- Sep 26, 2017
What Spotify data show about the decline of English
Our interactive analysis of five years of hits in 70 countries—and the links between themJan 29th 2022
BAD BUNNY may not be a household name in the English-speaking world. Yet the Puerto Rican rapper, whose verses are usually in Spanish (and, on one occasion, Japanese), was the most played artist in 2020 and 2021 for listeners on Spotify, the world’s largest music-streaming platform. Such success might have been harder to achieve 30 years ago when English was dominant. In the new digital era, it is becoming ever more common.
[ Skip to the audio interactive ]
To investigate the evolution of music tastes across the world, The Economist trawled through the top 100 tracks in 70 countries according to Spotify. Examining 13,000 hits in 70 languages along with other data like genre, lyrical language and nationality of artist, we sought to group countries according to musical similarity.
On these 320,000 records, we employed a principal-components analysis to assess the degree of musical kinship between countries, and then a clustering algorithm (known as k-means) to group them. Three broad clusters emerged: a contingent in which English is dominant; a Spanish-language ecosystem; and a third group that mostly enjoys local songs in various tongues. Across all, one trend emerged: the hegemony of English is in decline.
The drop over the past five years is mostly concentrated outside the English sphere. Within the Spanish cluster, English quickly lost ground—from 25% of hits to 14%—as native artists like Bad Bunny and Rauw Alejandro became internationally ascendant. Among the local-language cluster, in countries with strong, indigenous music cultures—like Brazil, France and Japan—English declined even more precipitously, dropping from 52% of hit songs to just 30%. Only in the English cluster did the language remain unfazed, dropping only slightly from 92% to 90%.
There is no doubt that, despite its decline, English is still king. Of the 50 most-streamed tracks on Spotify over the past five years, 47 were in English. And the genres it incubated are being widely adopted elsewhere. There is now excellent rap available in Arabic, Russian and, of course, Spanish. A sign of the momentum in global-music tastes comes from a collaboration in 2018 between two superstars—Bad Bunny and Drake, the self-proclaimed king of rap in English. On that occasion, Drake delivered the chorus in Spanish.
Songs jump musical cultures more often than before. Modern drivers like social media are to blame. To demonstrate this, we plotted the most-streamed song for countries in each group weekly for the full five-year period, revealing precisely when and where these leaps happen.
We have designed an interactive matrix showcasing the most-streamed song on Spotify in 70 countries every week from December 2016 to the first week of 2022. These range from global blockbuster hits like Ed Sheeran’s exceedingly saccharine and exceedingly catchy “Shape of You” to niche sensations in Japan and Iceland.
Hover to reveal the song and its language, and see how far its popularity spread.
Click to listen to snippets of every song and explore musical tastes around the world—from Polish rap to Brazilian pop.
[ cropped screenshot: ]
Note: We labelled each of the roughly 1,700 songs with the lyrics language using an automated technique. While the reliability of this method is good, occasional errors may have crept in.
Each song is only labelled with one language. Where a song contains two or more languages, our automated method makes a best guess.
Spotify is not available in every country and launched in some countries only midway through the time period analysed, which is why there are initially no data for some countries.
Audio and album images courtesy of Spotify.
Sources: Spotify; Genius; Google Translate; Musixmatch; Popnable; Soundcharts; The Economist