Monday, 3 December 2012

Before Gangnam Style - 10 Great Foreign Language Hits From Across History

We've all heard it a bazillion times now and seen the video nearly as many times. The English-speaking world is now thoroughly in love, or at least fascinated, by Park Jae-sang, the South Korean rapper-pop star better known to the world as PSY, thanks to his ridiculously infectious hit song about life in the South Korean capital's most chi-chi suburb. It's still early to say but 'Gangnam Style' is showing signs of being an epoch-defining pop icon to compare with Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' three decades previous, with PSY's patented equestrian-themed dance move emerging as the 'moonwalk' of the 2010s. As of November 24, Gangnam Style had achieved 806.3 million views, making it the single most watched video in YouTube history.

The global phenomenon of Gangnam Style is all the more remarkable given that the song in question is in Korean. Granted, K-Pop is far from an unknown phenomenon throughout East Asia, where the past decade has seen this mighty-mouse republic emerge as a veritable pop culture powerhouse, in the western world the Republic of Korea, while well respected for its high-tech gadgetry and formidable industrial economy, is hardly seen as a country on the cutting edge of cool. Or at least until PSY showed up. However, it's doubtful that the Gangnam Style craze will lead to the K-Wave spreading beyond Korea's backyard, as foreign-language hits in the Anglosphere have overwhelmingly been one-hit wonders - briefly beloved and then quickly forgotten.

The cruelty of this, of course, is that non-Anglophone popular music acts have long been forced to produce English-language material if they're to have any hope of branching far beyond their homelands. (This is notably not the case for Spanish-language acts, for whom a wide-ranging audience from Madrid to Miami to Montevideo is primed for their material.) Bands from non-English-speaking countries have ranged from pop acts like Roxette and t.A.T.u. to metal bands like Sepultura and the Scorpions, whose only commonality is the fact that they've all adopted the language of Shakespeare and Elvis Presley with the hopes of branching beyond their native lands.

Baku Style: Eurovision winners Eldar and Nigar
What is the consequence of this? Ever tune into the Eurovision song contest before? This cultural institution is a fascinating study of what happens when you take the cream of the entertainment industry in an ill-defined region stretching from Scandinavia to the Caucasus and make them all sing in the lingua franca of contemporary pop music. And while many of the results of this are actually quite impressive, as was the Eldar & Nigar hit 'Running Scared' which won the Republic of Azerbaijan its first Eurovision title in 2011, it still manages to feel somewhat disconnected with reality, like a cross between MTV and Berlitz. Imagine, for the sake of comparison, if Michael Jackson had been forced to deliver his entire act in, say, Danish. Actually, that would be pretty cool.

But there's more reason for the English-speaking work to embrace foreign-language music than it simply being just deserts. By effectively excluding non-English-language songs, English speakers are missing out on a vast amount of great music as well as lyrics which, with the aid of liner notes, can be appreciated almost as deeply as lyrics in one's own language. Singer-songwriters like Caetano Veloso, Salman Ahmad and Shokichi Kina are poets comparable to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and yet are virtually unknown to Anglo audiences - much to their loss. The bittersweet love songs of Charles Aznavour pack a punch even without translation, as do the haunting vocals of Mercedes Sosa and the rapturous glory of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Granted you can't necessarily understand the songs, but the continued popularity of mumbling rockers like Dylan and Dave Matthews must mean that incomprehensibility isn't necessarily a barrier to popular appeal.

Of course there have indeed been foreign-language crossover hits over the years. The curious thing about them, though, is they seem to have become less frequent over the decades. As our world has become more globalized, popular music tastes in the Anglo-American world seem to have gone in the opposite direction, Gangnam Style notwithstanding. There was once a time when the songs of Édith Piaf and Yves Montand were standard fare on English radio, and iconic Latin American songs like La Bamba and Guantanamera were beloved in the US at a time of anti-Latino bigotry was far fiercer and more overt than that it is today. Why is it now that now, when our society is arguably more tolerant and more diverse than it's ever been, there seems to be more resistance than ever to foreign language songs? Resistance to an ever-encroaching outside world? I don't get it.

My feeling, however, is that this will shift soon, probably within the next decade. While English remains the de facto language of globalization, the Anglo-American world no longer maintains an undisputed monopoly over the diffusion of popular culture. PSY's homeland is a perfect case in point - a country that 50 years ago was a war-ravaged basket case but is now one of the leading forces not only in global commerce but also in popular culture, in everything from RPG gaming culture to melodramatic soaps with a following stretching from Japan to Indonesia. Brazil's homegrown pop music scene has long had a following in the Lusophone world; look for this emerging world power to flex its creative muscle. And as los Estados Unidos becomes an increasingly bilingual country, the presence of Spanish-language music can only grow.

In the meantime, here are 10 classic foreign-language songs that, for whatever reason, beat the odds and took the English-speaking world by storm.

