs (and even now sometimes), and we’d be singing, ‘Blah blah blah.’ It’s a spontaneous reaction and just about a vibe or a feeling. Which is cool because the song can be about something totally different than what it sounds like she’s singing.”
As Perrier points out, songs in English are heavily listened to in France and most Western countries. Because of the size of European countries, it is easy to assume that music in other languages would also be big in France, since other languages are heard so much more frequently. But this is not the case.
“In France, people listen to French music and English music mainly,” Perrier says. “We don’t really listen to Spanish or Italian. We never listen to German music because everyone thinks German is a really ugly language. It doesn’t sound good at all. If something is a big hit, it can be in another language, like with Psy, which is in Korean. The difference is, English speaking countries like the US, England, Australia, New Zealand, all those English lyrics are really the main thing we can hear on the radio. It’s maybe 30% French and 70% English.”
Still, even the fact that two languages find success in the French music world is much different than America, as is the fact that it is at least possible for music in another language to get some mainstream attention. Still, Yelle can attract a thousand people to their shows in Los Angeles and New York and play decent-sized clubs in middle America. With their new album,Complètement fou, it is easy to imagine this base growing further. But how?
One big move on Yelle’s new album has been songwriting sessions with pop guru Dr. Luke, whose co-writing credits include “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson, “I Kissed a Girl” and “Hot and Cold” by Katy Perry, and tons more by the likes of Pink, Avril Lavigne, Ke$ha, Flo Rida, and pretty much everyone else you could think of. But, collaborating with Dr. Luke wasn’t set up in an attempt to, to borrow the phrase Yelle repeatedly used, “break the market.” The partnership was much more organic.
“The goal with us is not to make Yelle like Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry,” Perrier says. “The goal with working with Dr. Luke was to learn a lot. But, we still sing in French. It’s something that will probably hold us back from breaking the market like other artists that work with him. The cool thing about working with him is it wasn’t a marketing plan. It was about the music.
“Dr. Luke first heard us because of a remix we did for Katy Perry of “Hot and Cold” that she asked us to do a couple of years ago. We didn’t know about that, but then he came to see a show that we did at the Fonda Theater in Los Angeles, and he loved the show, but we didn’t know about that either. We didn’t really know who he was and hadn’t met him. Like a year later, we found out that Luke loved our music, so we met through Skype and then decided to come to LA and do some writing sessions. We went three times for those sessions.
“The cool thing is it is really about the music. It was like being a teenager in a bedroom, just making music together. There was no pressure to sing in English because now we are working with Dr. Luke or to break the market because you have to break the market when you work with Dr. Luke. It was really healthy. We already tour a lot, and and we already do what we want, and we already enjoy our lives, so it wasn’t an aspect of being frustrated and trying to get ahead. It’s a good progression. We learned a lot, and I think he learned too, because we don’t have the same vision of songwriting.”
“It was an exchange of ideas,” Budet adds.
Even though most successful pop is in English, it isn’t often praised for its lyrical content, but for the energy, the experience, the universal appeal of the hooks, the ability to sound fresh and current and strike a chord with the reality of right here and right now. Yelle can manage this without dumbing down their lyrics to suit their discomfort in English. Being an American pop star doesn’t require poetry from the lyrics, but it does need an ease and appeal in the language, at least typically. To find that type of appeal when all the meaning has to be gleaned from sources other than lyrics is a tough road but not impossible.
“I think the way we’ve been introduced to live shows has helped us,” Perrier says. “We did a few shows in New York initially, and then were chosen by Coachella to play. And then just playing more and more, and now twice we’ve played Coachella, which has been a very good window for us. I think people have been sharing the good times they have during the shows. Julie is really high energy and keeps the energy up at shows. People feel this, and they want to share it with their friends, like, ‘Oh, I saw Yelle live, and it was so cool.’ We have so many examples of people across the country telling us that their first exposure to the band was at Coachella. People talk, and when they feel something strongly, they share it. There is no limit of language in this. It is just about energy. It’s a human thing.”