One of the things I get a huge kick out of during my travels is catching live music and street performances. In my chosen travel destinations, these opportunities are typically abundant and cost nothing but a tip. Oftentimes, it's seeing some kick-ass local musical groups doing traditional or contemporary cultural stuff. Just as much, though, it's hearing famous English-written pop music covered / adapted by street musicians, cover bands in local dives and even children's recreational performances.
Hearing something recognizable out of a sea of foreign sounds can be of huge comfort to a traveler. If you've been abroad for a while, don't be surprised if you come across a song that you used to hate back home or as a kid -- but instead of the habitual groan, your reaction is to start snapping your fingers and humming along (that's the power of the familiar).
There's a cultural experience in this too because you are watching something from your culture being re-interpreted in completely new incarnations -- ones that reflect local traditions, sounds and meanings. Be it performed by a mariachi band in Acapulco, an electric violinist in Vienna or on a Jamaican steel drum in the New York City subway, that melody you know so well evolves endemically (like the reptiles of the Galapagos Islands) in a brand new way, as a reflection of the surrounding environment.
So, just for fun -- as a personal observation that is in not meant to be exhaustive -- I present to you: the six English-language rock / pop songs you're likely to hear (a lot) when you travel abroad.
1. "Imagine" by John Lennon
This song's popularity spans generations by now and isn't going anywhere as far as I can tell. Chances are, you've heard a couple of versions of it yourself, piping in from the street here and there, right?
Imagine is probably the magnum opus Lennon's remembered for the most in his solo career. What's funny to me is that rather conservative people, English speakers among them, tend to join in with the sing-along without paying much attention to the blatantly "socialist" picture being painted by the lyrics.
But, as I insist in the Hack Solo Travel guidebook, solid linguistic comprehension is often beside the point when it comes to social enjoyment and human bonding. When we lack in words, music steps in as a universal language -- and that can be enough. And it appears that John Lennon's Imagine summons a shared sense of unity and hopefulness for a whole lot of people around the world (if only for a couple of minutes at a time...)
2. "Sweet Child O'Mine" by Guns N' Roses
I could be biased -- as I'm a huge Guns N' Roses fan and go around belting out their Don't Cry anytime I get a guitar in my hands -- but I believe that you simply cannot have a list of world-influential music without a G N' R mention. They have staying power and international appeal like few other hair bands of the late eighties / early nineties: their sound and look are simply iconic by now.
There is something ridiculously "pure" about Sweet Child O'Mine, don't you think? Something that transcends language and culture. You may recall that this song was just a B-side away from the much less sentimental I Used to Love Her [But I Had to Kill Her] composition by the same band around the same time. But we're all suckers for a ballad that paints love as a cozy, safe, innocent childhood feeling, which is what Sweet Child O'Mine is all about. All roses, no guns. Beloved by cover band vocalists and karaoke-ers everywhere.
3. "Creep" by Radiohead
As a one-time huge Radiohead-head, I still find it hilarious (in a sympathetic way) that Thom Yorke evisceratingly hates Creep, despite (for) it being the band's most well-known hit to date. It has not lost its momentum as one of the world favorites in decades! Unlike most songs mentioned in this list, Creep is neither sweet, nor innocent, nor positive-making when it comes to its moody lyrics. But there is something about its irresistibly beautiful melody overloaded with live-wire emotional intensity that pulls on the international heartstrings like few other compositions.
The unrequited lover / frustrated incel anthem is written in a high register, making it a favorite among female vocalists. Why, where I live in Mexico right now, there's a fourteen-year-old soprano that, until recently, regularly serenaded my street with the most angelic rendition of this dark ditty. I especially liked how daintily she crooned "You're so fuckin' special," as the passing old ladies in traditional garb swayed and nodded along with the pretty tune.
4. "Shape of You" by Ed Sheeran
Say what you will about young Eddo Sheers, but his voice has penetrated most corners of this planet in record time. There is something universally appealing about his inoffensive and sweet brand of "love song": the addictive beats, the gentle lyrics and his non-threatening image are palatable to the younger crowds without causing irritation to the older ones.
