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10 Great Songs That Topped US Charts But Weren’t Performed In English
Psy’s K-pop single “Gangnam Style” became a megahit in the United States and throughout the world when it was released in 2012. It peaked at No. 2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 Chart and even broke a world record, becoming the first video to be viewed over two billion times on YouTube. But this was not first time a foreign-tongued tune became popular in the US.
Despite the vast majority of Americans having no clue what they were actually saying, these 10 artists also managed to find success in the land of Bruce Springsteen and apple pie. And no, “Macarena” doesn’t count.
10‘Da Da Da’
After it was released by the German band Trio in 1982, the dance-pop song “Da da da, ich lieb’ dich nicht du liebst mich nicht aha aha aha” (thankfully often shortened to just “Da Da Da”) experienced relative success on US music charts, peaking at No. 33 on the US Billboard Hot Dance Club Play Chart.
The song received even more attention through its use in several commercials, such as a 1997 commercial for Volkswagen of America and a commercial for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer that aired the same year. American pop star Christina Aguilera even covered the song for a 2006 Pepsi advertisement.
In 1985, in the wake of their hit song, Trio produced a movie called Drei gegen Drei (in English: Three Against Three). In this action-comedy film, three Berlin residents—played by the band’s three members—get mixed up with three corrupt South American generals, also played by the band. The movie had nothing to do with their music, and, not surprisingly, it flopped. Its soundtrack became Trio’s final album, and shortly after its release, the band called it quits amid financial squabbles.
The German industrial metal band Rammstein has found a fair amount of success in the US over the last two decades. Their 1997 song “Du Hast” reached No. 20 on the US Billboard Mainstream Rock Songs Chart. In addition to achieving success on the charts, the song has appeared in several soundtracks for films, most notably in the soundtrack for 1999’s The Matrix.
Rammstein found further success in the US with their 2004 song “Amerika”—a commentary on the worldwide influence of American culture, complete with a music video parody of Apollo 11’s 1969 moon landing—which peaked at No. 40 on the US Billboard Alternative Songs Chart.
The song’s lyrics are a metaphor, making the point that American culture extends globally, thereby making it virtually inescapable. For example, in the song’s music video, actors playing African tribespeople are seen eating out of pizza boxes and sitting on Santa Claus’s lap. The song makes several allusions to other American cultural staples, with Coca-Cola, the Wonderbra, and Mickey Mouse appearing in the lyrics, satirically placed alongside references to war.
As of this year, Rammstein is on hiatus.
8‘Ca plane pour moi’
This catchy, French-language, punk-pop song was released by the Belgian singer Plastic Bertrand in 1977. It reached No. 47 on the US Billboard Hot 100 Chart.
In 2006, nearly 30 years after “Ca plane pour moi” was released, questions surfaced about who actually provided the vocals for the hit song. Lou Deprijck, the song’s producer, claimed he was the one who sang it, not Bertrand. A court case ensued, and the judge ruled in favor of Bertrand, branding him the “legal performer” of the song.
But in 2010, the ruling was appealed and overturned. The court’s new decision came after an expert linguist analyzed Deprijck’s 2006 cover version of the song and determined he was the one singing on the original track as well. The expert said he came to this conclusion based on Deprijck’s accent. Shortly after, Bertrand admitted he did not provide the vocals for any of his first four studio albums.
“Eres tu” was originally performed by the Spanish band Mocedades as an entry in the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest. It won second place in the contest and was later released as a single, reaching No. 9 on the US Billboard Hot 100 Chart.
After the song’s success, Mocedades recorded versions in English, German, French, Italian, and Basque. The song has also been covered hundreds of times and by several well-known musicians, including Bing Crosby, Charo, and Perry Como.
One cover version, recorded by Eydie Gorme the same year the original was released, became a minor hit, reaching No. 41 on the US Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart. You may recognize this song from the 1995 movie Tommy Boy. In one memorable scene, Chris Farley and David Spade’s characters sing along to “Eres tu” as it plays on the car radio.
Mocedades has been active for an impressive 45 years, albeit with a plethora of member changes.
6‘Sadness (Part I)’
Enigma’s 1990 dance-pop hit “Sadness (Part I)” features Gregorian, choir-like vocals sung in French and Latin—because, of course, there’s nothing like brushing up on your high school Latin skills while you’re at the club. The song reached No. 5 on the US Billboard Hot 100 Chart and No. 1 on the Hot Dance Club Play Chart. The song was very popular outside of the US, too, reaching No. 1 in a whopping 24 countries.
