Written by Kaleb Houle-Lawrence – high school Intern

Foreign music. Nowadays it is by no means a foreign concept; we hear international hits on nearly every radio station. Part of this rise can be partially attributed to the up rise in streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. Across the globe, music from other nations is a sensation that pleases the ears of many people. But why did it take so long for this “Foreign Music Phenomenon” to grace the ears of US listeners? The first real international “hit” that I can recall listening to on mainstream radio and music stations was “Gangnam Style” by Psy. I can remember, with a concerning amount of detail, dancing around my primary school gym whipping my hands around to some South Korean song. “Gangnam Style” topped charts in 2013, becoming one of the most heard international songs in the US since the 1970s. The last time a French song performed that well was “Dominique” by Jeanine Deckers in 1963.

Jeanine Deckers – The Singing Nun (Soeur Sourire)

Foreign music has a long history in the United States, however the mainstream music world was mainly devoid of foreign music between 1963 and 2013. Even Gangnam Style, the gateway to foreign music from 2013 onwards, was partially English. Don’t get me wrong, dozens (maybe even hundreds) of multilingual or international songs were playing on the radios, they just didn’t make it mainstream like they do now. There is something about the current cultural climate of the US that makes it easy for international stars to top the charts. I came to realize the abundance of French music in the US over the summer while everything was kind of quiet. I had been listening to podcasts and English music since March, and I was quite tired of it, to say the least. But then the French songs hit my ears and it was a whole new world.

First it was just a few here and there, mostly by Marie Mai and Black M. They were simple and easy to understand. It was different, and the sound of French words and a nice background music was miles from what English music could do for me. Eventually, my interest in the music grew exponentially. I find myself now listening to French music every time I turn on Spotify (see My French Playlist). Maybe it was the fact that I began learning French in the spring that facilitated my motivation to hear these songs, but I would like to think that I would have come in contact with them regardless. In fact, I had already taken an interest in some Spanish music that had topped music charts, the most prominent being “Despacito.”

Understanding the music was not what made it special, although being able to understand it makes it that much better. It was something about experiencing something outside of the traditional English that excited parts of my brain that I hadn’t known had been lying dormant. English music is always something I will enjoy, but listening to the sounds of French hits made music a broader experience of multiple dimensions and cultures. There is also a part of me that can feel myself growing as a French speaker through this. I am learning words and phrases that otherwise may have never been covered in my studies. Most of all, listening to French music gives my study sessions a little hop in their step, which is always a positive. 

In a weird way, the way I discovered foreign music reflects the way that the US came to find foreign music. Slowly at first, and then all at once. Foreign music is something that seems so weird and undesirable, but it is truly something remarkable and beautiful. Hearing another language in this format makes it seem so much more approachable and elegant, something that can even stimulate learning and memory. “Gangnam Style” was the beginning of a modern phenomenon, one that had its roots in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but it was a gateway for greater things. The 2020 charts were packed full of international hits from “Soy Yo” to “Le Bal Masqué.” The most important thing in life is to always put yourself out there, so never be afraid to listen to some new music!