Spotify Wrapped Lists and Today’s Global Language Trends

Sam Quillen
5 min readDec 30, 2023

Each December, Spotify publishes “Wrapped” playlists, showing users the top songs, artists, and genres they listened to in the past year. Apart from furnishing content for tiresome Instagram stories, their data on half a billion listeners around the world offer unique insights into real-time language trends.

Perhaps the most important of these is the slight, yet meaningful decline in English as the world’s hegemonic cultural language. In 2020, for the first time, a non-Anglophone artist took the top spot in the global music industry. That artist was Bad Bunny, a Puerto Rican pop star whose appeal, and sometimes lyrics, bridge the gap between the world’s two most popular musical languages.

Last year’s top artists included a Puerto Rican who sings mostly in Spanish, an American country star, two Canadians performing in an American genre, and a K-pop group with a massive fan base across Asia.

The continuing preeminence of English, whose dominance in business and most other communication shows few signs of eroding, will not surprise anyone. But the second language of the music world is not Mandarin, French, Arabic, or Russian, but one that punches below its weight in most other fields. Led by Bad Bunny, who was the world #1 for three years until being overtaken in 2023 by the all-American world sensation that is Taylor Swift, Spanish-speaking artists have secured a dominance in their home turf almost as complete as Anglophone artists in theirs.

In the past five years, the share of streaming in Spanish in Spotify’s Spanish-language group rose from 75% to 86%. No English song has topped Spotify’s charts anywhere in Hispanophone South America since 2017. Meanwhile, the position of English in the English group slid slightly, from 92% to 90%.

This was largely thanks to the ascent of Latin American music in the world’s largest market. Stars like Bad Bunny have obvious appeal among America’s large Latino population, but also among increasingly among Anglos and beyond. Spanish hits have topped the charts from Italy to Iceland, and especially Spain, where news reports regularly comment on the growing use of Latin American slang among the country’s youth (perhaps unusually, few Spaniards seem to have a problem with this, in contrast to Portugal, where the analogous cultural creep of Brazilian has caused a minor moral panic.)

While English has held strong at home, it has lost considerable ground elsewhere. (Credit: The Economist.)

The dominance of New World accents in global Spanish music mirrors an established trend in English. Singers from Britain to New Zealand tend to “sound American” in their music. This is partially for linguistic reasons: accent is determined mostly by vowel length and quality, and singing tends to level them out into something that sounds vaguely American.

But it is also cultural. New artists follow the styles of their genre, and pop icons since the Beatles have hewed toward a more American style. There are exceptions. British grime acts have no interest in sounding un-British, and young American country artists continue to sing in traditional Southern accents, even as they and their peers increasingly sound like Yankees in daily speech. It is possible that the globalisation of Spanish music will yield some accent leveling (probably to something akin to the uncontroversial Colombian accent), but no one seriously expects the next generation of madrileños to grow up speaking like Puerto Ricans.

GAI, China’s top rapper, mixes into his music both English lyrics and CCP messaging (photo credit: Asia Times).

All this could be interpreted as a blow against globalisation, as pop culture balkanises into different language communities. But it also represents an advance, as cultures around the world truly enter the international mainstream. Brazilian and Korean people never stopped performing their own traditional music, but now their artists are known worldwide alongside American stars.

Yet, in spite of their success, the continuing global preeminence of English in most other fields of human activity still shines through. Artists around the world, even those whose fans mostly do not speak English, sprinkle English lyrics into their music for a cosmopolitan flair. GAI, a Chinese rap star who has skillfully trodden a fine line to stay on the right side of his country’s conservative authorities, has also evidenced some facility performing in English. The Korean pop sensation BTS collaborated with the American artist Halsey to produce an all-English song.

The cultural creep stokes resentment among some. In Was du Liebe nennst (“What You Call Love”), which topped the charts in Germany and Austria in summer 2017, Saarbrücken-born rapper Bausa implores the object of his affections, “Baby gib mir deinen Fake Love / und ich rede nicht von diesem schei∫ Drake Song” (“Baby, give me your Fake Love / and I’m not talking about that f***ing Drake song”).

Tomorrowland, Europe’s top electronic festival, is performed in a Dutch-speaking region of a French-majority country, by artists from around the world who generally favour English (photo credit: Variety).

For the most part, however, listeners from Chile to China seem to enjoy having a choice of local or international options. While Germans and Finns, who generally speak good English, have gravitated toward their own stars, their Luxembourgeois and Latvian neighbours remain more Anglophile than Americans. While Lithuanians have embraced native artists, the only non-English top hits in Latvia in recent years have been in Russian or Spanish.

The best, and most entertaining, examples of the internationalisation of music can be found when people become fans of songs in languages they do not speak at all. Play Despacito or Pepas at a party in the United States, and you will immediately have people singing along in spite of knowing little Spanish beyond the eponymous lyrics. By contrast, many Latin Americans seem to think the titular chorus of the 1993 hit This Is the Rhythm of the Night (performed by a band from Italy) is “Esos son Reebok o son Nike” (“are those Reebok or Nike”). In his 2021 single Yonaguni, Bad Bunny made an admirable attempt to sing in Japanese, to the delight of fans who had no idea what he was saying. Politicians and pundits like to talk about rising global tensions, but it seems that real people around the world are as enthusiastic as ever to share the happier parts of life.

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Sam Quillen

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets