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.

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.

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.