The ‘Zou Bisou Bisou’ Revue: Foreign-Language Songs on U.S. Pop Charts

With Megan Draper’s provocative rendition of “Zou Bisou Bisou” in the Season 5 opener of Mad Men, the U.S. stands to become rapidly enchanted with sultry French period pop. (The song has already been released as a single on iTunes and on limited-edition vinyl. not blocked at schools) Should it become a bona fide hit, it would join some rarefied company; foreign-language tunes don’t have the best track record in the States. But here are 10 songs that made it into our public consciousness.

1. Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, “Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus”

Let’s start with some sultry French pop of a slightly more risqué sort. Serge Gainsbourg teamed up with his then lover Jane Birkin for a salacious seduction that made it to the top of the British charts in 1969, but its grunts and gasps were a bit too hot for many American DJs to play. “Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus” (literally, “I Love You unblocked school … Me Neither”) peaked — fittingly? — at No. 69.

2. The Singing Nun, “Dominique”

A post-JFK, pre-Beatles America briefly took comfort in “Dominique,” a cloying ditty written and sung by Jeanine Deckers, a Belgian sister who was cleverly dubbed the Singing Nun. Alas, its smash success proved unique-a-nique-a-nique-a for Soeur Sourire. She never repeated the success and committed suicide in 1985.

3. Ritchie Valens, “La Bamba”

If someone came running down the street yelling “I am not a sailor! I am a captain! I am a captain!” you’d probably run the other way. But when 17-year-old Ritchie Valens delivered it as “Yo no soy marinero, soy capitan, soy capitan,” “La Bamba” made a lot more sense. The Mexican folk song was a No. 22 hit just before the singer’s 1959 plane-crash death, and in 1987 Los Lobos took it all the way to No. 1 when they recorded it for the biopic of the same name.

4. Shakira with Alejandro Sanz, “La Tortura”

In the past decade, only Shakira has been able to bring Spanish lyrics to the U.S. pop charts with any regularity. Of the Colombian she-wolf’s canciones en español, the biggest of the bunch is “La Tortura,” a 2005 Latin Grammy–winning duet with Alejandro Sanz whose evocations of passion and frustration are unmistakable and universal.

5. Kyu Sakamoto, “Sukiyaki”

With no hope of its original title “Ue O Muite Aroko” (translation: “I Look Up When I Walk”) being pronounced correctly by DJs or the buying public, Kyu Sakamoto saw his lovelorn Japanese ode retitled “Sukiyaki” for American consumption. It worked: the song hit No. 1 on both the pop and adult-contemporary charts in the spring of ’63, and in later years its inescapable melody was revived with different lyrics by both A Taste of Honey and Raphael Saadiq.

6. Los Del Rio, “Macarena”

We hear the groans already, but “Macarena” was an undeniable smash in 1996, omnipresent on radio and in live venues from clubs to ballparks. Some English lyrics were added to sweeten the pot in the Bayside Boys’ remix, but “Macarena” is mostly delivered in Spanish by Antonio Romero Monge and Rafael Ruiz Perdigones, the Spaniards better known as Los Del Rio.

7. Mocedades, “Eres Tu”

Spain was represented at the 1973 Eurovision contest by Mocedades and their dramatic group-harmony vehicle “Eres Tu.” Translated as “Touch the Wind,” it carried so much feeling in its original tongue that it hit the American Top 10 intact, despite the existence of an English-language re-recording.

8. Domenico Modugno, “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)”

Another veteran of the Eurovision song contest, “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu” was a massive hit, reigning at No. 1 for five weeks in the summer of ’58 — perhaps in part because Americans didn’t know the title means, baffingly, “The Blue Sky, Painted Blue.” Better known to U.S. audiences as “Volare,” it won the Grammys’ first-ever Record of the Year and Song of the Year awards and can still be heard with regularity at your local Sons of Italy; it even survived a dubious disco treatment from Al Martino in ’75.

9. Nena, “99 Luftballons”

The synth-driven ’80s British Invasion was sprinkled with German-connected curiosities like “Der Kommissar,” “Major Tom (Coming Home)” and “Rock Me Amadeus,” but Nena was the artist who came up with the biggest record sung in German. In the U.K. and some parts of the U.S., the English-translated “99 Red Balloons” was the hit, but on the whole, “99 Luftballons” won out, taking its cautionary warning about nuclear-war prospects all the way to No. 2 in 1984.

10. Plastic Bertrand, “Ça Plane Pour Moi”

Spastic, jumpy late-’70s punk rock from the king of the divan concludes this list. A giddy combination of French, English and gibberish, Plastic Bertrand’s “Ça Plane Pour Moi” is a useful bit of carpe diem advice to take with you.