Transnationalism and Music: Hit Songs in Foreign Languages

This clip is a list of songs in foreign languages that have reached the top of the US charts.

It suggests an interesting elaboration of the ideas of Westernization presented in We Need New Names. In the novel the children sing American songs, such as Lady Gaga. This is one example of increasing Westernization, and a certain type of uneven cultural “development”; they have heard of Lady Gaga, but not the word “wow”.

However, this phenomena also occurs in Western English-speaking places. Numerous songs have become popular in the US despite the fact that most people do not know what they mean. For instance, Gangnam Style is the most viewed video on Youtube even though most viewers do not speak Korean or know what Gangnam is.

The popularity of these songs can be related to Appadurai’s idea of “scapes”. This concept suggests that songs do not just flow away from the US, but also to it, and sheds light on why this occurs. The technoscape and mediascape allow music to be transferred from certain countries (it is probably not coincidence that most of the songs come from industrialized nations). The ethnoscape might have an influence, because when individuals move and become deterritorialized, they may want to experience their native culture, and music might be part of this.

The popularity of these songs can be related to Anderson’s suggestion that the idea of the “sacred language” no longer exists. Therefore, individuals accept the idea that a song contains some truth, even if it is not in their language.

In many of the course texts, such as Quicksand, music is transnational and a means of understanding identity.

– Tanya Sheehan

3 thoughts on “Transnationalism and Music: Hit Songs in Foreign Languages”

  1. The example of “Gangnam Style” is an interesting one, in my opinion, because the song’s music video presents a variety of rather lavish and over-the-top scenes (with special effects, disco balls, large dance numbers, several costume changes, etc.)–indicating a rather technologically-equipped foreign country, but one employing a more Westernized tone. What’s perhaps more interesting is that, in watching the music video without hearing the song lyrics (some of which are in English), one might think the video made in America: it certainly has an element of absurdity or humor to it that people here seem to understand and enjoy. I wonder if, in the future, the concept of transnationalism will be harder to understand because level of interconnectedness between industrialized nations will have become so large as to blur the distinctions between them–a homogenization of culture, so to speak. Or could it be that other countries tend to adopt some of the cultural aspects of those countries in power? It could be both and more, I suppose.



  2. It is interesting to consider how these mediascapes, such as popular music may traverse national boundaries more easily than other cultural forms. In America, we may listen to a foreign song or watch a foreign movie while having little other exposure to cultural practices or identities. We much more readily consume these mass produced media forms than other signifiers of national identity, receiving only snippets of a culture from these outside sources. Of course, certain media forms may be more authentic or revealing than others, helping illustrate a nation or culture for foreign audiences. Yet, other more commercialized media forms, such as popular songs, may not characterize a culture accurately, but rather are meant to cater to an audience predisposed to mass produced music. This media may thereby loose much of its national identity in favor of a more homogenous form that is accepted by a wider, more westernized audience. Pop culture tends to adopt a very universal, uniform identity, making it easier to traverse national borders and find success in the global sphere.

    Audrey McFarland


  3. Audrey, I think you make a good point about how much of the national identity of the song is lost when a Western audience receives it, but not necessarily just because of the artistic choices of the performer. If we go with the example of “Gangnam Style”, the song is actually criticising the obsession with affluence and status in the Gangnam neighbourhood of Seoul; an area in which pretending to have these things means trying to seem more ‘Western’. It’s ironic that the song took on so much popularity in the English-speaking world when it is actually critical of those in Korea who try to pretend like they are a part of that. It did lose a lot of national identity as it spread round the world, but not because it wasn’t present in the song–those listening just didn’t care.

    Katie Day


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