In Praise of the Foreign-Language Pop Song
The world needs more “Gangnam Style”-style hits.
Even in the annual Eurovision contest—in which a few dozen European countries each enter a song—English dominates. Seven of the top 10 winning songs in 2011 were sung entirely in English, and the other three were partially in English. This year one-half of the songs by the 10 finalists were in English, though kudos to Russia for submitting a song partially in Udmurt, which is spoken in the Russian republic of Udmurtia, and is surely one of pop music’s most underrepresented languages.
Are some languages more musical than others? It’s entirely subjective, of course, but linguistic phonetician Doug Honorof says languages with a lot of vowels have an advantage. “Vowels are easier to sing than consonants,” says Honorof, who recently worked as a dialect coach for the show Elementary. “That’s because the whole vocal tract is more open during a vowel.” It’s the plosive consonants—those that cause the airflow to stop—that tend to trip up singers, he says. The poet and Yale University professor J.D. McClatchy, who has won praise for his translations of opera librettos, agrees that vowels play a big part, at least when it comes to opera.
“Italian has a rather small vocabulary, but because of the beauty of its vowels, it tends to sound better,” he says. And French, with its evenly stressed syllables “has that kind of musical euphoniousness.” English has a more nuanced vocabulary than either, he says, but with its many consonants and variable vowels, “is not so pretty to hear.”
In addition to the wild success of “Gangnam Style,” there are other signs pointing to a more multilingual pop horizon. It helps that the Anglophone tastes of mainstream radio stations have less and less influence. “Gangnam Style” broke internationally thanks to its viral video. It was also a goofy YouTube clip that introduced Americans to Moldovan pop a few years ago, specifically "Dragostea Din Tei," better known here as “The Numa Numa Song.” Earlier, this year, a Mad Men episode had viewers Googling “Zooby Zooby Zoo” (actually “Zou Bisou Bisou,”), when a scene featured Jessica Pare singing the 1962 French tune.
One apparent rule of having a foreign-language hit in the United States is that you probably won’t have another; you can have other hits, but they have to be in English. After “Der Kommissar,” for instance, Falco had a huge hit with “Rock Me Amadeus.” Originally all-German, the international version featured English lyrics. To some degree, foreign hits are still something of a novelty, and unless you’re Weird Al Yankovic, making a career of novelty songs is a tough go. (Sadly, we’ll never what “La Bamba” singer Ritchie Valens might have accomplished had a plane crash not ended his eight-month career in 1959.)
Richard Alba, a City University of New York sociologist, surmises that the success of songs like Emilio Pericoli’s 1962 Italian-language “Al Di La” was the result of audiences still close to their immigrant roots. The Korean population in the United States increased 38 percent between 1990 and 2010 to a total of about 1.1 million. I don’t know how much this had to do with the success of “Gangnam Style” in the United States, but it could be an indication this isn’t the last we’ll hear from of Psy. Here’s hoping he’s still singing in Korean when we do.
Thanks to Dr. Sang-Suk Oh of the Korean Language Program at Harvard University.
William Weir is a writer living in New Haven.