“Act Cool” is a rap song co-written and performed by Wonder Girls member Lim. I am not usually a hip-hop fan, so the first several times I heard the song (particularly its repetitive intro with that particular slurry synth I hate), I was pretty uninterested, often to the point of skipping it. One line in particular jumped out to me each time I listened through, though:
~~~~~~~~~ I can rap in English.
~~~~~~~~~ Speaking foreign language.
And each time it made me cringe a bit. It’s a pet peeve of mine when, say, Japanese speakers in Japan, use a loanword for something that has a perfectly good native word: ストロベリー (“sutoroberii”) instead of 苺 (“ichigo”), for example. The general use of English to be cool is a bit more acceptable, I guess (at least a third of “Act Cool” is in English), but still feels a bit funny to me.1
“I can rap in English” seems…random, I guess, and it didn’t help to have the slightly-ungrammatical “speaking foreign language” in the next line.
As most of you probably know, though, I’ve been taking Korean recently, and while I’m not at all close to fluent, I’m starting to pick up on various words and even entire phrases in the K-pop I’m listening to. In particular, the first set of “~~~” in those lyrics is actually this:
한국말로 랩하고 (“hangukmal-lo raeb-hago”)
…which means “I rap in Korean, and…”.
So then I went to a lyrics site to confirm what I thought I heard, and learned that the second set of “~~~” (which is distorted in the song) is actually:
我会唱中文绕车 (“wǒ huì chàng Zhōngwen ráoshé”)
…which means “I can sing Chinese rap”, and which I had technically been able to understand all along.
So, put it all together, and those lines are actually saying:
I rap in Korean, and I can rap in English.
I can sing Chinese rap, speaking foreign language.
…and while the last line might still be a bit ungrammatical2, it all makes sense now. Lim really is multilingual—not just putting on airs for the song—and the Wonder Girls have released several songs in Mandarin and in English. It’s something a lot of K-pop groups have tried as they gain popularity outside South Korea, but the Wonder Girls actually manage to do a pretty good job.3
What started out as a minor annoyance turned into a reminder of how much K-pop groups go through. From what I understand, the talent agencies in Korea snatch potential pop stars up very early and hold on to them very tightly. They put them through whatever it takes to keep them popular; having all bandmates learn a new language is probably fairly mild. And Lim is younger than I am.
I guess there’s a lesson in here about offhand judgments, but being a rap, “Act Cool” already got to that:
I sing, I dance, talking 쉿 about me?
It ain’t cool…shut up and dance, boy!
Been busy lately; not sure what the blog schedule’s gonna look like in the next few weeks, but I’m probably going to do something like last year’s Poem-a-Day challenge for September.
The general use of English to be cool backfires for me when the accent makes it feel like the artist is just repeating sounds, not words. As someone who knows plenty of people who learned English as a second language, I know that’s ridiculous, but the bias remains. (Listen to the guest rapper on Lee Hyori’s “U-Go-Girl”.) ↩︎
I’ve seen lyric sites transcribe this as “speaking foreign languages” or even “speaking four languages” – according to Wikipedia, Lim speaks Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. Personally, my brain has decided “language” is a mass noun here and it no longer bothers me. ↩︎
For all that I don’t much like Girls’ Generation (a.k.a SNSD), they have perhaps the best translated songs I’ve seen. The Japanese version of “Genie” preserves the feeling, the prosody, and even particular rhymes from the original song. ↩︎