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Politics | Analysis

America's No. 1 song isn't in English. That doesn't happen often.

By Philip Bump

June 2, 2017 at 1:28 PM

An image from the video for “Despacito.” (Vevo/YouTube)

For the second week in a row, the song that's sitting atop the Billboard Hot 100 list is "Despacito," a Spanish-language track by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, with an assist from Canadian boy Justin Bieber. (It's Bieber's third week in a row singing on a No. 1 track since he was on D.J. Khaled's "I'm the One" which was No. 1 before "Despacito.")

Perhaps needless to say, it's not common for non-English-language tracks to land very high on the Billboard charts. Over the past 35 years, we identified 15 songs that matched that criterion.

The 15 are listed at the bottom of this article, along with videos of them, which we cannot promise don't contain adult themes and language. You'll notice that some of them are songs with which you're probably quite familiar, but which you don't really think of as foreign-language songs — like Psy's "Gangnam Style" or Nena's "99 Luftballons."

There are two ways in which "Despacito" is worth looking at more closely.

The first is that it follows a new wave of non-English songs rooted in Latino culture. A number of the songs on our list are there because they're catchy dance tracks that bridged the language barrier simply by virtue of being catchy. (The Macarena, for example, or "It's Tough to Be a Baby," which is apparently a real song.) As you can see in the chart above, in 2004 and 2005, a number of Spanish-language songs entered the Billboard Hot 100 in a row. Two were Daddy Yankee tracks (he knows how to make a hit), one was from Shakira and another from N.O.R.E. These were mainstream tracks, not gimmicky ones. And while none cracked the top 10, all did well.

Part of that is the growth in the country's Spanish-speaking population. While no one needs to understand the language of a song to enjoy it (again, see "Gangnam Style"), it's clear that there's a link between the success of Spanish-language songs and the increase in the number of Spanish-speaking Americans. In 1980, 4.9 percent of the country spoke Spanish. In 2015, 11.5 percent did — more than 1-in-10.

The other reason that "Despacito" is interesting is how it reached the top spot in the charts. Most songs, including most of the songs below, either shot to the top of the charts and then faded or started low and never really broke out of the mid-tier of the Hot 100. "Despacito," by contrast, slowly gained steam until it shot up from 48th to ninth in its 13th week on the charts.

None of the other 14 songs on our list had the same trajectory. (Click "Add songs" to see how they fared over time.)

"Despacito" started out like Daddy Yankee's "Rompe," floating in the middle for a few months. Then it shot to the top position. How long will it stay there? Impossible to say. "La Bamba" sat at the top of the charts for three weeks, which "Despacito" will hit next week.

One possibility that wouldn't be a surprise, though: if "Despacito's" unique position as a chart-topping Spanish-language song soon becomes not unique.

“99 Luftballons,” Nena

First week on charts: Dec. 10, 1983
Weeks in top 100: 23
Peak: 2
Weeks at peak: 1

“Rock Me Amadeus,” Falco

First week on charts: Feb. 8, 1986
Weeks in top 100: 17
Peak: 1
Weeks at peak: 3

“La Bamba,” Los Lobos

First week on charts: June 27, 1987
Weeks in top 100: 21
Peak: 1
Weeks at peak: 3

“Lambada,” Kaoma

First week on charts: March 3, 1990
Weeks in top 100: 12
Peak: 46
Weeks at peak: 1

“Oye Mi Canto (Hear My Voice),” Gloria Estefan

First week on charts: April 7, 1990
Weeks in top 100: 7
Peak: 48
Weeks at peak: 1

“Sadeness,” Enigma

First week on charts: Feb. 9, 1991
Weeks in top 100: 18
Peak: 5
Weeks at peak: 2

“Dur Dur D’Etre Bebe (It’s Tough To Be A Baby),” Jordy

First week on charts: June 19, 1993
Weeks in top 100: 9
Peak: 58
Weeks at peak: 1

“Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix),” Los Del Rio

First week on charts: Sep. 2, 1995
Weeks in top 100: 20
Peak: 45
Weeks at peak: 4

“No Tengo Dinero,” Los Umbrellos

First week on charts: Aug. 30, 1997
Weeks in top 100: 27
Peak: 42
Weeks at peak: 6

“Oye Mi Canto,” N.O.R.E.

First week on charts: Aug. 28, 2004
Weeks in top 100: 22
Peak: 12
Weeks at peak: 3

“Gasolina,” Daddy Yankee

First week on charts: Nov. 13, 2004
Weeks in top 100: 20
Peak: 32
Weeks at peak: 2

“La Tortura,” Shakira

First week on charts: May 7, 2005
Weeks in top 100: 31
Peak: 23
Weeks at peak: 1

“Rompe,” Daddy Yankee

First week on charts: Dec. 3, 2005
Weeks in top 100: 28
Peak: 24
Weeks at peak: 1

“Gangnam Style,” Psy

First week on charts: Sept. 22, 2012
Weeks in top 100: 31
Peak: 2
Weeks at peak: 7

“Despacito,” Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee Featuring Justin Bieber

First week on charts: Feb. 4
Weeks in top 100: 18
Peak: 1
Weeks at peak: 2 (so far)


Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Post based in New York City.

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