Speaking in Tongues: Top 10 Foreign Language Songs

Perfect 10 by pigpogm at Flickr

A Speaking in Tongues Top 10

Ever catch yourself singing a song while having no clue what the words actually meant?  This list is for you.

Ever find yourself flying out of the house already ten minutes late only to realize you’ve forgotten something, turn around and yell: “Hey, can you grab that… thing for me?? You know, the one next to the… doohicky!” This list is for you.

Ever been completely caught off guard when someone famous or beautiful (or both) actually turns and asks how you are – and you have… exactly zero words to respond?  This list is for you.

Ever remember watching The Little Mermaid when Ursula starts singing “You’ve got your looks, your pretty face and don’t underestimate the importance of… body language!” (perhaps the more pious will prefer St. Paul’s “but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” to Ursula eight tentacles – same diff, I say) and think: oh yeah, I get that.  This list is for you.

If you’re somebody who gets it when words fail then this list of the ten best American pop songs sung in a foreign languauge is for you.

It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then a truly great song, one sung in a foreign language, tops the charts in the USA.1 – 300 million people singing along, with no idea what they are saying.  Tower of Babel indeed!

Like every good (American) list, first we need some ground rules… uhhh, rule.  Here’s mine:

  • The only rule: for a song to be eligible the whole song, not just the refrain, needs to be in a foreign language.
  • Clarification of the only rule: not to get into an argument about the (non-existent) official language of the USA, (after all, this is for Fun.), but TJP is written in English,2 so we’re defining “foreign” as “not-English.”  Trust me, I understand that there are places where English is clearly NOT the dominant language in the USA – my own house, for example.
  • A joke in relation to the only rule: what do you call someone who speaks three languages?  A Polyglot… Two? Bilingual… One? American.3

I figure I better give you guys a chance to calm down after that joke, so, as a warm up, I’ll start with three honorable mentions. These are great songs that I disqualified because of my own arbitrary rule.

Honorable Mention #3: “Michelle” by The Beatles – The Fab Four have made several songs that are hard to follow. “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together. See how they run like pigs from a gun, see how they fly. I’m crying.”  Yeah, I’m crying too.  Of course, the confusion in this Beatles classic was due to its French hook, not its LSD induced imagery.

Honorable Mention #2: “Mr. Roboto” by Styx – While Americans navigating the neon labyrinth that is Toyko are still forced to use awkward hand signals to ask for directions, thanks to this 1983 chart-topper at least we can say thank you.

Honorable Mention #1: “Waka Waka” by Shakira – Whether Shakira took her cue from Las Chicas del Can or from the African hit by Golden Sounds (Zangalewa), her remake took over the airwaves during the 2010 World Cup. And, Fozzie Bear, I know it was your catch phrase first, but you just can’t compete with those “honest” hips. Waka Waka will never be the same.

Okay, on to the top 10 – check you heart rates ladies and gents – we don’t want anybody hyperventilating now.

10. “Sadeness Part I” by Enigma

2,300 or whatever years later and Latin just keeps on keeping on… maybe we should start calling it an undead language? While you might not recognize this song from its title (which, by being pronounced SADE-ness instead of SAD-ness further depressed about six million teenagers) it’ll only take you about 10 seconds to remember this gem from the trance fueled early ’90′s.  The name got less confusing for me when I found out that the song’s about the temptations of the Marquis de Sade, the original Sadeist.

9. “Gasolina” by Daddy Yankee

I wish I could resist reggaeton.  Really.  The beat is maddeningly repetitive.  The lyrics are often explicit and over sexualized.  And it’s the sound that used to keep my entire Jesuit community on the south side of Chicago awake on Friday nights (c’mon neighbors blasting it on the street corner, we’re tired!).  Maybe it’s stockholm syndrome, but I finally realized that I love reggaeton – Daddy Yankee has a particularly special place in my heart.  Prenden los motores / Prende las turbinas / Gasolina… He’s talking about his favorite car, right?

 

8. “Con Te Partiro” by Andrea Bocelli

Please, for the love of all that is holy and right, stop playing this song at weddings.  Italian might be the language of love, but this guy is being separated from his love.  Yeah, I know that its poetic and there are several interpretations but there is some serious sadness and separation going on here.  Okay, maybe it’s not as bad as all those people who played The Police’s “I’ll be Watching” you (about a stalker!), but really, there has got to be a song better equipped to celebrate the beginning of wedded bliss than another breakup song.

 

7. “Rock Me Amedeus” by FALCO

Yes, I know that their name isn’t in all caps, but I just had to give them the textual-scream-intro. Let’s play the multiple choice game with my reasons why this song got to #7 on the list:

A) Because German just sounds cool when it’s sung-spoken quickly and in a hypnotic soto voce.
B) Because I give a ton of bonus points for current boy band homages and I’m just going to go ahead and assume that the lads from One Direction are mimicking Falco’s awesome stutter.
C) Because this video is filled with incredible hair.  Seriously though, did the 18th century crowd really
have pink and blue hair? (Also, thank God we’ve developed shampoos with detangler.)
D) Mid-song key change!
E) All of the above.