The five-track CD single for the US featured several different versions of the song, including a “Violent US Remix,” a “Meditation Mix,” and an “Extended Trance Mix.” Most of the Gregorian vocals for the song were taken, without permission, from a 1976 album by the German choir Capella Antiqua München and conductor Konrad Ruhland. They filed a lawsuit over it in 1994, which was settled with financial compensation.
The German New Age music project Enigma is still active today, although they haven’t released an album since 2008.
The anti-war protest song “99 Luftballons,” released by the German artist Nena in 1983, reached No. 2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 Chart. After the success of the original version, Nena released an English-language version called “99 Red Balloons,” which topped the charts in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Ireland, but, interestingly enough, never even charted in the States. The song is about a nuclear war that starts after a civilian releases a bag full of helium balloons into the air and they are mistakenly registered as missiles by an early-warning system.
In 2006, as part of the relief effort for Hurricane Katrina, VH1 Classic let viewers who made a donation of $35,000 program the channel with the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s music videos of their choice for an entire hour. Strangely, one viewer who made the hefty donation opted for the music videos for both “99 Luftballons” and “99 Red Balloons” to be played continuously for the full hour.
At age 54, Nena is still active. Her last album was released in 2012, and she still holds dear the success “99 Luftballons” brought her. She even released a modernized version of it in 2002.
This is the best-known adaptation of the Mexican folk song “La Bamba,” released by Ritchie Valens in 1958. Valens’s version reached No. 22 on the US Billboard Hot 100 Chart and is ranked No. 354 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Shortly after the success of “La Bamba,” Valens, a pioneer of the Spanish-language rock-and-roll movement, died tragically in the February 3, 1959 plane crash that also claimed the lives of music legends Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. Through Don McLean’s 1971 song “American Pie,” the date became known as “The Day the Music Died.”
In 1987, Los Lobos covered the song as the title track of La Bamba, a biographical film about Valens’s life. This version charted at No. 1 in the US. It’s probably safe to assume that “La Bamba” has become the most popular request received by Mexican-restaurant mariachi bands the world over.
3‘Rock Me Amadeus’
Austrian musician Falco released “Rock Me Amadeus” in Germany in 1985, releasing it to the rest of the world in 1986. The song soon scored the No. 1 spot on the US Billboard Hot 100 Chart. It was ranked No. 87 on VH1’s list of “100 Greatest Songs of the ‘80s” and No. 44 on its list of the “100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders.” As its name suggests, the song is about the classical music composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The music video for it blends elements of Mozart’s era—the late 18th century—with elements of the 1980s.
Many have parodied “Rock Me Amadeus,” including “Weird Al” Yankovic, in his 1986 song “Polka Party.” Variations of the song have also appeared in popular shows like The Simpsons, Family Guy, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Falco tragically died when his SUV collided with a bus in the Dominican Republic in 1998. He was only 40 years old.
Japanese crooner Kyu Sakamoto’s song “Sukiyaki” (not to be confused with the Japanese soup of the same name) was released in Japan in 1961 and in the US in 1963. It reached No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 Chart. It is the only Japanese-language song to have ever topped music charts in the US. It is also one of the best-selling singles of all time, having sold over 13 million copies.
Like Ritchie Valens, Sakamoto also tragically died in a plane crash. On August 12, 1985, when he was just 43 years old, Sakamoto died in the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123, which was the deadliest single-aircraft accident in history, killing 520 people.
The song “Sukiyaki” has lived on for decades, appearing frequently in US pop culture. It has been featured in TV shows like Malcolm in the Middle and Mad Men and movies like Charlie’s Angels, to name a few.
The Singing Nun
The French-language song “Dominique” was released in 1963 by the Belgian singer Jeanine Deckers, better known as “Soeur Sourire” or “The Singing Nun.” It reached No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 Chart, where it stayed for four weeks, even outselling artists like Elvis Presley and the Beatles. The Singing Nun never repeated the international success she had with “Dominique,” and in 1985, when she was 51 years old, Deckers and her life partner Annie Pecher committed suicide by overdosing on barbiturates and alcohol.
If you are a fan of FX’s American Horror Story, you may recognize the song, as it was played frequently in the show’s second season. In it, the song is played over and over again in an insane asylum, and the patients are punished if they try to stop it from playing. Listen to it once, and you’ll realize how listening to it for 24 hours a day would become torturous.
Angelo J. Verzoni recently graduated from Boston University, where he studied journalism and chemistry. Angelo is a freelance writer with an interest in science, sports, and music journalism.