In the dawn of a new decade, we’re living in a time when it’s pretty common for an English-speaking pop star to guest on the latest urbano song setting the charts on fire. There’s a lot to be excited about having Drake or Nicky Minaj do their best to match Bad Bunny and Karol G on a chart-topper, and it has been a long time coming. A lot had to happen for something like this to be a common occurrence and today we’re going to talk about one such chapter in the history of pop music.
Before the dominance of urbano on the Hot 100 and even the “Latin boom” of the late ’90s, there were pop artists singing translated versions of their hits in Spanish. Superstars like Michael Jackson or Backstreet Boys took songs that had already sold a gazillion copies, got someone to adapt the lyrics to Spanish, hit the studio and released them on Latin radio.
Seeing as how this practice started in the ‘80s and gained popularity in the ‘90s, it’s not surprising why it happened so much. With Spanish-speaking audiences expanding in the U.S. (the Billboard Hot Latin Songs chart was introduced in September 1986) and Latin American markets opening to touring acts, suddenly there was a whole new segment of the population that could buy records. Taking songs that had been proven to be very popular was a no-brainer. Likewise, Spanish-language pop music was soaring as well, thanks to histrionic balladeers with youthful modern looks. All of a sudden, it wasn’t a wild concept to think you could hear Mariah Carey right next to Luis Miguel (of course, both ended up getting closer than that).
In practice, however, things were never as bright as in theory. More often than not, the results were awkward, and sometimes cringe-worthy. Weird translations made lyrics sound like gibberish instead of heartfelt, and most vocal coaches would underestimate the difficulty of a non-Spanish speaker singing outside of their own language. As such, most didn’t overtake Latin pop radio, while others are better left in obscurity.
Digging through this selection of songs makes for an interesting – and at times comical – experience. It also reveals that, while a large number of these songs are ballads, there’s a lot of diversity in terms of the types of artists who were willing to make one of their songs en español. One can almost fantasize about those artists who didn’t make their own hit in Spanish, like Britney Spears recording “No Soy Una Niña, Tampoco Aún Una Mujer,” Prince interpreting “Lluvia Púrpura,” or Kiss giving us “Yo Fui Hecho Para Amarte.” This list is by no means complete, so shouts to Celine Dion, Toni Braxton, and Boyz II Men for their versions that didn’t make the cut.
So come with us on this journey of bad translations and embarrassing mispronunciations.
Blondie - “Llámame”
One of the first Spanish versions of prominence, the Debby Harry-fronted punk/pop/new wave phenomenon took their contribution to the soundtrack of the film American Gigolo, “Call Me” (it’s worth noting that Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love” was originally included in the soundtrack to Pretty Woman. What is it about Spanish versions and Richard Gere movies?) and made it en español. Perhaps the most notable aspect of this version is that it was released on the legendary disco/boogie label Salsoul.
The Police - “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” / Sting - “Mariposa Libre”
There’s little sense of making one of the most recognizable songs by The Police in Spanish, let alone one where the whole point is that it revolves around a hook of gibbering instead of actual words, but they did it. Mercifully, Sting tried Spanish again for his EP Nada Como El Sol, including his cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” with a deeper understanding of the language and trying to write something this time. The only problem with hearing Sting sing in Spanish is that it might give you flashbacks of listening to Maná, for better or worse.
Roxette - “No Sé Si Es Amor”
The Swedish duo Roxette was such a force in the late ‘80s that it was impossible to ignore them, yet they made sure there wouldn’t be a chance for anyone to not know about them. That’s how they made one of their biggest chart successes “It Must Have Been Love” into another success. Not content with it, in 1996 they released the album Baladas en Español which sold 1.2 million copies worldwide; and continued the trend into 1999 with Have a Nice Day with three songs in Spanish on the Latin American edition.
Scorpions - “Vientos de Cambios”
Surprisingly, some hard rock acts lent themselves to the practice, since you wouldn’t think longhairs shredding their guitars would care about doing something in another language. Perhaps it was the prominence of the power ballad that made it okay to sing en español; Bon Jovi thought so and made two of their ‘90s slow jams in Spanish. But perhaps the most bizarre of these occurrences was the Scorpions, the German mainstays translating their reflections about the fall of the USSR in Spanish, for some reason. They made a Russian version as well, which went better with the theme of the lyrics.
David Lee Roth - “Así Es La Vida”
Most hard rockers would have chosen a power ballad to sing in Spanish, but the former Van Halen frontman is anything but standard. For his solo debut LP, Diamond Dave decided to rerelease the whole thing in Spanish as Sonrisa Salvaje after his bassist told him about how half the population of Mexico was a prime demographic for buying records. Not only did he shamelessly commit some of the most broken Spanish to a major label release, he included a cringey and over the top version of “That’s Life,” made famous by Frank Sinatra. You really have to hear it for yourself.
Madonna - “Verás”
Madonna’s fling with Spanish began with “Las Isla Bonita,” one of her biggest hits of the ‘80s; yet it was just a small nod to the language, little beyond the title and the phrase “me dijo ‘te amo,’” in the lyrics. She didn’t go fully into the language until the next decade with this version of her showstopping ballad “You’ll See.” This version sees Madge commit to the song not only music-wise, but also the video – which features a bullfighter – so there’s that. Do what you will with that information.
Mariah Carey - “El Amor Que Yo Soñé”
An explanation for Mariah’s willingness to sing in Spanish might have to do with her father being of Venezuelan origins. The fact is that Carey made quite a few of her songs in Spanish, but unfortunately has been only preserved in the digital age via YouTube. “El Amor Que Yo Soñé” deserves a special mention since it’s actually a translated version of the classic power ballad “Open Arms” by Journey, which you can listen to if you ever wanted to hear a song by the ‘70s band en español.
NSync - “Te Voy Amar” / “Gone” // Backstreets Boys - “Nunca Te Hare Llorar”
In this entry, we pit the biggest boy bands of all time against each other in terms of who made better Spanish versions of their songs. Right out of the gate, NSync gets ahead by doing two of their biggest ballads while Backstreet Boys only made one version in the language. Having said that, both of NSync’s contributions suffer from badly interpreted lyrics and Justin Timberlake’s pre-SexyBack screeching vocals, which are not made to speak Spanish. BSB, on the other hand, make the most of their limited dominance of Spanish and go a step further in terms of quality.
Christina Aguilera - “Genio Atrapado”
Undoubtedly thought of as the perfect storm of chart success, the idea of the late-’90s co-princess of pop making a record in Spanish during the era’s Latin Boom most have given record execs dollar signs for eyes; and the album, Mi Reflejo might have worked if Aguilera knew a bit of Spanish before awkwardly rerecording five of her songs from her debut album and a few newer ones. This version of “Genie In A Bottle” takes the cringe-cake and makes it evident that Xtina was not up to this challenge. Special shout out to a pre-”Despacito” Luis Fonsi, who appears here in the song “Si No Te Hubiera Conocido,” making moves that would eventually pay off.
Beyoncé - “Irreemplazable”
Perhaps one of the last of this sort of songs to be made, this Beyoncé solo hit doesn’t seem like the prime candidate to translate. While Queen Bey has some choice ballads, she decided to do Spanish on this mid-tempo kiss-off that remains a banger even after Lemonade. Although there are a few awkward lyrical moments, this is surprisingly really well done, especially Beyoncé’s pronunciation, so big ups to Bey being perfect as usual.