How 'Naatu Naatu' and 'Gangnam Style' got the world dancing
On International Dance Day on April 29, we look at viral non-English hits that became famous for their hook steps, with fans reenacting them on YouTube and TikTok.
The Telugu hit 'Naatu Naatu' is a global sensation: The first song from an Indian film to win the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for best original song, it beat entries by established heavyweights like Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and Rihanna.
The fast-paced 4.5-minute song, which features in the 2022 Telugu-language film RRR, had already become a viral hit in India when the blockbuster film was released last year—not least because it featured nifty choreography that inspired viral trends on social media within India and globally.
Its prestigious awards have seen TikTokers from France to Japan reenacting the song's energetic moves on the social media platform. There's even a witty mash-up on YouTube of an old clip of comedians Laurel & Hardy dancing now to this song.
The song's international popularity also underscores the fact that language is no barrier to enjoying music across borders. Alongside 'Naatu Naatu', here's a look at some international hits that have had the world tapping to their rhythms—without really comprehending their lyrics.
'Naatu Naatu' (2022)
In Telugu, 'Naatu Naatu' simply means "dance, dance". The film RRR, which stands for 'Rise, Roar, Revolt', was written and directed by S.S. Rajamouli and tells the story of two revolutionaries who fight against British rule in India.
The fast-paced 'Naatu Naatu' happens during a garden party scene where the two protagonists—Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem (played by actors Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr. respectively) dance arm-in-arm, thumbing their noses at the British officials who humiliated them.
What is noteworthy is that the song was shot in August 2021 with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy's official residence, the Mariinsky Palace, serving as its backdrop.
In an interview with fellow Indian filmmaker Sandeep Reddy Vanga that was broadcast by the Indian media, Rajamouli said, "[L]uckily, they gave us permission to shoot because the Ukrainian president was a television actor." The film features several other scenes that were also shot at various locations in Kyiv, prior to the war.
Sung entirely in isiZulu, one of the official languages of South Africa, 'Jerusalema' was a 2019 gospel-influenced house song by South African musician and producer Master K.G., and performed by singer-songwriter Nomcebo Zikode.
Having first become a summer hit in the country upon its online release, a music video in December 2019, which drew half a billion views on YouTube, cemented its hit status.
However, 'Jerusalema' went viral globally after a February 2020 video showed Fenomenos do Semba, an Angolan dance troupe, effortlessly dancing to the song while holding plates of food. This spawned the #JerusalemaChallenge, a dance challenge that saw everyone from priests to police officers—many by then in global COVID-19 lockdowns—posting videos of themselves doing the dance in countries as diverse as Portugal, Romania, Jamaica, Canada and Sri Lanka.
'Gangnam Style' (2012)
Probably the only lyrics the non-Korean speakers among us could sing along to in this viral K-pop song were, "Op op op op—oppa Gangnam style".
'Gangnam style' is a Korean term referring to the lifestyle associated with the Gangnam district of Seoul, where people are trendy, hip and exude a certain supposed 'class'.
Sung by South Korean rapper Psy, the accompanying video of his antics and unusual dance steps made him a cultural phenomenon.
After hitting No. 1 in South Korea, the song went viral worldwide in August 2012, peaking at the second spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States and eventually topping charts by the year's end in more than 30 countries including Australia, Canada, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom.
On the Ellen de Generes Show in September 2012, Psy taught singer Britney Spears his dance, which he described as "pretending to bounce like riding on an invisible horse".
Besides winning Best Video at the 2012 MTV Europe Music Awards, the Guinness Book of Records also pronounced 'Gangnam Style' the first-ever YouTube video to hit 1 billion views.
In July 2020, digital publication The Pudding conducted a study on the most iconic 1990s songs that are most known to Millennials and Gen Z. 'Macarena' placed eighth in recognisability.
The dance song by Spanish duo Los del Rio was originally penned as an ode to a flamenco dancer and released in Spanish in 1993.
But it was the 1996 remixed version by the Bayside Boys, featuring English verses and a Spanish chorus, that made waves globally. The music video featuring a culturally representative bevy of beauties dancing its now famous steps turned it into a viral sensation—predating the TikTok era.
So, who is Macarena actually? She's basically a girl who decides to "give her body some joy"—as translated from the Spanish chorus. Ironic, since an oft-repeated English line in the remixed version goes, "I'm not trying to seduce you."
Way before YouTube and social media platforms were even conceived, the lambada raised eyebrows and made waves worldwide.
Coming from a Portuguese word that refers to the wave-like motion of a whip, the music video that accompanied French-Brazilian pop group Kaoma's 1989 hit saw couples engaging in an erotic dance.
Dancing in very close proximity, they synchronically gyrated their hips to the song's beat. No surprise, then, that it was also nicknamed "the forbidden dance" in certain quarters—with some countries like Malaysia even banning the video from being aired on television for fear of corrupting public morals.
Following its release in July 1989, the Portuguese song steadily topped charts in Europe, Latin America and, finally, the United States, where it spent seven weeks at the top spot of the Billboard Hot Latin Chart.
However, the song was an unauthorised translation of a Bolivian folk song recorded by Los Kjarkas in 1981, called 'Llorando se fue'. In 1990, Los Kjarkas sued Kaoma. After winning the case, the Bolivian band authorised the translation of the song into 42 languages—as long as the correct original authors appeared on new releases and were paid for the licensing of the song.
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