November 7, 2022

No Escape from Ameriphilia

People who really love one country even though they live in another are nothing new. The Western world has seen bouts of Francophilia and Anglophilia, corresponding with the rise in power of France and England respectively. The popularity of anime and manga around the world have led to a particular form of Japanophilia, whose adherents are derisively called "weeaboos." But despite the power of the United States, we rarely hear anyone talk about 'Americanophilia'. There is no cutesy name for it. Wanting to be American is basically in the water.

The lack of a name hasn't stopped people from commenting on it. The following song, 'Tu vuo fa l'Americano' (You want to play at being American) by Renato Carosone, lightheartedly mocks a Napolitan man who wants to drink whisky and soda, play baseball, and wear jeans with logos on the back pocket. Renato believes it all in vain - "Ma si' nato in Italy!" (but you were born in Italy!). The song is sung in the Napolitan dialect of Italian, making the local pride more evident.

There's just one problem with this rejection of American values - the song itself is written in the genre of jazz, a distinctly American style.

Apparently writing and performing your music in an American genre is fine, but American fashion and drinking habits are a step too far!

Another Italian performer who cribbed from American influences was Adriano Celentano, famous in linguistics circles for writing 'Prisencolinensinainciusol'. This long-titled proto-rap is performed entirely in nonsense lyrics intended to sound like American English. While it's usually presented as a novelty comedy song, Celentano has always emphasized that the song is about the difficulty of communication. This is made clear in the (Italian-langauge) opening to the performance of the song on TV:

There's been a rumor circulating that this song was made to make fun of the way Italians would listen to anything in American English. This is currently the top-voted comment on the most popular upload of the song on YouTube:

DrLimp (2021): At the time english songs were getting great popularity in Italy, Italian singer Adriano Celentano wanted to prove that italians would love everything that sounded remotely english, so he wrote this, proving his point since it was very successful. The reason why it sounds so good even if it's gibberish is because Celantano studied phonetics theory to compose this.

...But in an interview with NPR, Celentano celebrates the American connection:

Ever since I started singing, I was very influenced by American music and everything Americans did. So at a certain point, since I like American slang - which, for a singer, is much easier to sing than to sing in Italian - I thought that I would write a song which would only have as its theme the inability to communicate. And to do this, I had to write a song where the lyrics didn't mean anything.

Side note: it is absolutely hilarious that he believes American 'slang' (referring to Black American English? this blogger also thinks so) is easier to sing than Italian, as Italian was traditionally considered to be the best language to sing in by English speakers. This being due to the prominence of Italian opera. It appears that the language of whichever is the most culturally powerful country is always, somehow, the easiest to sing in.

Nevertheless, the fact that the song became popular enough to hit the top 10 in Italy and some other European countries shows that audiences were probably more receptive to the general sound of American English and the hypnotic beat than to the message of the difficulty of communication. Italian TV-watching audiences might have been aware that the song was about communication, since the school-themed show above was what propelled the song to popularity (per NPR), but I doubt record-buyers would know or care.

What makes 'Prisencolinensinainciusol' sound American? There are many closed syllables: 'eyes', 'red'. There's the use of the retroflex approximant. The consonant and vowel inventory sounds about right. And the prosody is uncanny - I'm reminded of a combo of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. The use of a funk background - another Black American genre - also provides the context. Would we still think it sounded 'English'-like if we didn't have the context to prompt us? Someone run the song through one of those AI background-removers and then place the vocal track on top of something entirely non-American-sounding and we'll see.

Let's return back to Carosone and his jazzy plead to stop wearing hats tilted on side. Why can't we call the young man an Ameriphile, or an Americophile, or an Americanophile? (Yes, I've looked them all up, and it appears there's no standard.) I'd venture to say it's because American pop culture is so dominant worldwide (one could even call it hegemony) that one can't even point it out. Everyone has their limit as to what's too much American culture - Celentano seems to have no problem producing pseudo-American sounds, while Carosone will accept the music, but not the hobbies. I wonder what Carosone would say if asked why he decided to record this riposte in jazz. As a performer of traditional Napolitan music, as well as someone who has stepped into various diverse genres, he may have chosen jazz to show his flexibility as well as add an extra jab at the American-obsessed fellow. But hearing a jazzy song chide someone for Ameriphilia doesn't sound like an ironic twist. It doesn't even sound like much at all, so accustomed are we to American genres.

