5th May, 2001

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As with Jerry Rivera's previous appearance in these pages, "Quiero" was released in both glossy romántica ballad form and awkward midtempo salsa form. The ballad got the video treatment and (I'm guessing) the majority of the crossover general-Latin airplay, while the salsa version would most likely have been limited to tropical or club formats. In any case, the ballad is what I'm considering.

And in the space of two years, Rivera (or his management's apparently accurate conception of what will make for a big hit) has not changed. "Quiero" is a lesser retread of "Ese" in just about every way, overblown and lugubrious where the earlier song is light and syncopated, and straight down the middle where the earlier song revels in its (however telegraphed) twist. Nylon-stringed guitar solos are the only interesting element in the production, and even they are not particularly engaging: smooth, fluid, and entirely superfluous, the fact that it spent five weeks at number one is mind-numbing, especially considering what else was going on in Latin Pop in 2001. The best song of the year will only match its reign.

The fact that this is our second and last encounter with him is a shame. Jerry Rivera was never one of the deathless voices of salsa music, but his early-90s pop-idol career was engaging and often delightful, from his 1992 breakthrough "Amores Como Lo Nuestro" (with its, uh, familiar horn intro) to the adorably cheesy "¿Qué Hay de Malo?", and I wish I'd known about hits like those when I was writing about the music that did make it to #1 in those years. His slow transformation into a romántica ballad singer over the later 90s was no doubt a canny move, growing up with his initial screaming-teens fanbase, and it notched him the hits we've met here, but he wasn't equipped to compete with the likes of Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias in that arena.



7th April, 2001

As if to seal away Juan Gabriel's old-fashioned but singular emotionalism forever, the next number one is all sleek hypermodernism, generic sentiments and vacant emoting. Ricky Martin has mostly operated in a forward motion in these pages, but this is his comfort zone: using the tropes of soulful singing to do little more than smolder at the camera, or the audio equivalent.

The song came out in two different versions simultaneously: the English-language version is a duet with Christina Aguilera, and is dancier and more florid, with orchestra hits and an 808 rhythmic bed. Without Christina's fluttering extemporizing vocals -- which function as essentially another instrument in the mix -- Ricky doesn't have enough force of personality to hold it together. But the dullness of the Spanish-language version isn't entirely his fault: a more power-ballady production and generic "Latin" guitar runs make it run-of-the-millennium Latin Pop.

He still had enough charisma and goodwill that it spent a month at #1 at a time when the chart moved far more quickly than it does today, but although we aren't saying goodbye to him yet by a long ways, it's a slip down from the his peak of the two previous years. From here on out, the music will take a backseat to the much more important work of remaining Ricky Martin.



27th January, 2001

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The songwriter who inaugurated this travelogue, who was the first truly great artist I learned about for the first time because I chose to do this blog, whose voice and songs were all over its first dozen years, takes his leave of the #1 spot with this valedictory, fifteen years before he took his leave of everywhere else. I am grateful to this blog for letting me share, even if briefly, in the astonishment and adoration that millions of Latinos (but especially Mexicans) have felt towards JuanGa and his work over the decades.

And I note that the impulse which led me to start this blog almost eight years ago, a baffled frustration with an Anglophone music-crit discourse which refuses to acknowledge or understand Latin music as anything but peripheral, an exotic fringe to the English-language center rather than a center (indeed multiple centers) in its own right, was by no means diminished by the conversations which followed his death last year. Comparisons to David Bowie and Prince on the basis of a shallow sense of gender-play and label skirmishes were less than accurate, merely timely: a combination of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, and Freddie Mercury might have been truer, but in fact comparison itself is useless: Juan Gabriel was himself, a figure so towering and all-encompassing that not only are there no Anglophone equivalents, but even reaching for them is a subtle act of disrespect, another intimation that the fringe can only be understood by reference to the center.

All right, then. "Abrázame Muy Fuerte" was the title song of his 2000 album, which wasn't a comeback -- he had been releasing music regularly since the resolution of his label woes in 1994 -- so much as a final acknowledgement that he was now ceding the pop game to the youth. He turned fifty in 2000, and (not incidentally) got all his publishing back; in the next decade, he would release only one more album of entirely new material, before turning retrospective in 2010.