Yeah, you’re right, it was E.

 

6. “Dominique” by The Singing Nun, Jeanine Deckers

I had no idea that this song was a huge as it was, but apparently everybody was really, really into St. Dominic in 1963 because “Dominique” was a top ten hit in eleven countries, even ringing the bell at #1 in Canada, New Zealand and… the United States.  And, yes, the song is actually about the saint; the refrain is even pretty awesome, albeit in a pious, pre-postmodern-cynicism sort of way: “Dominique, Dominique went about simply / a poor singing traveller. / On every road, in every place, / he talks only of the Good Lord / he talks only of the Good Lord.”

 

5. “La Bamba” by Richie Valens/Los Lobos/Mexico

Se necessita una poca de gracia.” Amen brother, you only need a little bit of grace. It’s cause a little bit goes a long way. Ritchie Valens used that little bit of grace and his own huge charisma to launch this Mexican folk song to the top of the charts in 1958.  Those of us with less “experience” on this planet probably remember the cover by Los Lobos that topped the charts (yes, again) in 1987.  Regardless of which version you know this song is magic – one run of this famous guitar riff and suddenly everyone speaks Spanish!  And yeahyeahyeah, I know you would’ve made this song number one.

 

4. “Du Hast” by RAMMSTEIN

Yeah, their name isn’t in all caps either… maybe this is something I feel compelled to do with German bands?  Anyway, if I’m following the logic of this video right, I think RAMMSTEIN is suggesting that, if you suspect your partner of infidelity, you are justified in resorting to torture, arson and explosion of cars. Ahem, let me offer a gentle alternative of, oh I don’t know, talking it through!  Also, I watched this video for the first time in years as I was “researching” this article.  On a possibly related note, I recently began having nightmares where people scream the word “Nein!” in them.

 

3. “Macarena” by Los Del Rio

If you want to laugh, put this song on and then listen really closely to your friends as they try to sing along. I mean, what the hell are we actually saying?  Has anyone bothered to learn the actual lyrics?!?  Combine this with our almost complete inability to resist any song that can be put into line dance form and the end result is that your friends will end up looking like idiots and sounding like morons. (It’s a small consolation, but I thank God every Tuesday that smartphones weren’t prevalent in 1995 just because there would have been way, way too much video evidence of me dancing the Macarena… AAAAAHE!)

 

2. “99 Luftballoons” by Nena

A complete and utter ’80′s classic, this one was sent aloft in 1983 by the German pop-rocker Nena.  How can we not love this?!  I mean, who doesn’t love a song where the words “Captain Kirk” leap out in the middle of a onslaught of German umlauts?!  Not this guy, that’s for sure.  Plus this is a protest song from the middle of the Cold War about the apocalyptic consequences of trigger happy nuclear superpowers.  Since the Berlin Wall fell 6 years later, listening to Nena is like being taken back in time to the clarity and angst we had in the US before the wall fell.  And Nena seems to have broken my all-caps German compulsion, is there nothing this woman can’t do!

N.B. to rule sticklers: yes, this song was also released in English, but it was the all-German version that became a mega-hit, blowing an overmatched English version out of the water, so it still counts.

 

1. “Gangnam Style” by PSY

Take that look off your face, you knew this was coming.  Thanks to PSY cheesy dancing is cool again!  Millions of teenagers and bad dancers can rejoice! After just 3 months “Gangnam Style” is in the top 10 of the most-viewed YouTube videos of all time.  The Biebs and Lady Gaga better watch their backs. PSY is even within striking distance of Charlie Bit Me.4

The weird thing (or maybe not, given the fact that I’ve been able to come up with ten of these…) is that Gangnam Style has 400 million views, gets radio playtime all over the country, and still most people outside of Korea are clueless to what PSY is actually saying. Brief run-down: it’s a clever bit of satire that takes a shot at the influx of consumerism and capitalism into Korean culture.  Like all these songs, though, it’s got a sick beat, plus it’s hilarious before you understand the context and even better after.  By the way, 사랑해 is Korean for “saranghae” (pronounced: SAR-ANG-HEY); it means “I love you.”  I can just see somebody writing another one of these lists in 20 years and stealing my joke about how Styx taught American to say goodbye in Japanese and just inserting “PSY”, “I love you”, and “Korean.”

Oh well, there is no escaping it, everything is a remix!

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  1. I think Casey Kasem (note: he was Ryan Seacreast version 1.0) used to hate it when it happened – I always felt like I could detect this subtle bitterness in his voice.
  2. So far.
  3. Oooh snap, America.
  4. I define striking distance as 90 million views. Seriously once you’ve made your first 400 million, what’s another 86 million?!