1) Édith Piaf, 'La Vie en rose' (1947)

An oldie among foreign language crossover fans, Édith Piaf's iconic 1947 hit about seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses is probably the most quintessentially French song after 'La Marseillaise' (which Serge Gainsbourg famously profaned with his reggae cover of it on Aux Armes Et Caetera). With a melody by composer Louis Guglielmi and lyrics by Piaf herself, the song sold over a million copies in the United States (Imagine what Fox News would have had to say about it had they been around at the time?), while reaching #1 status in Italy in 1948 and #9 in Brazil the following year. It has also shown tremendous lasting power, having since been covered by everyone from Liza Minelli to Cyndi Lauper to, curiously enough, Iggy Pop. La vie est toujours en rose.

2) Domenico Modugno, 'Nel blu dipinto di blu (Volare)' (1958) curious thing often happens to foreign language songs that catch on in the English-speaking world - they change titles. Such was the case with Italian crooner Domenico Modugno's 1958 hit 'Nel blu dipinto di blu' ('In the Blue, Painted Blue'), a song that became known outside Italy as 'Volare' ('To Fly'), after the song's famous refrain. Inspired by a pair of paintings by Marc Chagall, the song won third place at the 1958 the Eurovision Song Contest and then spent five weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100. It has since been covered by Dean Martin, Al Martino, David Bowie, Gipsy Kings and Barry White, and also made a memorable appearance in the movie A Fish Called Wanda as part of Kevin Kline's mock-Italian bedroom talk.

3) Ritchie Valens, 'La Bamba' (1958)

The song that put Latin America on the rock 'n' roll map, this classic folk song from Veracruz was immortalized by teenage Chicano rock legend Richard Valenzuela, better known as Ritchie Valens, otherwise best known for his death at age 17 in the 1959 plane crash that also took the lives of Buddy Holly and J.P. 'The Big Bopper' Richardson. The song reached #22 on the US Billboard Pop Singles, an unprecedented feat for a Spanish-language song, and finally reached #1 in 1987 thanks to LA Chicano rock band Los Lobos' cover of it for the eponymous Luis Valdez biopic starring Lou Diamond Phillips. It remains the only non-English-language song on Rolling Stone Magazine's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.

4) Kyu Sakamoto, 'Ue o Muite Arukō' aka 'Sukiyaki' (1961)

In 1963, British record executive Louis Benjamin travelled to Japan where he fell under the spell of young crooner Kyu Sakamoto and his sweetly sentimental ballad 'Ue o Muite Arukō' ('Walking While Looking Up'). The song became an overnight sensation in the west under the name 'Sukiyaki' in spite of the exactly zero references to simmered beef in the song. (Benjamin presumably figured it was the only non-militaristic Japanese word his audience knew.) The song sold over one million copies in the US and reached #1 status in June of 1963, and to this day remains the only Japanese song to reach #1 on the US Billboard charts. In an interesting parallel to Valens, 'Kyu-chan' was also killed in a plane crash - in the infamous crash of JAL Flight 123 in 1985 - and was also posthumously immortalized in a motion picture named after his greatest known hit.

5) João & Astrud Gilberto, 'Garota de Ipanema (The Girl from Ipanema)' (1964) 

When Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Jobim and renowned diplomat-poet Vinicius de Moraes sat down to write their now-famous voyeuristic paean about beauty and heartache in Rio de Janeiro's ritziest beachfront neighbourhood (think Gangnam Style on valium), they must have felt fairly assured of a hit. Nothing, however, could have presaged the phenomenal success of 'The Girl from Ipanema', a song that almost singlehandedly popularized bossa nova beyond Brazil thanks the Grammy Award-winning 1965 recording of it starring João and Astrud Gilberto together with American tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. Nearly a half-century old now, it is believed to be the second-most recorded pop song in history after the Beatles' 'Yesterday' and one that, like 'La Vie en rose', has become an unofficial anthem of the country that gave life to it.

6) Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin, 'Je t'aime… moi non plus' (1969)

In addition to being one of the most famous foreign language crossover hits of all time, French bad-boy chansonnier Serge Gainsbourg's ode to...well, fucking holds the distinction of being one of the world's most widely banned songs. Originally written for and sung with actress Brigitte Bardot in 1967 (whose husband refused to allow it to be released), it was re-recorded by Gainsbourg and his then-lover Jane Birkin two years later on the appropriately titled album '69 Année érotique. Chiefly remembered for Birkin's heavy breathing and simulated climaxing, the song was banned in a swath of European countries, with the Vatican allegedly excommunicating the Italian record executive who oversaw its release in Italy. Suffice it to say, the Papal PR campaign on behalf of the song did wonders for it, helping it top the UK charts and sell over 4 million copies by 1986.

7) Falco, 'Rock Me Amadeus' (1985) there's one song that truly presaged the arrival of Gangnam Style, it's Johann 'Falco' Hölzel's 1985 rap homage to his country's best-known musical export. Originally a bass player with the late-1970s-early 1980s Austrian hard rock-punk outfit Drahdiwaberl, Falco established himself as a solo artist in 1982 with the rock-rap hit 'Der Kommissar' ('The Inspector') before rocketing to worldwide renown with his campy Mozart-themed hit, accompanied by an over-the-top video that gives PSY a run for his money. Boosted by the success of the 1984 biopic Amadeus, 'Rock Me Amadeus' reached #1 in Canada, the UK and the US, where he was the first German-speaking artist to reach such heights. Largely disappearing from the scene thereafter, Falco died in a car crash in 1998 - supposedly as he was mounting a comeback.