If we might grant that Carosone may have intended a bit of irony or hypocrisy in choosing a jazz setting for the song, then the following cover of the song, 'Ty hochesh' byt' Amerikantsem' by Zhanna Friske, lacks any of this tension. This song comes from a New Year's Eve performance on television, New Year's being an important holiday in Russia. Many television programs will have performers come on and do covers and skits. This one centers on a man who rudely walks into an establishment and demands an 'Americano' coffee, at which point the waitress, Friske, asks him if he really wants an 'Americano'. This song is less about Ameriphilia replacing native culture and more about the false idea that the United States is a land of plenty, where sociopaths can become rich and step on their enemies (unlike Russia, of course). She instead portends that he'll end up fat, overworked, and disappointed at how ugly American women are. The man recants and chooses to drink tea instead.

Meanwhile, the music is still stubbornly American. The genre remains jazz, but more of a Broadway take on jazz. She's dressed less like a waitress and more like a Bohemian showgirl. Her moves and backup dancers are obviously inspired by 40s-era Broadway shows. Once again, we have the curiosity of using American pop-cultural forms to decry American values. And if Carosone still has credibility as someone who made his career in traditional music, Zhanna has none of that as a pop star dabbling in various types of synth-pop. She's even embraced cosmopolitanism in her song 'Zhanna Friske' where she brags that the man of her desire will be "leaving in English with Zhanna Friske."

Both attempts at criticizing Ameriphilia remain boxed in due to their small scope. If we take Zhanna's version seriously, then it's fine to enjoy American-style cultural artifacts so long as you do them within Russia and you don't get it in your head that the United States is in any way a better country than Russia. If we take Carosone's version seriously, then the problem is being too obvious and naked in your Ameriphilia - if you're going to enjoy American stuff, at least be prudent about it and don't do it all at once. Friske's version is more political where Carosone's is cultural, but both cede that mass media must take place, if not in the language of American English, then in the genre of American music.

Am I reading too much into two lighthearted comedy songs? Yes, absolutely. But it's been on my mind for a while, this contradiction between a song making fun of Ameriphilia being, at the same time, in an American musical genre. It's like making a j-pop song about how silly being a weeaboo is. Only, not even then, because Japanese pop culture has nowhere near the reach that American pop culture has, that has allowed American pop culture to institute itself as a naturalized standard. It'd be more like if we lived in an alternate universe where 'weeaboo' wasn't a word, everyone listened to j-pop, but wearing kimono on the street was seen as gauche and taking it too far.

October 28, 2022

"Yeah this is a blog post about light novel title lengths, so what?"

If you're into anime (Japanese animation) or light novels (Japanese young adult novels), you may have noticed that in recent years, titles have gotten a little... long. And not just long, but distinctly sentence-like. You'll have titles like "So I'm a Spider, So What?", "I've Been Killing Slimes for 300 Years and Maxed Out My Level" and "Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?" Compare this to previous titles like "Bakemonogatari" (a pun on 'bakemono', monster, and 'monogatari', stories).

YouTuber RedBard has already made a video covering when this change happened, which I recommend watching:

This looks at the change of length in English language translations. I also recommend this accompanying piece at Otaquest, which looks at the change in Japanese, and this genre-based analysis by jgeekstudies.

Both Red Bard and jgeekstudies seem to agree that light novel title lengths began increasing dramatically in 2014. The jgeekstudies paper mentions that the long titles are most common in the fantasy and isekai genres. 'Isekai' is a genre based around a person who is transported to another world and has to live there now. "Sword Art Online" is an example of a popular isekai work. The three titles I mentioned in the open paragraph are also either fantasy or isekai.

Red Bard speculates that light novels have become so long as a way to give a very neat plot summary and hook readers in right away. Light novels are displayed with the spine outwards, so having an attention-grabbing title can cause a potential reader to check out the book and its actual summary in a way a one-word title might not.

I'm not a big consumer of isekai anime, so I don't have a representative sample, but I have watched "I've Been Killing Slimes for 300 Years and Maxed Out My Level" and I don't know if I'd really call the title a good summary of the story. The plot begins with a young woman who dies of overwork, and is reincarnated as an immortal into a video game fantasy world by a goddess who takes pity on her. She decides to live a carefree, slow life and only kills a handful of slimes each day. After 300 years, she has, indeed, 'maxed out her level' by killing slimes.

