On (hearing) people signing songs

Every now and then, I get a request to help compose (write…? what’s the proper word here?) a signing version of a song. Sometimes, it’s just a single sign that they ask about; other times, it’s a whole song.

I have helped with a sign here and there in the past, but then I would see the end result, and eventually decided not to give any more help.

To hearing people, it’s almost as it the reason sign language exists is for songs. With videos like:

Shelby Mitchussen’s recently viral ASL rendering of “Lose Yourself” by Eminem 

Paul and Tina Sirimarco’s Signalong videos, of which I’ve only seen “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson

With videos like these firing all around the internet, and songs signed at concerts, graduations, and other events all the time, it’s not surprising that songs and signing are cemented together in the minds of the hearing.

And the Deaf, in some cases.

The last time someone asked me to help with singing a song, I responded with these points:

  1. JSL is not English; if you want to properly interpret a song into JSL, you’ll have to change the sentence structure, and use signs that don’t ‘directly’ translate. I do not know Signing Exact English (SEE; where you sign English grammar stuff like ‘is’, ‘are’, ‘-ing’, and follow English order), so I cannot help with that, and it is not the native language of the Jamaican Deaf community, in any case.
  2. If you don’t know how to sign, you won’t sing-sign the song properly. Just like if you don’t know French and decide to try to sing a French song, chances are, you’ll get some of the words pretty wrong.
  3. The white gloves that hearing people almost invariably want to wear are offensive to the Deaf community. They make the signs hard to see and understand.

I get why sign-singing would be so popular among hearing people, though. Hearing people that don’t know sign language can appreciate it through the help of the lyrics sung alongside it. Music makes another language all the more palatable; K-pop is growing ever more popular here in Jamaica, and many of it’s listeners probably know very little Korean. For many people, seeing the signs moving in time with the music is aesthetically appealing.

But I don’t like it, personally. I think it encourages appropriation and misuse of signing. Signing is reduced to entertainment, not a means of communication. People are deceived, through their learning of sing-signing, into thinking that they know how to sign; and, sadly, they usually don’t.

One thing about sign-singing is that it inevitably has some gaps where the music plays and it’s hard to render it in sign. And where there is vocalisation, it then becomes nonsensical fingerspelling like Paul Simarco’s ‘N-A-N-A-N-A’ from “Man in the Mirror” and some ‘O-H-H-H’ thing I saw done for Estelle’s “Conqueror” (video link to the song without captions)

Signing songs does have it’s place, though. At an event in which there is a singing performance, the interpreter is right (and even honour-bound) to interpret the song. But there are aspects of song that just can’t be interpreted properly into signing.

But what gets me the most is that even Deaf people follow this hearing trend. When some Deaf people found some JSL instructional videos I’d made once, one of them said, “I want to see you sign some songs!”

No. Sorry, not going to happen.

When I happened upon Amy Cohen Efron’s video “ASL Music – An Oxymoron?“, it was like seeing my own thoughts signed back at me. Instead of following the hearing people’s bastardisations of JSL, why don’t the Deaf create their own art? Stories, poems, drama; why don’t we encourage this in our Deaf community?

Granted, I have seen some good signed renditions of songs, especially those by Deaf performers. For example Frozen‘s “Let it Go”, signed in ASL by Deaf performers Amber Zion and Jason Listman

And, one that I (sadly) don’t have any recording of: A JSL interpretation of Mariah Carey’s “Hero” by two Deaf people here in Jamaica. Beautiful signing, all done without the use of any music at all. (My absolute favourite signing performance of a song for that very reason!)

And that’s why I don’t like the idea signing songs. I would never say I am against it, and there are indeed some performances (Deaf ones, especially) that I like. But I’d much prefer Deaf art following its own path, not following the trend that encourages hearing appropriation of sign language. (These stories, for example. WOW!)

Just one hearing guy’s perspective. What’s yours?

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One Response to On (hearing) people signing songs

  1. Pingback: My first time signing a song | Mr Multilingual

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