“i would still love to come and perform my song” – lars vaular on recordBack
Both Norman Hunter’s birthday celebrations and tributes to the Yorkshire Regiment will be taking place at Elland Road today, as well as, hopefully, a win for Leeds United against Yeovil Town. But one part of the day’s entertainment won’t be going ahead as planned.
Earlier in the week a flurry of tweets and news reports started coming from Norway, complaining that a pre-match performance in the Pavilion by rapper and Leeds fan, Lars Vaular, one of Norway’s most popular musicians, had been cancelled due to a dispute over his lyrics. Lars had appeared on our radar when he released the video for Gary Speed, a song about growing up as a Leeds fan at the end of the nineties, with all the good and bad that entailed.
I’ve interviewed Lars for both The City Talking and The Square Ball since the song was released, so amid the confusion of translated news stories and arguments on social media, I got in touch to find out what had happened.
“We’ve been communicating with Leeds since the release of the song,” said Lars, “and found a suitable date about a month ago. We were supposed to perform at the Pavilion before the game, the whole band. That’s the same guys from the video, and yes, both the moustache and the Pony t-shirt are real.
“It would have been a totally surreal experience to perform at Elland Road. It would have been a childhood dream come true, actually. Except I thought I’d be a footballer.”
The dream didn’t come true, though, and it seems that some of the lyrics in Gary Speed made the club think it would be unsuitable for the audience in the Pavilion. The second verse of the song deals with the collapse of the Ridsdale era and the Bowyer and Woodgate trial, and in the latest issue of The Square Ball Lars explained why he’d written about that period.
“I’m still fascinated by it, that’s for sure,” he said. “It has so many layers, and through the song I try to point at all of them at the same time. Corporations loaning money they can’t pay back, alcohol abuse and violence, racism, friendship, etc. There are so many stories (that are bigger than football) that are intertwined and connected through this football club.”
Telling those stories is a big part of the reason why Lars raps at all. “I started rapping in English from age 16, but found out that in order for me to really express myself I had to do it in Norwegian. Rap is such an immediate way of communicating, so translating your thoughts and feelings was defeating the purpose for me. My lyrics are very important to me, and I love the whole storytelling aspect of rap music.”
Against that background of lyrical authenticity, translation and storytelling, you can begin to understand why the performance in the Pavilion didn’t work out. A club spokesperson told me that, “We would have been honoured to have Lars perform at Elland Road, and we asked if his lyrics could be modified to be more suitable for a family audience. Unfortunately we were told that ‘wasn’t doable’, and that Lars had decided not to come.”
Lars takes up the story. “There was a phonecall Tuesday. The club asked if I could censor the song, which is never really an option for me, so I told them no, and it became clear that I wouldn’t be performing. The recent dialogue has been between my management and different persons at the club, so I’m not really sure what parts of the lyrics the club wanted censored.”
I asked Lars to clarify his use of the word ‘censored’, which has a stronger meaning in English. “Perhaps the word censorship is used more loosely in Norwegian,” said Lars. “I use it to describe a situation where I’m given an ultimatum: change what you’re saying, or don’t bother to come and say it at all.
“It is probably the references to Ridsdale and the trial. The last email they sent only mentioned the swearing (I never really noticed there was swearing), but come on, they can’t really believe anyone in Yorkshire would understand or could be offended by a Norwegian lyric.”
As someone who, as a rapper, has built his career on his lyrics – he won the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy award for Best Lyricist in Any Genre in 2011 – changing the words and the meaning of any of his songs isn’t something Lars takes lightly.
“They really gave me no choice, and it was my decision to cancel. I think they passed on an opportunity to get in touch with the fans, and I would still love to come and perform my song.
“Maybe they think that letting me perform would send out the wrong signal. But is admitting that, ‘Yes, there has been some controversy in the past’, really the wrong signal? Come on, everyone knows the stories in the song come from a real place.”
From the club’s side, they have built this season on the motto ‘The past is the past – let’s all be United’, and, knowing the Pavilion, it is probably not the best venue for a fan’s unflinching view of the club’s recent past. The club is putting more work this season into events around the game on matchdays, with Lucas Radebe’s visit for the Birmingham game, and this afternoon’s tributes to the Yorkshire Regiment, who will be doing a lap of honour around 20 minutes before kick-off, and Norman Hunter, who will receive a 70th birthday cake at halftime.
That, along with the kid’s entertainment areas in the Family Stand, are a marked contrast to the way fans were treated during the Bates era, but the confusion around Lars’ performance suggests the club are still working out a clear direction for the entertainment they want to provide. The time to check a performer’s style and lyrics is the week before you decide to book them, not the week before they’re scheduled to appear. The first email I ever got from Lars included a mp3 of the song and an English translation of the lyrics – so it’s frustrating that the lyrics became a problem so late in the day.
Lars told me he can understand the club’s position, but is obviously disappointed by how things have turned out. Some of the subsequent reaction on social media and forums also needs to be set straight, as some fans accused Lars of using the song as a publicity stunt.
“First off, anyone who thinks someone would make a rapsong in Norwegian in order to become popular in England is out of their mind,” said Lars. “The song isn’t only a tribute to Gary Speed, it’s a song about idols, childhood dreams, a young boy’s obsession with a football club. It tells the story of Leeds United from 1994–2002 through the eyes of a fan. I don’t sing about Gary Speed’s life and his achievements, but I use his iconic status as a well respected true professional as a contrast to my perception of people like Ridsdale.”
In the end, the most important part of the matchday entertainment is the two 45 minute performances by Leeds and Yeovil on the grass in the middle. “You never really can tell, can you?” said Lars. “We should be able to win this, especially at Elland Road. I’m looking forward to seeing more from Blackstock, and I’m also excited to see this Lithuanian guy.”
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