The wisdom of pop songs – The thrill of the foreign lover

Foreigners. How exotic they seem, just because we don’t know much about their culture and their country. We romanticize their urban squalor when it is no more attractive than a council estate in Grimsby. We think they know things we don’t – about love, sex, food, wine, football, all the simple pleasures of life.

And English-speaking songwriters enshrine these thoughts in three-minute paeans (a work that praises or honours its subject, according to my phone’s Merriam Webster dictionary).

So let’s hear it for the foreign boys and girls who have moved our lyricists and tunesmiths in the pop music era.

Beginning with… The Girl From Ipanema, of course. This was actually written by the celebrated Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and originally had lyrics in Portuguese before Norman Gimbel gave it some English language words. And it was made famous in 1962 by Astrud Gilberto, a Brazilian songbird who made up for the fact that she couldn’t sing her way out of a paper bag by exuding a charmingly off-key vulnerability.

So it’s not really about a foreign girl after all, because it was written and sung by Brazilians about one of their own. But it was so popular with British and American singers that it sounds like a gringo’s song of adoration for the exotic beauty who’s on her way to the beach – and not the pebbles of Brighton or the fish-and-chips  aroma of Blackpool, but what we fondly imagine to be a beautiful, pristine expanse of sand populated by sparsely clad totty of Ms Gilberto’s ilk.

This leads naturally, if unfortunately, to the disgraced entertainer Rolf Harris, who recently did time for sex offences. In 1968 he had a minor hit in the UK with the utterly Ipanema- style Fijian Girl, who was “undulating by”, if you please. Don’t you undulate at me, young lady, or I’ll put you over my knee.

Meanwhile in the southern USA, country singer Marty Robbins brought us a tale of ill-starred love as a man in El Paso falls for a Mexican barmaid, his passion for whom leads him to shoot a cowboy she’s flirting with and go on the run, to eventually be shot dead himself as he flees the law. See, just because a woman makes a good chilli con carne doesn’t mean she’s not trouble.

The Beatles made passing reference to Ukraine girls and Moscow girls in Back in the USSR, Paul McCartney’s affectionate riposte to the Beach Boys’ glib assessment of various geographical groups of American girls, Back in the USA.

In 1970 Canadian band the Guess Who sang scathingly about an American Woman they wanted nothing to do with, and whether this was really about American politics and business rather than a woman doesn’t actually matter. It’s a solid, catchy bit of pop rock with a nice guitar riff, and that’s all we’re concerned with here.

Getting back to the Americas, Neil Young seems to have a bit of an obsession with that region’s past, and in 1979 on the stupendous album Rust Never Sleeps he fantasised about a native American beauty, Pocahontas, who famously married an Englishman.

Staying on that side of the Atlantic, British folk-rockers Stackridge brought us a panoramic piece of whimsy in The Road to Venezuela, which conjures up a South American atmosphere without ever getting very specific. There’s pampas grass, llamas and a millionairess involved but the singer doesn’t end up with her. It’s just a breezy, acoustic guitar-driven few minutes that seems to take you somewhere but doesn’t really, which after all is kind of pop music’s job.

A little-known  gem from 1994 is British band The Auteurs’ New French Girlfriend, which again creates an appealing feeling without completing the story. French girls are lovely and he’s got one on tap – that’s the deal here.

So, with all the thousands of Polish and Latvian girls in the UK, plus Latinos and heaven knows who in the US, it seems the local guys are happy with the home-grown talent. But of course a few years in your adopted country makes you part foreign and part local, as Bruce Springsteen shows us all over his album The Wild The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, with songs such as Incident on 57th Street, in which Spanish Johnny woos Puerto Rican Jane, while another Latin lovely, Rosalita, gets a song all to herself.

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