Characteristically for Juan Gabriel in his late period decadence, it's less a pop song than a tone poem, its structure not a cyclical one of verses and choruses but of plateaus and builds. The orchestral pomp (courtesy of Argentine-born orchestrator and producer Bebu Silvetti) which has characterized much of his work since the 1990s doesn't enter until nearly two-thirds of the way through; the focus is on Gabriel's voice, thin and cracking and full of suppressed emotion, as he recites a lyric so metrically uneven and repetitive that only one singer could ever make it work. But it does work: and it's in this moment that I finally recognize the affinity he always claimed in interviews with the great soul and r&b singers of the US. The late Martin Skidmore on soul music is my reference point here: and the way Juan Gabriel uses the crack in his voice in "Abrázame Muy Fuerte" is as smart a use of the technique of emotion as anything Al Green or Gladys Knight ever accomplished.

"Abrázame Muy Fuerte" means literally "Embrace Me Very Strongly" (an idiomatic English equivalent might be something like "Hug Me Tight"), and the song keeps circling back to that request, or demand, or plea: hold me close, to banish the pain of my past and the awful passage of time. "God forgives, but time does not," is one of the more striking phrases among the rush of philosophical and emotional sentiments he expresses, and although in the world of the marketplace the song is a supremely confident triumph, within the world of in the song it's the rage and terror of an aging man (perhaps even particularly an aging gay man, but vanity is not limited by sexual orientation), full of regret and neediness, an open wound begging to be filled by love. It's an astonishing song, and as the orchestral pomp grows and swirls and Juan Gabriel's voice pushes into the next octave, it can be almost battering.

And then, suddenly, it's over. Breaking off almost in the middle of a thought, with the abruptness of a cut to commercial. Death? Orgasm? The final scene of The Sopranos? It's dramatic tension as an art in itself, and of course it was used as a theme song for a telenovela of the same name: what a way to kick into the first scene.

Because if it's a swan song of sorts, it is also one last challenge to the whippersnappers: "top this." No one did; although its reign at the top was intermittent (as were many Hot Latin reigns at the turn of the century, "Abrázame Muy Fuerte" spent nine weeks in total at the top of the chart, and was ultimately declared by Billboard the best-performing Latin single of 2001, outstripping Ricky, Enrique, and even a newly-blonde Colombian we will catch up with later.



13th January, 2001

Son by Four had ridden the crest of a larger boy-band moment in global pop, but they were far from the first. MDO, now without a single Puerto Rican left (the 2000 lineup was Dominican, Cuban, Mexican, Tejano, and Italian-American), were back with a... well, decidedly not a brand-new invention. A sturdy old invention, lustily sung and expensively produced. written by Venezuelan singer-songwriter Carlos Baute: "Te Quise Olvidar" (I wanted to forget you) is a we-broke-up-but-you-haunt-my-memory song, steroided up to a power ballad, and even the middle-eight tribal harmonies are (though great) too little, too late.

But the lyrics are surprisingly frank for a boy band: the chorus is about how the singer has sought forgetfulness by having sex with another woman, but to no avail. Which fits well with Baute's womanizing persona, but sounds refreshingly adult in the mouths of young men whose uniform white dress, outstretched hands, and cupid's-bow lips are presumably targeted at a rather less adult demographic. (I confess I have never studied the lyrics of the millennial boy bands very closely; maybe I'm wrong and they were all about sophisticated adult sexual triangles.) But that's the most interesting thing about the song.



30th December, 2000

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I haven't tracked it in this blog, but the entire back half of 2000 has been punctuated by Son by Four's "A Puro Dolor" -- nearly every song we've looked at since has had its chart reign interrupted by the return of the millennium's silkiest salsa band. Now, here at the end of the year, Son by Four are back with their second, and final (as of press time), number one.

As a piece of popcraft from songwriting to production to performance, it's far superior to "A Puro Dolor," with a tense, dramatic arrangement, gorgeous tropical instrumentation, and Ángel López singing to save his life. Despite the title ("When you are mine") setting the emotion in the future, it's a grownup song about adult relationships (the physical very much included), where "A Puro Dolor" is sheer adolescent bathos. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call "Cuando Seas Mía" an undiscovered gem, but if I were assigning these songs numbers out of ten it would easily clear the 6.

