My dad, who speaks German, Russian, French and English, in addition to his native Chinese, once told me that English is the ugliest language. By that he means English sounds bad when it is sung. When I heard this, I immediately jumped to English’s defense. What about Thomas Tallis or John Dowland? I argued.
What about Bob Dylan? My dad rebutted.
As times goes on, I begin to see his point. There have been a lot of cacophonous songs in English and even more songs whose meter just can’t work with the language. Take for instance, Lady Gaga’s “Telephone.” The chorus “I’m kinda busy, K-kinda busy” is way too forced.
Turning bus-y into two stressed syllables and adding an extra “k” sound in front of “kinda” are not creative ways to work around natural acoustic of these words. They just sound weird, like those 19th century Victorian hymns sprinkled with apostrophes. (Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” also suffers from certain words not fitting into the lyrics’ natural meter.)
So what songs in English exemplify the highest standards of metrical beauty? Three come to mind:
1. Jesus Christ of the Apple Tree (Choir of King’s College, Cambridge)
The lyrics are so simple and metrical only an 18th century New Englander could have written them! Without many multisyllabic words, the song is neatly contained in an iambic tetrameter. Throw in a bit of choral embellishments and perfecto! It’s no Verdi’s Requiem, but nobody’s expecting masses to be written in English, right?
2. Sound of Silence (Simon & Garfunkel)
Simon & Garfunkel took risks with stresses in the song. But it works because the sounds mirror the tension within the music. While “Sound of Silence” may not be conversational, it sounds harmonious and well-crafted. To put things into perspective: Just a few years before this composition, Paul Simon wrote badly metered “Wednesday Morning, 3 AM.”
3. “Wavin’ Flag” (K’naan)
OK, K’naan’s English isn’t exactly John Donne’s. His obsession with precise rhymes may sound childish. But most of the time, rather than reflecting immaturity, his rhythm and rhyme present a degree of honesty that goes hand-in-hand with his post-colonial lyrics. In “Wavin’ Flag,” the chorus pulses with a uplifting beat worthy of being a FIFA anthem.
Now, I don’t think English is the prettiest language out there, but it’s got great potentials for all sorts of experimental fun.