If anyone follows my facebook rantings (my apologies if so), I have in the past few weeks been kind of hard on the chubby, horse-dancing Korean phenom known as Psy. In case you live in a cave, his song and accompanying ridicu-vid “Gangnam Style” has gone from Asiaphile fanboydom to full-fledged viral ubiquity in about two weeks.
I’ve seen a giggling bunch of people watch it on an iPhone at a party, heard it playing at clubs, restaurants and apparently at weddings. In one case I heard the song’s chorus catchphrase — “Oppa Gangnam Style!”– used as an exclamation of approval by a young university student. It’s so everywhere right now that I’m not even going to bother posting a link. It’s likely being feted on at least one of your friend’s facebook walls right now. Go on. Check.
While I stand by my opinion of this truly silly song (though the video and some of the parodies are pretty funny), in the larger socio-cultural scheme of things it’s interesting to look at foreign-language songs that occasionally trickle through to the North American (and other English language) pop charts, to become massive hits, before almost inevitably fading away.
In this vein, Gangnam Style is actually notable for one big reason: it’s the first East Asian song to have reached this level of popularity — fleeting or not — in the English world. Considering the sizeable pop music machines in places like Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and China, it’s maybe a bit surprising that there hasn’t been at least one or two similar Asian ear-worms in these parts.
What does this say about North American attitudes towards Asian music? Who knows? It likely says more about those countries’ music industries having a healthy domestic (and cross-Asian) consumer base, and not needing to pander to foreign markets with gimmicky hits. At least until now.
There is certainly a long history of foreign language crossover hits, from the Italian “Volare“, to the rockified version of the Mexican tune “La Bamba“, which had a resurrection thanks to the Richie Valens biopic in the 80s. Off-hand I could think of about 10 such songs that broke out here in my own lifetime. There appears to be about one every two to three years, but not all are created equal.
The songs are generally by performers from non-English speaking countries. Usually they are sung in the singer’s language. Sometimes they are sung in English, but with that, “ow, you say…” certain foreignness that comes through regardless of tongue being used. In many cases an English version is released after the initial buzz of the foreign-language one, but I’m trying to ignore those. They always suck, and my interest comes in the cases when a song that no one understands becomes huge anyway.
People talk a lot about the “universal language” of music, but lyrics do matter. People like to sing songs, to relate to them, and sometimes even think about them. There must be a difference in terms of how English speakers listen to and appreciate foreign-language songs. There are some common themes in recent years: crazy videos, goofy dance routines and most of all insanely catchy hooks. In that sense Gangnam Style is the perfect storm.
Without further ado, here is my list. Let me know if I missed anything!
FOREIGN LANGUAGE CROSSOVER HITS IN NORTH AMERICA
1984 – “99 Luftballons” – Nena
Back in the elementary school haze which is the 80s to me, I still recall the dulcet strains of Nena singing “99 Luftballons” in its original Deutsche. It was later translated to 99 Red Balloons, which is a bastardization as Luftballons just means “balloons” (gawd), but the original still gets played at the best 80s parties. It’s a bit campy now, sure, but unlike some songs on this list I believe this song succeeded because it’s a quality pop song of its era.
1987 – “Bamboleo” – The Gipsy Kings
First released in 1987, this song took until 1989 to hit the U.S. and is one of the few on this list with true international success, especially in Europe, where the Gipsy Kings are loved. It has longevity too, as you can still hear this song (or their other hit “Djobi Djoba”) played in internationally-minded clubs everywhere, even today. Unlike many of the gimmicky dance tunes on this list, this is real music — though it is definitely trippy to see the videos with a seemingly infinite number of earnest men playing Spanish guitars in unison.
1991 – “Rico Suave” by Gerardo
It may have some lines in English, but this hybrid Spanish rap from Ecuador-born Gerardo Meija had definitely foreign-appeal for early 90s listeners. This was of course the time when rap was hitting its first mainstream heights (or lows) with acts like Vanilla Ice, and MC Hammer. Gerardo appeared poised to bring this newly popular genre appeal to Spanish-speaking Americans. Tight jeans and ‘do rags only take you so far though and Gerardo was a one-hit wonder.