But it only topped the chart for a week at the slowest point of the year, and that was it, from our vantage point, for Son by Four. Ángel López left the group several years later for a solo career which has so far only fizzled (he campaigned for Bush in 2004), and the rest now produce Christian music for the evangelical Latin market. Gentle as doves they may have been, but in the cutthroat music business serpent's wisdom is preferable.



2nd December, 2000

Chayanne has mostly been an unremarkable, if consistent, presence in these pages: this is his fifth appearance since 1989, and there's not really been any narrative throughline to the songs with which he has bobbed to the surface. Blandly glamorous, suavely sentimental, with a thin, high voice which rarely changes even as the production drifts from moment to moment. The title of this new #1 is the kind of thing which needs to be a hell of a song to live up to its unadorned directness: how many really great songs called "I Love You" can there be?

This isn't one of them. It's fine: the lyric even acknowledges how hard it is to make "yo te amo" sound new, and the rhythmic descant on the chorus is a nice touch. The spacy 70s synthesizer which warbles up and down the track is the most interesting thing about the production, once more handled by Colombian mastermind Estéfano. The shuffling gospel rhythm already sounds dated; and while a full choir never comes in, there's enough claustrophobic thickness to the production that it's unnecessary.

Estéfano's lyric is really good, actually, worth looking up and reading through, whether in the original or translation. It's a more or less ordinary love song, but in its details and structure it's the kind of pop-literary performance that deserves a better song, and a better singer.



4th November, 2000

Tom Ewing's framing of "imperial phases" in pop is an idea I come back to a lot. It's been fueling how I think about the "Latin invasion" of 1999-2000, in which a brief confluence of popular dance songs, broad ethnic affiliations, and carefully managed careerism made English-language stars out of people who were already (or would be anyway) stars in their own right. The point of imperial phases is that they don't last, and in that sense the Latin Invasion (which Chris Molanphy recently dubbed a "mini-invasion") was unlike the twin British Invasions of the 1960s and 1980s, in that it didn't remake US pop in its image, only flourished for a time and then fell.

The clear end of that imperial phase -- perhaps it would be better to describe it as an imperial moment, a (Re)conquista that was always demographically unsustainable -- would be this song, with its lavish CGI video, its endless remixes for every imaginable market, and its all-in marketing bet on Ricky Martin as a hetero sex symbol, only reaching #12 on the Hot 100. "She Bangs" may be more fondly remembered in the Anglosphere than "Livin' la Vida Loca," perhaps because it's a better song (though not a better production), less fueled by casual misogyny, but it wasn't nearly as big a hit. No need to weep for Ricky Martin, of course: his eventual withdrawal from the English-language pop market was the English-language pop market's loss, not his; as Tom noted in his analysis of imperial phases, it doesn't mean the hits stop. We'll be seeing lots more of Ricky Martin around these parts.

But none of this describes the actual song, a pumping jam with flamenco guitars, salsa -- and later swing -- horns, mambo piano, and... surf guitar again. If it's Livin' la Vida Loca, Mark Two (also produced by  Desmond Child), that's not a bad thing to be. Unlike with "Vida Loca," there is an actual Spanish lyric, with the only leftover English phrases "she bangs" and "she moves," appropriately enough, as there are no possible rhythmic equivalents in Spanish. It may not be as misogynist as "Vida Loca," but it's surely as objectifying. Which it's hard to fault Ricky for; nobody ever sounded less lecherous than he does singing this song. Joy this unqualified is almost as rare in pop music as it is elsewhere in life, and just as precious.



28th October, 2000

Yep, the boxer. And if you've clicked through to the video, yep, that's the Bee Gees' "Run to Me." The turn-of-the-century Latin wave had unsettled things so much that an athlete's vanity album could be one of the year's biggest sellers. On the other hand, it was produced by Rudy Pérez, with writing contributions from Diane Warren, so it was very much part of the Latin pop of the era (it was recorded when he was wooing Millie Corretejer, who we met briefly last year; they remain married). So a vanity album, but  a well-funded and properly marketed one: the English-language version of the song got a bit of Anglo adult-contemporary play, while this Spanish-language one did so well that it turns up here.