Ed Sheeran's music in general gets an impressive amount of airtime, but Shape of You became a global smash hit of unprecedented proportions. I'll admit, it was this very song (and video) that elevated Ed Sheeran in my eyes from "that super-annoying rich kid" to "hey DJ, turn it up!" (I can clearly envision at least one friend instantly losing all respect for me after reading this admission. Sorry, Jeff.)
Wherever I've roamed in the last few years -- from Latin America to West Asia -- Shape of You has been an inescapable phenomenon. Here is one example of an interpretation of this versatile melody, shot in Pondicherry, India, December of 2019:
5. "Redemption Song" by Bob Marley
Maybe it's the "pinko hippie" crowds I gravitate toward, but there's hardly ever a time when I travel that I don't hear something by Bob Marley performed by English and non-English speakers alike. His music is just the quintessential music of the people. One Love, Jammin', Buffalo Soldier, No Woman No Cry: you will hear these again and again.
But Redemption Song gets a special mention because it's a hymn of the social visionaries and young activists around the world. It rings true in the heart of the people, young and old, with its call to love and freedom as our collective saving grace. It is heard around forest campfires, at beach drum circles and "in the trenches" of protest. It's not an easy song to pull off because of the relatively complicated English lyrics, and still, everyone who can, tries to sing it. Its spirit is that powerful and impactful.
6. "Hotel California" by Eagles
If there's a perennial classic staple among cover musicians of the world, Hotel California must be it. Like Creep, the theme and lyrics aren't exactly lighthearted, but that's why it's a great one for drunks! When you've had some wine and getting weepy, wave over the guy with the guitar and see if he can't soothe your liquor-soaked soul with this beautiful melody and ominous lyrics. Literally last week, I caught an earful of a mariachi band's performance of this very piece to a restaurantful of happily soused gringoes.
My theory is that Hotel California owes its popularity to the ghost of old-school Hollywoodsy Americana it has come to represent to people living in and outside of the USA. From its archetypal title to its distinctly "American" sound to its intriguing narrative, the song communicates a longing for a glamorous past when you could sell your soul for some rockin' good times -- and it was absolutely worth it while it lasted.
Of course, the majority of tourists (including English-speaking ones) blissfully chanting along with Hotel California don't even know the words and their sinister undertones -- and it makes no difference. Like it or not, this song is a part of the soundtrack of our globalized lives by now.
[cue rolling credits]
You can check out any tiiiiime you like
but you can neeever leeeaaave...
*epic guitar solo*
-- One by U2: you don't hear it quite as much anymore but when you do -- oof, right in the feels!
-- Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen: a heavenly melody that brings spiritual uplift without being preachy.
-- Bloody ANYTHING by the Beatles: they are just universally beloved, those brilliant British Boomer bastards!
One of the best rock covers I ever heard while traveling -- one that "blew my mind" at this full-moon beach rave in Trancoso, Brazil back in the mid-00's -- was of Mr. Jones by Counting Crows. Everything just came together organically during this song: flawless vocals reminiscent of the original lead singer (but with a slight Brazilian Portuguese accent), paradisaical natural environment / elements and some special-frequency secret-sauce sound waves that vibrated through the whole crowd.
Something tells me it was this cover band's definitive "finest hour" because, by the time they finished the song, all of us -- the audience scattered across the sand and the musicians elevated on a gazebo-like wooden structure -- were freaking out in disbelief of how profoundly perfect the preceding minutes had been. They went on to play a good rest of the set, but that one song was pure unadulterated magic of aesthetic bliss and spontaneous social unity. Mind you, no excessive substance consumption was involved in the making of this memory: a couple of beers, a few cigarettes (maybe a joint?) and a whole lot of explosive, euphoric alchemy of being alive in the moment.
So, what songs have you heard covered the most during your travels? And were there any that forever stayed with you, like audio-visual postcards from a moment in time? Please share :)))