When music transcends language – the lasting impact of Despacito

March 15, 2024
When music transcends language – the lasting impact of Despacito

Globalisation has brought about a number of changes to the way we shop, learn, travel and relax. It has also created the opportunity for art – be it music, literature or film – to transcend language and achieve a global impact.  


The song Despacito is the perfect example of this. The lyrics of the song (in Spanish) are familiar to people across the globe as a result of its rise to fame. Luis Fonsi’s song has racked up well over five billion views on YouTube and has won accolades from the American Music Awards, Billboard Music Awards, Billboard Latin Music Awards and Latin Grammy Awards. 

The Spanish language song has been played around the world, with the catchy blend of Latin pop and urban music tapping in perfectly to modern popular culture. 

Impact of Despacito

As well as lining the pockets of writers Luis Fonsi, Erika Ender and Daddy Yankee, Despacito has had a notable impact on Puerto Rico itself (where Fonsi is from). Indeed, it was reported in Puerto Rico that the song and its music video, which showed off Puerto Rican locations such as La Perla in Old San Juan and Club La Factoría, had increased tourist interest in the country by a staggering 45% as a result of its worldwide success. 

The song has also been embraced by the football community in Argentina. After an Argentine band reworked the lyrics and chanted them during matches, the song spread to crowds across the country. Brazil, Uruguay, Tunisia, Israel and Korea all now have their own football anthem version of Despacito. 

Would Despacito have been as popular if it had been translated?

To create a song that becomes a global hit, irrespective of language barriers, is no mean feat. Back in 2012, South Korean K-Pop star Psy managed to capture global attention with his Gangnam Style song and dance, but even he only racked up three billion hits on YouTube. 

Globalisation has certainly created greater opportunity for songs like these to transcend language barriers. The West German hit 99 Luftballons, released in 1983, managed to do the same, becoming popular across Europe and in Japan. However, in order to achieve success with English-speaking audiences, the song had to be translated and released as 99 Red Balloons. The band were never entirely happy with the German translation into English lyrics, which were more of a poetic translation than a direct one. Indeed, singer Nena has performed the song over 500 times but never in English, even when playing at concerts in England. 

Given the sexual nature of Despacito’s lyrics, the song certainly created some controversy. The Malaysian government banned it from airing on government-owned broadcast stations, in response to public complaints, as its un-Islamic lyrics were “not suitable to be heard.” Meanwhile, the Irish Mirror’s Joshua Barrie described the lyrics as “quite rude and a bit creepy” after reading them in translation. It was perhaps as well that a Spanish translation of the lyrics into English wasn’t undertaken by the parents of many of the young people around the world who bought it! 

When music transcends language

While it is a modern-day hit, Despacito is certainly far from the only song to transcend language barriers. Indeed, people from around the globe have shed tears in Italian opera houses over the years, despite not speaking a word of Italian. There is instead a power within the music that can reach out to us without language playing a part – after all, music and language are processed by different parts of the brain, so we don’t need to understand the words of a song to appreciate it and connect to it. Despacito is an excellent contemporary example of this.  


How has "Despacito" influenced the global music industry's approach to non-English songs?

Despacito" has significantly broadened the music industry's receptivity to non-English songs, encouraging a more inclusive global market where music in various languages can achieve mainstream success.

How can music transcend language barriers to connect with global audiences?

We've seen that rhythm, emotion, and universal themes in music, like love or celebration, can resonate across cultures. Incorporating catchy melodies and relatable emotions in our work has helped bridge linguistic divides.

How can controversy impact the global reception of a piece of work, and how should it be managed?

Controversy can both attract attention and spark backlash. We've learned to anticipate potential controversies by thoroughly vetting content and being prepared to engage in open dialogues with audiences to address concerns.

Final thoughts

Have you sung along to Despacito in Spanish without realising that you were singing about rather creepy sexual advances? Would knowing what the lyrics were about have made the song any less popular? Leave a comment to share your views. 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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