If you go to another country and turn on the radio, you’ll stumble on an English song pretty quickly. Switching positions, your chances of finding foreign-language songs on an American radio station is pretty close to zero, with the notable exception of “Despacito.” The lack of non-English music has been pretty constant in the United States.
The situation just might be changing, however. Take Spanish, for example. With 41 million people in the United States speaking Spanish as a native language, it’s reasonable to expect Spanish to have an impact on the music market. At the least, Latin music impact is growing in this country. Popular hip-hop might still be sung most often in English, yet traces of reggaeton, a genre of music originating in Puerto Rico in the 1990s, can often be heard as well.
We wanted to learn more about the history of non-English music in the United States, so we decided to take a look at the songs that made it to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Since mid-1958, Billboard has been the foremost resource for tracking singles in the United States. This gives us over 60 years to work with, and over 1,000 number-one hits. Despite that, only eight foreign-language songs managed to make it to the top of the list. Here, we look at each of them. Scroll to the bottom to listen to our playlist of all the songs, and read on to find out the stories behind them.
The 8 Foreign-Language Songs That Topped The Billboard Hot 100
1958: “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu” by Domenico Modugno
Despite the lack of foreign-language songs on the Billboard Hot 100, this Italian song was the number-one song of the year the very first year the Billboard list was made. Better known as “Volare,” this song won the Sanremo Music Festival and was Italy’s 1958 entry into Eurovision, a massively popular music contest in Europe. While the song didn’t win Eurovision, it was incredibly successful all around the world, and was on the top of the charts for five (non-consecutive) weeks. It even won the first-ever Grammy for “Song of the Year,” and it remains the only foreign-language song to have done so.
1963: “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto
As one of the only foreign-language songs on this list performed in a non-European language, “Sukiyaki” is somewhat of an unexpected success. The song was wildly popular in Japan with the title “Ue o Muite Arukō,” which directly translates to “I Look Up As I Walk.” The name “Sukiyaki” was chosen for the English version for some reason, even though Sukiyaki is the name of a Japanese beef dish that has nothing to do with the song. Sung by the fresh-faced Kyu Sakamoto, “Sukiyaki” sounds deceptively upbeat, especially when you’re unable to understand the lyrics. In reality, it’s a rather sad song looking back at the failure of Japanese protest movements against U.S. military occupation during the 1950s. Keep in mind, this song reached the United States only 18 years after the end of World War II. It was number one for three weeks in the summer of 1963, and there was also a successful English cover version sung by A Taste of Honey in 1980.
1963: “Dominique” by The Singing Nun
Becoming popular shortly after “Sukiyaki,” “Dominique” is also a surprising hit, especially when compared to the songs that would reach the number-one spot in the coming years of the British invasion. Sung by Jeannine Deckers, a French-speaking nun from Belgium, the song is about Saint Dominic, who founded the Dominican Order she was a member of. Some say this song may have become a hit on the radio because DJs were desperate for pleasant music to play in the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Whatever the reason, the song was number one for four weeks in December 1963. The story of this song does not have a very happy ending, however. Owing the Belgian government back taxes and being cash-strapped because she gave all the royalties from her music to her convent — which she left in 1966, having grown apart from the Catholic church — Deckers tried to make money by releasing a disco version of “Dominique” in 1982. The song was a failure, and after struggling for a few years, she and a close friend killed themselves in 1985.
1986: “Rock Me Amadeus” by Falco
After a 23-year period with no foreign-language number ones on the Billboard Hot 100, “Rock Me Amadeus” showed up to reign for three weeks in the spring of 1986. The song is about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which seems like a funny choice but is actually pretty fitting: Falco, born Johann Hölzel, was a classically trained musician who rejected his upbringing to play rock music. The song is in German (except for the “Rock Me” part), but the words didn’t really matter. The driving beat and repetitive “Amadeus, Amadeus” chorus were enough to make this song a staple of the 1980s. Despite other musical attempts, “Rock Me Amadeus” was Falco’s only really successful song in the United States.
1987: “La Bamba” by Los Lobos
The history of “La Bamba” goes back further than the 1987 version by Los Lobos. It was originally a Mexican folk song, with the earliest known recording being from 1938. In 1958, it was turned into a rock-and-roll hit by Ritchie Valens, who was only 17 years old at the time. The song was the first time that Mexican music had a big impact on the United States music industry. At the time, it only reached number 22 on the Billboard Hot 100, however. It wasn’t until 1987 that the song reached number one and held that position for three weeks. It wasn’t Valens’ version, though, but the cover by Los Lobos, which was recorded as the title track for the movie La Bamba. Ritchie Valens was credited with a posthumous number-one song credit. Tragically, he died in a 1959 plane crash, just a few months after his version of “La Bamba” was released.
1996: “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)” by Los Del Rio
Los Del Rio is perhaps the most famous example of a one-hit wonder, thanks to “Macarena,” which stayed on the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for 14 weeks. You’ll notice, however, that this is the Bayside Boys Mix version of the song, which happens to include the English verses instead of the Spanish ones. The original version of this song, which has only Spanish lyrics, also ranked on the Billboard list, but it was not as successful as the English one. The song was inspired by flamenco dancer Diana Patricia Cubillán Herrera, who impressed Los Del Rio with her dancing in Venezuela. She likely was not performing the dance the song is now famous for, which was a craze during the mid-’90s.
2017: “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, Feat. Justin Bieber
Following “Macarena” was another 21 years without any foreign-language songs at the top of the charts, and that brings us to 2017’s “Despacito.” The song was on a number-one hit for 16 weeks in 2017, tying “One Sweet Day” by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men for Billboard’s longest reign. (In 2019, it was beat by the 19-week run of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.”) “Despacito” is one of the most successful Latin songs in history. Notably, there are two versions. There’s the one solely by Puerto Rican musicians Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, which is entirely in Spanish, and the one that has verses by Justin Bieber, which includes English and Spanglish, along with Spanish. It’s the latter which has achieved much more fame in the United States. Surely Justin Bieber’s star power had something to do with this, though Daddy Yankee has had success with two other songs — “Gasolina” and “Rompe” — on the charts. However, neither of those reached the top spot.
2020: “Life Goes On” by BTS
Judging by the quick international rise of K-pop, it was only a matter of time for a song sung predominantly in Korean to reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100. It also comes as little surprise that it comes from the group BTS, which is by far the most popular K-pop group in the United States. “Life Goes On” isn’t their first song to hit number one — the group has had five others — but it is the first mostly sung in Korean. This is all the more impressive, because BTS has been shut out by a medium that has historically played a central role in the Billboard Hot 100: radio. While you couldn’t turn on a radio in 2017 without hearing “Despacito,” BTS has not gotten nearly as much playtime as its American counterparts. The group’s success is entirely thanks to its massive, avid fanbase, which has streamed the song close to 15 million times in a single week.
Foreign-Language Songs Playlist
Note: This article was originally published on April 24, 2018.