One of the most common (and useful) piece of advice we get when we are learning a foreign language is to listen to music in that particular language, in order to learn new words, new expressions, but also to get to know the culture beyond old stereotypes. So I thought about people learning Italian, a language whose culture is crowded with stereotypes, and I wondered what kind of Italian music is famous abroad.
I asked my foreign friends to tell me the first Italian song that comes to their mind, and here’s what I got: “Ah, Italia…Volaaaree….ooo”, or O’ sole mio, or a random cheesy song by Laura Pausini or Tiziano Ferro (and there I ended the conversation because it made me want to kill myself). People with great taste said they knew Fabrizio de André and Lucio Dalla. The most sophisticated ones mentioned Paolo Conte and Gianmaria Testa. Surprisingly, someone sang Bella ciao: apparently, many people know this song, even outside Italy, especially in politically committed groups.
(On the left: Domenico Modugno, the author of the song Nel Blu dipinto di blu, aka Volare; on the right: Vasco Brondi, aka the man behind Le luci della Centrale Elettrica.)
However, nobody seems to know new Italian music. Why? Why are we still identified with the old bel canto stereotype? We have plenty of new bands and artists! Why not showing foreigners some new stuff, so they can use new Italian music to learn Italian?
The most popular stuff now appears to be the so-called new Italian songwriters wave: Brunori, I Cani, Calcutta, Dente, Le luci della Centrale Elettrica. Let’s take the last one as an example: the mind behind this project, started in 2007, is Vasco Brondi, a songwriter whose fame is mostly due to the interesting lyrics he writes (keep reading, you’ll understand why). His lyrics can in fact be a rich source of vocabulary, as they are full of idioms, technical terms, cultural references… a goldmine for anyone who studies the Italian language!
Here’s an example from the song Per respingerti in mare (if you don’t speak Italian, just copy and paste the lyrics into Google Translate to get the zest of it. Don’t worry: It works, if you keep reading you’ll understand why):
E il motore eterno del nostro furgone
Le ombre rosse, il tono della tua voce
Che era per rischiarare sulle puttane in viale Europa
Ricominciava a nevicare su questo schifo di amore
Era per respingerti in mare
Here’s another one (from Produzione seriale di cieli stellati):
E ridere a dirotto, distributori di sigarette fosforescenti, sulle sedie elettriche le lacrime per inquinare, le piccole e medie imprese appalti e subappalti, sulle tue lune storte i cadaveri degli astronauti e i cani avvelenati produzioni seriali di cieli stellati.
Or here’s an example of the same kind of lyrics, Aurora, a song from the new album by I Cani:
Tuffati nei cavi dell’Atlantico Veloce come luce Poi lanciati nel vuoto Abbraccia il tuo satellite per un istante solo Nel cielo tra le stelle ma poi scendi per raggiungerla
Too bad these lyrics, which look so poetic and enigmatic, do not mean anything at all. As you’ve probably realized already, they look more like random words put together: over time, jokes about Vasco Brondi’s and I Cani’s lyrics became so popular that people (Vasco Brondi’s haters mostly) even created several automatic lyrics generators to mock their repetitive, obscure, pseudo-intellectual writing style. If you understand Italian please have a look at the links below, they are hilarious!
Anyway, their lyrics are still a great source of vocabulary for someone who studies Italian, once he/she recovers from the initial (understandable) bewilderment. Moreover, the new Italian songwriters wave lyrics would be an amazing subject for a linguist: perhaps it is the only case in which the automatic translation made by Google would make as much sense (if not more sense) as the original text.
As a conclusion, I don’t know the answer to my initial question (on why foreigners only know old or cheesy Italian music). What I know, though, is that if I had to be represented by an Italian stereotype in music, and I had to choose between Domenico Modugno (the author of Volare) and Vasco Brondi, I would still choose Modugno. And I guess you’d choose Modugno, too.