Foreign language hits don’t often break onto Top 40 airwaves, but when they do, they’re usually loaded with earworms and make terrific karaoke fodder. But when we start singing along, what exactly are we saying? Probably not what you think. Here are five hit songs in other languages and what the heck they actually mean once they’re translated.
1. Nena, “99 Luftballons”
Run Nena’s chirpy 1983 pop song through a translator, and the cheery German hit gets pretty sinister, pretty quickly. Nena guitar slinger Carlos Karges drew inspiration for the anti-war protest tune when he watched an army of balloons get released at a 1982 Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin.
His musings on the balloons’ ascension over the Berlin Wall (“99 balloons on their way to the horizon / People think they’re UFOs from space”) and into the Soviet Bloc gave way to lyrics about war and paranoia—99 luftballons become 99 fighter jets, war ministers, and years of war as the hysterical overreactions in the lyrics escalate.
Nena recorded an English version, retitled “99 Red Balloons,” but argued that the satirical rewrite felt unfaithful to the German meaning. The less cutesy German cut became an American smash, peaking at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
2. Ritchie Valens, “La Bamba”
Like “The Twist” or “The Cha Cha Slide,” “La Bamba” steals its name from a dance—one it doesn’t bother teaching listeners how to do. The term comes from the Spanish verb bambolear (to swing), and apparently all we need to dance it is “una poca de gracia” (a little grace). Valens doesn’t give away the moves, but la bamba is a traditional wedding dance for newlyweds in Veracruz. The Ritchie Valens hit started as a Mexican folk tune hailing from Veracruz and is now a mariachi staple.
3. Psy, "Gentleman"
The “Gangnam Style” rapper staved off one-hit wonder status when his video for “Gentleman” caught fire on YouTube. While “Gangnam Style” mocked Seoul’s pseudo-high-class district, “Gentleman” satirizes boorish boys claiming to be gentlemen who are anything but. The Korean sensation keeps his chorus classy, shouting, “I’m a mother-father gentleman” instead of another F-word that fits the blank.
Psy’s satirical (okay, silly) lyrics translate into eyebrow-raising one-liners like, “I’m a cool guy with courage, spirit and craziness” and “Damn girl! I’m a party mafia!” Like the social consciousness of “Gangnam Style,” Psy’s subversive sense of humor might only exist for the love of a good translator, save for a music video where a gleeful Psy plays ungentlemanly pranks on unsuspecting women.
4. Falco, “Rock Me Amadeus”
Falco’s only number one stateside hit was a synthpop love letter to countryman Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who Falco describes as “ein Punker” (a punk), “ein Rockidol” (a rock idol), and “ein Mann der Frauen” (a women’s man). Taking a few pages from the book of period drama Amadeus, Falco painted the composer as a rock ‘n’ roll rebel and a prodigy from Vienna who drank, got the girls, and wrote totally punk symphonies.
5. Los Del Rio, “Macarena”
After mumbling a whole bunch of Spanish words, “Hey, Macarena!” is a fun thing to shout in the dance hit’s chorus, until you realize you’re shouting the name of a girl cheating on her boyfriend. When Vitorino, Macarena’s beau, enlists the army (“en la jura de bandera de muchacho”), she takes up with his two of his friends (“se la dió con dos amigos”).
So when the chorus kicks in a second time with “Dale la cuerpo alegria Macarena,” ("Give happiness to your body, Macarena"), there’s some serious double entendre going on—it’s probably not just the dancing Los Del Rio are singing about. Poor Vitorino: Even with the army angle cut from the U.S. remix, Macarena still cheats when he goes out of town for a weekend.