by Thien Thach-Trung Hieu
Two-thirds of candidates in the latest round of Vietnamese Voice, a televised singing competition, chose to sing English songs.
Does this indicate that Vietnamese people feel compelled to sing in English and listen to English songs?
"Candidates this time gave us many surprises. But ultimately we wanted to choose those we thought could be successful on a global level," said judge Ho Ngoc Ha, a popular singer.
Even though most Vietnamese don't understand English, they enjoy the music for the same reason that it is popular around the world – because it sounds good.
Singer Ha Tran, who lives in the US, asked on Facebook: "Most of the songs on Vietnamese Voice are in English. Is Vietnamese music boring, or do people just want to be more internationally integrated?"
This question resulted in a lot of interesting responses.
For example: "Now that Vietnamese music is not Vietnamese anymore, we have started listening to Western music. I haven't listened to Vietnamese music for a few years now."
Another protested: "It sounds funny, like if candidates on The Voice of UK sang songs in French. If a Vietnamese person tries to imitate an English native singer, he/she is commended, even though audiences can find real native singers on YouTube who are much better!"
There are stories about Vietnamese singers who travelled to the US to sing in English, only to encounter audience displeasure: "If I wanted to listen to music in English, I would have bought a ticket to listen to a native speaker, not a Vietnamese singer!"
Moreover, the difference between singing on an entertainment programme and performing on a professional stage is huge.
In a competition, where the organisers buy copyrights for foreign songs, contestants can feel free to try their hand at Western music. But how many of them will be good enough to build a career singing in English?
Singer Ha Tran has never dared to sing English songs, even though she has lived in the US for eight years: "When I was in Viet Nam, I dared to record my songs in English, but now I feel ashamed when I listen to them. I wish I could take back all those discs and burn them."
Composer Duc Tri says he sees no problem with singing in a foreign language - be it English, French, Chinese or Korean.
"We all know that music has no lingustic boundaries. A song can strike a chord in someone's heart even when it is sung in another language. For hundreds of years, people who don't know Italian have enjoyed Italian operas.
"However, in Viet Nam, more and more young people sing songs in English in the contests because it is trendy, not because it is the best thing for the music. "Everything should always have a balance. Organisers should balance out popular, lighthearted songs with those that have a deeper meaning."
Referring to her song choices, Dinh Huong, 24, from Quang Tri, who sang Warwick Avenue and was selected by all the four judges, says:
"I think music has a noble mission: to link all cultures together. Music itself is a common language.
"However, I love soul, blues and R&B and I want to pursue these musical styles, which typify the music of black Americans. Regrettably, Vietnamese songs can't reflect the breadth of these genres."
English language music penetrated the Vietnamese cultural mindset decades ago. The majority of Vietnamese are probably familiar with the music of ABBA, Boney M., Michael Jackson and Michael Learns To Rock. These songs are popular and meaningful, so why can't contestants sing in English to express their love for those singers? As a music lover, I think it's obvious why contestants choose English songs.
"Look at music in Viet Nam today. Pop music has only a few good songs, while the rest are too commercial," says Nguyen Thu Huong, a music fan.
"I don't like the fact that many youths choose to sing in English even though they have really poor pronunciation. How about some Westerners sing Vietnamese songs? Let them try not only to pronounce the words almost perfectly but also show they understand the meaning so we can see that they respect not only music but also Vietnamese culture," she says.
Unfortunately most of the contestants on the stage of Vietnamese Voice sing in English even when they lack a basic level of English proficiency.
"Not every Vietnamese person understands English. I think such contests should showcase Vietnamese songs instead. Viet Nam doesn't lack interesting and meaningful songs," says music lover Do Thanh Huong.
Another music lover, Nguyen Thanh Tam, says she agrees that contestants don't sing in English correctly and she's not sure if they would become successful in the world singing in English.
"But I am happy that young people have an opportunity to escape the confinement of the singing contests in Vietnamese. Vietnamese songs are not attractive enough to young people. So, when they sing English songs they feel happier and have a chance to express themselves.
"Moreover, they are bored with Vietnamese singing competitions in which judges are conservatory professors who only focus on technical errors and don't care about the emotional resonance of the music. For many years Vietnamese song contests selected technically proficient vocalists, but audiences aren't interested in those singers," she says.
I think singing in English is not a bad thing. My issue is with the quality of the contestants' repertoires. I personally think that they are not very well chosen.
Some candidates don't pronounce the English words correctly. After listening to them, I can't understand why the judges praise them so much – even comparing them to well-known foreign singers!
Recently, I recognised that some Vietnamese singers are hard for listeners to understand. Even when they sing in their mother tongue, programme producers have to add sub-titles onto their music videos.
As an audience member, I don't care what language is used – I just want the words to be precisely pronounced.
This is especially true for English songs, because English is not these singers' native language.
Lyrics are an integral part of a song. Audiences should feel annoyed if the singers mispronounce the words.
So to meet even normal audience expectations – I'm not even talking about global stardom – the singer must be fluent in the language he/she uses to sing in. — VNS