8) Mitsou, 'Bye Bye Mon Cowboy' (1988) divide between Canada's 'Two Solitudes' is nowhere more pronounced than in popular music. French and English-Canadian music typically occupy very separate spheres and Francophone artists such as Céline Dion and Roch Voisine have had to switch languages to get any success outside Québec. One of the few Québécois artists to breach the language firewall was teen pop star Mitsou Annie Marie Gélinas, the granddaughter of renowned playwright Gratien Gélinas, whose breakthrough hit 'Bye Bye Mon Cowboy' became a rare smash hit across Canada, selling over 100,000 copies. (The fact that the only French word in the title is 'mon' may have helped.) Like Falco, Mitsou had a difficult time replicating her early success, although she continues to be a prominent media personality in La Belle Province.

9) Los del Río, 'Macarena' (1995)

File:MacarenaLosDelRio.jpgSigh. Anyone who came of age in the 1990s had to endure dance parties wherein, apparently under the spell of some malevolent spirit of the airwaves, otherwise normal people would cease whatever they were doing and perform a mime-dance that could only be likened to a cross between the YMCA and a border-patrol body search. And yet, the song that inflicted this craze on the world really wasn't that bad - at least at the outset. Originally written and recorded by the Seville-based Latin pop duo Los del Río, the original acoustic guitar-based dance number didn't become a craze until the Bayside Boys turned it into a club mix in 1995. The single spent 14 weeks at number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, one of the longest runs atop the Hot 100 chart in history, was was ranked the '#1 Greatest One-Hit Wonder of all Time' by VH1 in 2002. And still nobody knows why.

10) Rammstein, 'Du hast' (1997)'s something about the German language that seems to lend itself to industrial rock, as exemplied by veteran sonic terrorists like Die Krupps, KMFDM and Einstürzende Neubauten. While little of this has had any mainstream exposure, industrial rock experienced a brief surge in popularity in the mid-1990s thanks to the success of Ministry, Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, which also opened the door to Berlin-based industrial metalheads Rammstein. The group's 1997 hit 'Du hast' (a play on words meaning both 'You Have' and 'You Hate') gained international prominence thanks to its inclusion on the soundtrack for The Matrix, briefly reaching #2 status on Canada's Alternative Rock charts. At yet we still make fun of the Germans.

Is there anything important I've missed here? I'd love to hear about it.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. There are a few that comes to mind, actually.

    - "Hej Gamle Man" traditional Swedish; there's a version of this, such by Bjorn Ulvaeus on ABBA's "Thank You for the Music" four-disc compilation set
    - "Bie Mir Bist Du Schon"
    - "Cucurucucu" as performed by Nana Mouskouri
    - "Colores" as performed by Joan Baez

    As for Piaf, my favourites remain "Padam" and "Milord" although they may be lesser known than "La Vie en Rose".

    While I do love your blog, Ben, I find it somewhat surprising that "Macarena" trumped the iconic Pete Seeger's "Guantanamera". That Seeger, given his status as a songwriter, storyteller and activist, doesn't figure here makes me a little sad. Granted, the lyrics of this popular Cuban song are sometimes attributed to José Fernández Diaz, known as Joseíto Fernández, as well as to José Marti, I doubt that it would have been as popular were it not for Seeger (and perhaps others such as Julio Iglesias, Trini Lopez, Joan Baez, Nana Mouskouri and José Feliciano, to name a few).

  3. The trouble I had with this post is that most of the really great foreign language crossover songs are concentrated in the 50's and 60's. Trust me, I tried every route possible to avoid mentioning 'Macarena', but in order to get an appropriate timeline there was no way around it. And given the fact that it was a cultural phenomenon (for better or for worse - and in this case definitely for the worse) it couldn't go unmentioned. Perhaps 'Greatest' wasn't the best word to use in the title. More like 'most impactful'. Oh well, I'm stuck with it now.

    I did consider 'Guantanamera' among the top ten but ultimately sided with La Bamba because of Ritchie Valens' stature as a Mexican-American icon, as opposed to Pete Seeger who, while a formidable figure to say the least, is still a white guy who didn't have to jump through the same racial hoops as Señor Valenzuela. I was also trying to cover as much linguistic territory as I could, so it ended up not making the list.

  4. website is the face of any business on the Internet, and that is why the right web design is so important. When you hire the services of highly qualified web designers, you can be sure that your image on the web will be a powerful tool that puts your business message across. Hiring the services of accomplished web experts is not an expense but an investment, for it brings in profits for your business. Beyond Technologies

  5. Designing an Website with an experts and experienced team is the big and easy way to promote. Colour Moon Technologies is the Best Web Designing company in Visakhapatnam. Having 10 + years experience in Web & Mobile App development in Visakhapatnam. Colour Moon Technologies can create Websites to increase your sales in the Online and can build Mobile Apps of both Android and IOS development. So create your own apps and give a new look to your Business with the trending technologies.