However, this barely has any relation to the real story, which involves her becoming an adoptive mom for two slime spirits, building a chosen family, and generally getting into hijinks. Her having maxed out her level is more an excuse for her to be overpowered; her killing slimes for 300 years is related to the overall theme of avoiding overwork and choosing a slow life (raising her level slowly instead of grinding out powerful enemies every day). I would consider the title more of a hook of the absurb elements of the show than something that really has much to do with the rest of the plot.

Indeed, I think it's worth pointing out that these sentences are all humorous, or at least a little absurd. "So I'm a Spider, So what?" could have been called "I got reincarnated as a spider" - already a silly premise - but goes the extra length of being defensive about being reincarnated as a title. "Is it wrong to try to pick up girls in a dungeon" takes a funny concept and also makes the asker sound defensive or curious.

It's funny to consider that light novel titles are becoming full sentences compared to English language pop songs, which have gone the opposite direction from favoring sentences or titles to single words or phrases (previous posts here and here). I mention in a previous article that having a song title be a sentence picked out from a song's chorus was a good way to make your song memorable, which was important in a time before Shazam and internet on cell phones to look up song lyrics. Today, it's relatively easy to find out what a song's title is, so there's little risk to naming it something short and sweet from the beginning or end of the chorus.

It's just another part of enregistration, where something becomes popular due to some reason (an early innovator who struck gold with a highly recognizable example, random chance causing a cluster), is copied by people, and ultimately becomes a genre marker. If I see an anime titled something like "Yeah, it's true - my little sister got reincarnated as a yogurt after beating a video game", there's a pretty good chance it's going to be some kind of isekai or fantasy adapted from a light novel. The fact that it's so easily parody-able, as I just showed, also makes it very easy to produce - find something absurd in the premise of your book, add some kind of emotional coloring to it with a discourse marker, and you have a title that can intrigue readers and make them laugh while not challenging them stylistically. Profit!

Will light novel titles continue being sentences? Probably for a while, until people get tired of it and are ready for something new. Titles of things tend to fluctuate over time, and trends come and go, just like one-word titles for songs. Nevertheless, it's fascinating to see just how fast the convention of "light novel titles as sentences" got adopted and enregistered.

September 29, 2022

A Research Question

I'm not going to be able to get the article I wanted out before the end of the month (work, school, and volunteering will do that to you), buuut I wanted you all to know that there are articles in the pipeline. Classic rock has been on my mind for a while now, being the genre that sort of sparked my interest in the question "why and how can singers sing in an entirely different accent than their speaking one?" We more or less seem to have the answer, which is that singers copy linguistic features of other singers that they think are part of the genre. But I'd really like to elaborate on this:

  • How conscious are singers of these changes they're making?
  • Not everyone is good at copying accents, so how does natural talent play into which features get copied and which don't?
  • How do these features spread? i.e. which singers and records are 'vectors of transmission'?
  • When doing covers, most singers don't copy the accent of the original singer. What triggers the sense that "this song wouldn't be right without the accent"?
  • Once a singing-linguistic style becomes the norm in a genre, what has to happen for that norm to be challenged and change?

The sketch I have so far is something like this: at some point, a certain group of people with a consistent linguistic feature produces music. They use their own native variety because they're making music for themselves. This music is then carried across some kind of linguistic border and is introduced to an audience that is not familiar with the music.

The uniformity of the music and the language are noted by the new audience. Many of them find it so inspiring (bestowing status on the musicians) that they choose to make their own version. Some will try to make it speaking their own native variety, and some will try to imitate the accents. Depending on factors (how high status are the foreign musicians? is there a very strong sense of local pride?), the localized version or the foreign version may win out. If the foreign version wins out, it may then spread to across a different border, increasing the hegemonic sense that music produced in this genre must have that accent. Repeat.

I have some examples from non-music genres where something similar happens (the association between genre and variety is so strong that it even crosses the language boundary), but that will be for a different article, one probably much farther ahead in the future. There's a lot to potentially discuss (effects of recording media versus live performance, American hegemony, purposeful pushing back, variety spread as a type of cultural/soft power, questions of appropriation) and it's going to take a lot more work. But I wanted to get the question and my attempt at answering the question out.

Next semester I hope not to take any classes, which should give me a little more time to finish up the articles I do have. Pray no extra strange things happen.

- Karen