I’m a big fan of French pop music, so I follow the news and the charts. Yesterday, I read that the song “Ai Si Eu Te Pego,” by Brazilian artist Michel Telo, broke the French record for most downloaded song ever. The song is actually an international phenomenon, topping charts in countries all over the world. It’s really big at soccer games. There’s a dance that goes with it. If you’re reading this in the United States, you’ve probably never heard of it before. I hadn’t. It’s catchy. You should check it out, if only to know what nearly everybody else is out there humming right now. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Obviously, there aren’t many countries in the world that speak Portuguese, but that doesn’t seem to be a barrier to the spread of this song. Except here in the US. You’ll never hear that song on the radio. In fact, Michel Telo has released an English version. I’ll share a video of that one too, to be fair, but honestly you don’t have to waste your time listening to it. I’ll tell you right now that it isn’t as good as the original, if only because the lyrics are actually quite stupid and therefore better in a language I don’t understand. Also, Michel Telo’s pronunciation is a little wonky, disproving the generally accepted theory that all non-Americans magically sing English with no accent.
As far as I’m concerned, you’ll never hear THAT song on the radio either, because it’s terrible.
It doesn’t have to be that way, does it? Who decided that Americans are only allowed to listen to English language music on pop radio? Who decided that Americans only WANT to listen to English language music on pop radio?
I blame the record companies, and in some cases the artists themselves, for not giving foreign language music a chance in the United States. Some of the biggest names in music today are bilingual Spanish speakers, J-Lo, Enrique Iglesias, Pitbull… but none of them chart songs in Spanish. Most of them don’t even release songs in Spanish. The Spanish-language songs that do exist in the US (and there are plenty of them — they have their own Grammy Ceremony, after all) are considered their own special genre, and they only play on MTV Tr3s and all-Latin radio stations.
Why the segregation? Foreign language music actually has a positive, though very, very small, track record on the US pop charts. Shakira has sold nearly as many records in America in Spanish as in English. The song “La Bamba,” by Los Lobos, hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1987, and the “Macarena,” though not exactly the most glowing ambassador for Spanish music, was number one for 14 weeks, making it one of the most successful singles in US history, in any language!
Believe it or not, Spanish isn’t the only language that has produced number one songs in America. I did a little research and was shocked at what I found. In 1958, the year the Hot 100 was first ranked, an Italian song, “Nel blu dipinto di blu” (also known as “Volare”), by Domenico Modugno, spent five weeks atop the chart and was named the single of the year. It even won the Grammy for Record of the Year! That was the first and last time a foreign language song won that award.
I guess back in the day Americans were more open-minded when it came to understanding song lyrics. In 1963, two of the year’s number one songs were non-English, the Japanese “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto, and the only instance I can find of popular French music on the US charts, “Dominique” by The Singing Nun. I guess I was born two decades too late!
I should have taken German. Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” spent three weeks at number one in 1986. Ok, maybe we should lump that one with the “Macarena” under the heading Bad Example. Nena’s “99 Luftballons” made it all the way to number two. That’s better than the English version did!
There has never been a number one song sung in Portuguese on the American music charts, and at this rate there won’t be one in “Ai Se Eu Te Pego” either. I bet it could be on the charts, if anyone had the chance to hear it. Other countries don’t seem to let language be a barrier to music, and they embrace American songs all the time (the record Michel Telo broke in France was previously held by the Black Eyed Peas). Maybe it’s about time we open our minds, and our ears, to hear what the rest of the world is singing.