…because they don’t know the words! (OK, that’s a shameless ripoff of Gnomeageddon’s post over here, which got me thinking about a few different things.)
The Radical Dreamers song from Chrono Cross is one of my favorite pieces of music. (To Zanarkand from Final Fantasy X is also a wonderful piece, but it doesn’t have lyrics.) The whole soundtrack is excellent, all 3 CDs of it, but that one stands out for me because of the acoustic guitar and vocals. But, y’see… I don’t know the words.
As I noted in the comment thread over in this discussion about Simon and Garfunkel, lyrics can be funny things. When I was just a wee little Tesh, my mother loved to listen to Simon and Garfunkel, so I grew up on that sort of folk music sound (along with James Taylor). Thing is, I listened to it pretty much as music with inscrutable vocals. It was only later that I listened to the lyrics as something other than music. That can change the meaning of songs, and dilute or enhance my appreciation of them. John Lennon’s Imagine is a simple, dreary bit of moderately pleasant hippie music, but I find some of the lyrics rather… unappetizing. (And, well, I can’t stand Yoko Ono. She’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.) I liked it a lot more when I didn’t listen to the lyrics, and just heard it as music with vocals.
In another instance, I like Suteki Da Ne from Final Fantasy X (aside from Otherworld, that game’s soundtrack is excellent). Melodies of Life from FFIX is also really good… but I prefer both as rendered in Japanese. The English versions are still pretty good, but suddenly, since I can understand the lyrics, they are no longer something I appreciate on a purely musical level, they are processed differently. Not only do the meter and pacing change with the translation, subtly mangling the flow of the music, but the words are, well… subpar poetry (like a lot of music, to be fair). Nothing really offensive, just… kinda cheesy and goofy. Because I now know the words, I find the songs less appealing (more so for Suteki Da Ne). I still love the Japanese versions, but I find the English versions less appealing. Sometimes, a little knowledge has a big effect. (And, as Jason points out, they don’t work as background music any more; since I subconsciously process the English lyrics, it divides my attention.)
Or, take the difference between this purely piano version of Skimming Stones from Sleepthief (recorded in the sadly now-destroyed Provo Tabernacle)… and this one with Kirsty Hawkshaw’s lovely vocals. Same piano line, but the lyrics (and other audio tidbits layered in, to be fair) change the song significantly. I actually like them both quite a bit, but they are definitely different.
Operatic music has a similar effect for me. I can listen to bits and pieces of something like La Traviata and appreciate the musicality of the singing, but that’s because I don’t understand it. (That I can’t stand heavy vibrato doesn’t help with a lot of opera, but that’s incidental.) The few pieces of English opera I’ve listened to just don’t work as well for me. (Though oddly, a musical like Fiddler on the Roof works pretty well. Maybe it has to start in English? And now I wonder how well Broadway musicals like The Lion King work in Japanese…)
Anyway, going back to games and Gnomeageddon, he notes that writing about World of Warcraft tends to meander in pretty similar, well-repeated circles, with authors (myself included) rehashing the same old arguments, just phrased in new ways. Perhaps the same could be said of writing or game design in general, what with that theory that there are only a handful of “original” stories, and everything is really just a remix.
Perhaps that’s the case, and what we need to make something truly entertaining or enlightening is for it to be a bit, well, foreign to us. That way we process it differently, and dodge the habits of familiarity and preconceived notions that can all too often taint our perception. (Think of it as a sort of rephrased idea of “fun is learning” or Raph Koster’s “Theory of Fun“.)
I think it’s a good thing to play games (and read books, listen to music, look at art, etc.) that are foreign to us. Not incomprehensible, incompetent games, just games that do things differently than what we’ve internalized and become accustomed to. We can learn things that way, from game design to personal preference. And as this interesting article notes, great artists draw from a wide variety of sources. I think this is true for music, games and pretty much any other artistic endeavor, whether as an artist or as a consumer.
Even if it means just humming along for a while.