In Praise of Foreign-Language Pop Songs

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Nov. 7 2012 11:51 PM

In Praise of the Foreign-Language Pop Song

The world needs more “Gangnam Style”-style hits.

Austrian musician Falco and Sourth Korean musician PSY.
Austrian musician Falco and Sourth Korean musician PSY

Photographs by Axl Jansen and Ryan Pierse/Getty Images.

How to account for the more than 650 million YouTube views of “Gangnam Style”? That jaunty dance surely deserves some credit, but might the faucalized voice and aspirated consonants of the Korean language play a part as well? It may seem unlikely, though perhaps no more unlikely than everything else about Psy’s megahit.

“Gangnam Style” is the first smash foreign-language song in the United States in years—and, with any hope, a sign of more to come—but it’s hardly the first. In the 1950s and 1960s you could turn on the radio and hear a tune in Italian (“Volare,” 1958), German (“Sailor” 1960), or Xhosa (“Pata Pata,” 1966). Pop hasn’t gone entirely monolingual since: A Latin music boom emerged in the 1990s, giving rise to stars like Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin, who occasionally sing in Spanish. Given that some 50 million people in the United States are of Hispanic origin, the market is certainly viable, and some Spanish-language songs have enjoyed crossover success. (The ’90s also saw the odd pop success of actual Latin: those chanting monks and Enigma’s Sadeness (Part 1)). But the sort of multilingualism that allowed for both a French-language song (“Domenique”) and a Japanese one (“Sukiyaki”) to become No. 1 on the pop chart the same year (1963) has dwindled significantly. A non-English-language song hasn’t topped Billboard’s Hot 100 since Los Lobos’ version of “La Bamba” in 1987 (not so fast, “Macarena” fans—half the lyrics of that 1996 song were sung in English).

This is a shame for a number of reasons. English-only listening habits deprive us of the natural rhythm and melody of other languages—the nasal vowels of French, the alveolar trills of Portuguese, the consonant clusters of Czech. That most of us don’t understand the words only allows us to better appreciate the phonology of a language and concentrate on the human voice as a musical instrument. Those throat-clearing sounds you hear in German? That’s the voiceless velar fricative, and it adds a wonderful percussiveness to “99 Luftbalons.” English speakers don’t have it; it’s one reason the Anglicized version of Nena’s 1984 hit falls flat.

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Given the history of pop, an English translation of "Gangnam Style" may not be far off. I don’t speak a word of Korean, but my guess is it would be something of a letdown. And unnecessary, too. Thanks to After the Fire’s English version of "Der Kommissar" we know the song is about druggy underground folk, but we lose the swagger of Falco’s staccato German from the original. Others, from France’s Edith Piaf to Germany’s Rammstein, have had no problem attracting audiences who have no idea of what they’re singing about. With Piaf’s doleful delivery, do you need to know French to know the story of “Mon Dieu” is a sad one?

Language’s effect on music can take unexpected forms. A 2002 study in the cognitive science journal Cognition found that a culture’s dominant language influences the rhythmic structures of its instrumental music. In a 2006 study published in Psychology of Learning and Motivation, McGill University researchers write that Spanish features a “regular beat pattern in which each syllable coincides approximately with a beat, whereas stress-timed languages like English tend to have beats on stressed syllables.” In other words, languages each have their own rhythm, so certain languages tend to pair better with certain rhythmic patterns.

Despite this rhythmic-linguistic hurdle, some singers do OK shifting from one tongue to another. Shakira toggles back and forth effortlessly between Spanish and English, and the Beatles boosted record sales with German versions of their early recordings. Abba frequently recorded multiple versions of their songs in Swedish, English, French, and German. But it can be tricky for other artists. Whether it was David Lee Roth’s less-than-convincing accent or an inherent incongruity between the language and SoCal hair metal, Diamond Dave’s Spanish-language version of Eat ‘Em and Smile failed to tap into the Latin market as hoped.

In any case, international charts make it clear that English now serves as pop’s lingua franca. Last week’s German Top 10 featured only two songs in German and six in English (the other two were an instrumental and “Gangnam Style”). The Danish and French Top 10 charts each have seven English-language songs.

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