Pop’s Embrace of Languages Besides English Feels Here to Stay
How acts from Rosalía, who sings her modern flamenco in Spanish, to K-pop groups show that English may not be pop's lingua franca forever.
Photo via YG Entertainment; Photo by Silvia Filguerias for Sony Music
During this summer’s skin-melting heatwave, I watched Brazil’s biggest pop star at London’s Royal Albert Hall, a venue that more often programs jazz and classical music. Wearing sky-high stilettos and cut-off shorts, Anitta belted out every word of her energetic set in Portuguese. Seeing a crowd of about 5,000 people screech those words back at felt both surreal and somewhat game-changing: here was a Latin pop artist packing out a legendary venue, 9,000 miles from her Rio de Janeiro hometown, without ever having to pander to an English-speaking audience.
Anitta is far from an anomaly, though. Be it Spanish speakers like Rosalía—whose much-hyped second album El Mal Querer came out last Friday, November 2—and Luis Fonsi, or K-pop royalty like BTS and BLACKPINK, these days listeners and labels alike seem ready to swat away pop music’s longstanding language barrier. But what’s changed over the years? And, speaking to pop artist MNEK, it's interesting to see how collaborations across that barrier are already transforming songwriting.
We’re in ‘post-“Despacito”’ times now. Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s Spanish-only original, from January 2017, became a summer anthem when “remixed” with Justin Bieber, leaving English speakers warbling along in broken Spanglish. It’s strange to think back to the time when bonafide stars from outside the English-speaking world had to compromise part of their heritage to make it big. Until Enrique Iglesias switched from Spanish to English, he didn't make a dent on the UK charts. Even his English debut (but fourth album overall) peaked at number 80 despite including a top 10 hit with Whitney Houston, “Could I Have This Kiss Forever?” Similarly, Shakira reckoned with the struggle of breaking through outside her native Colombia, as an artist who sang in Spanish. Most casual fans treat 2001’s Laundry Service as her debut. In reality, she’d been releasing since records in her mother tongue since the mid-90s, and that first English-language effort was her fifth overall.
Of course, this isn’t to say that Latin pop didn’t chart at all until 2017—that would be considered “Macarena” erasure. Honorable mentions also go to 2002 UK chart-topper Las Ketchup’s “The Ketchup Song (Asereje),” and Daddy Yankee’s banger “Gasolina” a banger that peaked at number 5 in the UK and at 32 on the Billboard Hot 100. But now, the flamenco-spun sound of Spain’s Rosalía—unearthly and more coy—is seeping into the mainstream in a way that wouldn’t have felt welcome five years ago. El Mal Querer still carries the traditional hallmarks of classic Cante Gitano singers, though her contemporary take on the pitter-patter hand clap production and pop-style videos that accompany them are luring thousands of English fans to her live sets and YouTube channel.
What’s most fascinating about her is not just the fact that she’s the first Spanish woman set to make it big in the UK singing in her mother tongue, but that she’s opening the door to a new subgenre for us to enjoy too. As the Guardian’s Alexis Petridis puts it, Rosalía’s arrival is “signaling the end of British audiences’ traditional inability to treat pop in any language that isn’t English as anything more than a source of novelty hits.” Without a hint of compromise, she’s proving that her work can be a benchmark for those more drawn to the fascinating fringes of the commercial pop landscape.
And, as we’ve noted on this site before, this isn’t just about Spanish artists “crossing over” into the English mainstream. In comparison, Asian artists have hardly been afforded the same kind of historical treatment that people like Enrique and Daddy Yankee have. The general understanding has been that K-pop and J-pop stars—regardless of how successful they’ve been in their home countries—would be underground fads if they were to hit UK shores. But BTS, for example, have proved that being loyal to your language can help you sell out massive venues too. They recently became the first K-pop act to sell out an American stadium and sold over 40,000 tickets in a matter of minutes to loyal London fans (much to the annoyance of those who missed out). For the most part, their songs are performed in Korean laced with the odd line in English, and yet they’ve still managed to find an audience here who’ll scream along anyway.
So how have BTS been among the ones to break through? The die-hard fans will tell you it’s their unique take on a genre meant for the masses, singing about the stigma surrounding mental health and creating a half-dangerous, half-sweet outward-facing image. In my eyes, though, it comes down to their understanding of hip-hop’s proliferation (a couple of the group’s members are rappers rather than singers) and their keen understanding of a universal melody. Pop star and prolific songwriter MNEK found himself working with the band earlier this year. After some back and forth, they chose his song “Paradise” for feature on Love Yourself: Tear, their latest album. “It’s cool to hear how music can be taken in in different ways,” MNEK told me, reflecting on their link-up. “We wrote the lyrics in English and the concept was totally different, but they enjoyed the song I’d written and loved the melody, so they found a song in that.”
Despite K-pop’s growing success outside Korea over the past five years or so, UK hits for artists like BTS are still a new-found thing. Their latest single “Idol” became the first track by a Korean pop artist to break the UK top 40, charting at number 21 thanks to a surprise verse from Nicki Minaj. Korea’s biggest girl group BLACKPINK followed not long after. In a clever label move—one similar to the one Bieber, Fonsi and, Daddy Yankee made—BLACKPINK’s collaboration with Dua Lipa on a bilingual banger benefitted both acts: it landed at number 36, making them the first all-woman K-pop group to crack the UK charts too.
What really connects these artists may not be genre, but rather their understanding of how great, earworm melodies can hook us. After all, a catchy-sounding song sparks an almost automatic kinetic link to it; it catalyses a yearning to dance to along, even when we’re not sure what’s being said. After all, that’s what non-English speakers have been doing with English-language pop for decades. It’s no mistake that all of these artists that have broken through are releasing songs that are, for the most part, extremely literal in terms of their production. Whether it’s the zealous pop-rap yells of BTS or the reggaeton drum machines of Daddy Yankee and newcomer Bad Gyal, non-English ballads aren’t breaking through at the same rate in this part of the world. And that glaring absence suggests our tastes are more rooted in the explicit rather than musical nuances.
That "explicitness," though, also gives English-speaking artists the opportunity to create pandering homages to Latin sounds in the hopes of finding a hit. Take HRVY, an Aussie pop star, throwing out a song earlier this year called “Hasta Luego,” which could’ve been written by someone with a Spanish GCSE. Then, last week, Cambridge pop-classical “fusion” group Clean Bandit had Luis Fonsi feature on “Baby,” their diet Latin-pop single featuring Marina Diamandis (Marina, you deserve so much better than this). For every banger with its heart in the right place, there’s a plastic-feel imitation attempting to ride the trend’s wave. Knowing Clean Bandit’s pop clout to date, it’ll no doubt perform well in the UK charts anyway.
But pop’s globalization, via Spotify and YouTube, means that our paths are crossing more frequently than ever. Online distributors and platforms are stepping in, in a targeted way, where you might have once relied on a chance encounter or record store/YouTube deep dive. Spotify’s Global Top 50 is awash with pop songs in an array of languages; the trick is that we don’t need to know the words we’re senselessly muttering along to in order to understand what they do to us when we hear them. When it comes to pop music, perhaps that’s what matters more than anything: the rush of dopamine that hits when you hear something infectious for the first time—and that translates across all languages.
You can find Douglas on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.