1992 – “Informer” by Snow
This track is kind of an exception because it’s performed by the very much Canadian, white-boy-rapper Snow. But its nearly unintelligible lyrics delivered in a rapid-fire Jamaican dancehall brogue so thick you could get high off it, make it qualify. And while Canadians celebrated Snow to some degree as a native Torontonian son, the song’s popularity in the U.S. (seven weeks at number 1!!!) must in some way be seen as a celebration of its foreign weirdness.
1995 – “Shut Up And Sleep With Me” by Sin With Sebastien
So maybe this German techno-joke, wasn’t a massive hit in North America, but it did get some attention — at least in my teenage, Muchmusic watching world. My admittedly nerdy group of high school friends spent our grad dance urging the DJ to play this song, which is in English but with a heavily Teutonic accent that begs to be mimicked. When he finally did we erupted like kids when the ice cream truck drives up. Bonus points here for the androgynous video that seems to bridge Marylin Manson and Lady Gaga.
1995/96 – “Macarena” by Los Del Rio
Ah, the Macarena. Who can forget this Spanish language gem? It was the butt of jokes as well as a standby at every wedding and bar-mitzvah I attended in the mid 90s. It’s one of the first foreign songs that succeeded based almost entirely on a novelty dance. I have vivid memories of the double-left-footed rabbi at my brothers own bar-mitzvah awkwardly doing the hip wiggle, in the opposite direction of the rest of the dance floor. There is video evidence somewhere. Message me for details.
1999 – “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” by Eiffel 65
Onwards and into the late 90s and the explosion of zany techno tunes from Europe. There is no shortage of choices here (Rednex, Aqua, or Scatman John anyone?), but not many made it as huge as this one did, largely on the strength of a nonsense “da boo dee” filled chorus. Yeah there is a an accented English “intro” and some other words but it was clear to everyone who raised a shot-glass to this one that it wasn’t from around here… Also of note, the digitally altered vocals, which seem to preview the autotuned pop world we currently live in. Maybe Eiffel 65 would have done better long term if their name didn’t sound like a Youtube user account?
2002 – “Asereje (The Ketchup Song)” by Las Ketchup
Shades of Macarena anyone? A Spanish song with a stupidly catchy, nonsense-sounding verse and a stupidly easy, hip shaking dance. The main difference was this one was sung by a bunch of attractive (if generic looking) Spanish women. Oh, and see Eiffel 65 for a comment about stupid names.
2004 – “Dragostea din tei” (AKA “Numa Numa”) by O-Zone
The international hit that took off thanks to a viral video of a fat guy with headphones lip-synching in front of his web-cam. How many bands take that road to stardom? Moldova‘s O-Zone may be the first. The song, in Romanian, became a bigger hit in Europe and the UK than it did in the U.S., but it still got plenty of play, and of course led to the inevitable and godawful English version.
2008 – “Jai Ho” by A.R. Rahman
I hesitate to add this Indian dance number, because it was mainly known due to its placement in the box office sob story hit, Slumdog Millionaire. It was also quickly “remade” by the Pussycat Dolls, which meant the original never had huge chart success in North America. It is interesting for several reasons though: one it’s the first Bollywood style song to gain any kind of traction in the English world. And two, it came at the cusp of the viral video era and inspired all kinds of amateur Youtube remakes. This phenomenon may have reached its zenith (though probably not) with Gagnam Style.
2010 – “We No Speak Americano” by Yolanda Be Cool feat. DCUP
I had no idea who sang this, and I doubt most do, or care. But apparently they are an Austrian duo, which is a nice bookending, since we started with fellow German-speaker Nena. Of course this reworking of an old Neapolitan song is not particularly Germanic, but the zippy, goofy Euro-techno beat is. By all appearances little has changed in Europop since Da Ba Dee!