When was the last time you heard a song with non-English lyrics on Top 40 radio? If you're scratching your head, that's likely because it's been a few years since "Gangnam Style" exploded.
Yet there's one star who's been long poised to break out in America, and his moment may finally have come. One of the breakout stars of this year's SXSW festival is Stromae, a European pop legend who is about to make it big in America. It's about time.
Stromae, real name Paul Van Haver, is a Belgian pop star already well-established across Europe, and for good reason. The 30-year-old musician has an impressive resume: His video for "Papaoutai" has over 240 million views on YouTube and 65 million Spotify streams. Stromae's second album, Racine Carrée, went eight times platinum in Belgium and made similarly significant dents across Europe. The artist attracted the attention of fellow pop import Lorde, who enlisted him for "Meltdown," a track from the Hunger Games: Mockingjay soundtrack she curated. He's also caught American critics' eyes, to the tune of a Time Out New York cover in 2014 and live SXSW coverage from NPR this month.
Stromae's music is ripe for American audiences. It's fashionably melodramatic, propelled in equal parts by a strong dance sensibility and a wry grasp on the disillusion common to young Europeans after the Eurozone crisis. Stromae uses his androgyny to stirring effect, too, making bold musical commentary on gender fluidity and imprisoning social norms. He is the best kind of pop star — irresistibly compelling and artistically and socially aware.
Yet all across SXSW, Stromae's showcase was advertised with a poster that read "Who the hell is Stromae?" And you won't hear "Papaoutai" on American pop radio. That's likely because the lyrics are not in English. The title translates from its original French to "Dad, Where Are You?" and the song tells the story, unsurprisingly, of a man looking for his father. The subject matter couldn't be more relevant to Stromae, whose own father, absent for most of his childhood, was killed in the Rwandan genocide when the musician was a small child. Given Stromae's history, lines like "Everyone knows how to make babies / nobody knows how to make fathers" pack an especially powerful punch. You wouldn't know it was such a downer of a song from listening to the music itself, though, which is as upbeat and poppy as anything on American pop radio.
Foreign-language songs have always had a tough time cracking the American pop charts. One of the most popular in recent memory, Psy's "Gangnam Style," was partially propelled by its viral-ready video — it's hard to say if the song would have taken off stateside had it not been for those easily meme-able dance moves. Several other major foreign language hits, like Los Del Rio's "Macarena" and Los Lobos' version of "La Bamba" (the last foreign-language song to top the Billboard Hot 100, way back in 1987) are also dance-inspired, which speaks more to the novelty of the songs than to their actual artistic merit.
Stromae, however, is no novelty act. He's a serious artist with much to contribute to the pop conversation. So while it may take you a little longer to learn his lyrics than those of, say, the new Carly Rae Jepsen song, it's worth your while. Kanye West and Angel Haze have already repackaged him for American audiences by creating English versions of some of his biggest songs. Those are a good place to start, but every song Stromae touches merits a global audience. Much of the rest of the world can see Stromae for what he is — a superstar. It's time America took the leap and embraced him, too.