De La Hoya's voice wasn't particularly strong, but neither are lots of pop stars'. The production is, charitably, generic adult-contemporary of the period. The lyric is a one-to-one translation of the original, and just as sappy and generic, and the harmonies, produced by session singers, are ported directly over from the Brothers Gibb's.

And that's about all I have to say about it. This will, unsurprisingly, be the last we see of the Golden Boy.



14th October, 2000

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Although in low-resolution hindsight it's easy to mistake Christina Aguilera for being part of the wave of young Latinos renovating Latin pop around the turn of the century -- a peer to Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, at least -- this is her sole appearance (as of mid-2017) on this travelogue, and after the comparatively middling sales of Mi Reflejo would rarely record in Spanish again, and then only in duet with an established Latin star.

While she did hire hitmaking Cuban-American songwriter and producer Rudy Pérez (we last saw him assisting Luis Fonsi) to translate "Come on Over Baby (All I Want Is You)" into vernacular Spanish, the production remains pure Stockholm, Johan Åberg's piano, string stabs, and fake scratching ported over wholesale from the English-language original.

So ultimately, despite Aguilera's half-Ecuadorian heritage, "Ven Conmigo" is exactly as much an opportunistic cash-in on the newfound brand-expansion possibilities of the Latin market as any Anglo star might have done: indeed, acts like N'Sync were recording versions of their hits in Spanish, as would Beyoncé years later. That it worked, to the extent that she is one of the exclusive club to have both Hot 100 and Hot Latin #1 hits with the same song, is a tribute to the breezy, galvanic joy of Åberg's production, Pérez' solid work finding rhythmic equivalence in Spanish, and her slightly mechanical but always impressive performance.

It's one of those songs (common early in her career, much rarer later on) when her overdriven vocals sync up with an overdriven emotional state (the excitement of young, sexually curious love), so that her endless elaboration feels like a spontaneous expression of excitement rather than mere showboating. If we're not going to see here again here, at least she left her mark.



7th October, 2000

We met Guatemalan singer-songwriter Ricardo Arjona earlier in 2000 with a beautiful modern-rock (modern for the 90s) ballad. But it was from his last album, and his new album was Galería Caribe, or Caribbean Gallery, a showcase of his versatility with the multi-colored musics of the tropical islands. Or, perhaps, his lack of it.

"Cuándo" (When), for example, is nominally a bolero, the swaying Cuban lilt that became the glory of midcentury Mexican popular song; but while the congas tap out a swaying rhythm, it's an awfully stiff one, practically 4/4, an unadventurousness which clarifies when electric guitars start revving up in the middle eight, and the song reveals itself as just another power ballad wearing tropical-Caribbean clothes. The muted trumpet, the acoustic guitar runs, the swooning strings, and the conga percussion is all beautifully performed and expertly knit together, but underneath it all is a guy in a flannel shirt whose musical instincts never stray far from the repetitive blues-based structures of classic rock.

With that disappointment, it's a surprise that "Cuándo" is still as good as it is, not just as a piece of production, but as a song. Ricardo Arjona can write a smart lyric, as we knew as far back as 1994, and "Cuándo" is a major performance in lyric-writing. The opening lines, "¿Cuando fué la última vez que viste las estrellas con los ojos cerrados / y te aferraste como un náufrago a la orilla de la espalda de alguién?" (When was the last time you saw the stars with your eyes closed / and clung like a castaway to the shore of someone's shoulder) present much more thoroughgoingly poetic imagery than Anglophone pop usually has room for, even beyond the obvious sexual allusions.

The rest of the song turns into rather a scorned-lover diatribe, but Arjona's closer to Dylan than to Morrissette in that category, and if it weren't for his plodding rhythm and rather anonymous voice, "Cuándo" could be a great, rather than just a good, song.



23rd Septmeber, 2000

I had trouble believing that this was really the first proper bachata song we've encountered in these pages -- the importance of bachata to the last ten years of Latin Pop has given it a larger place in my internal estimate of Latin pop history -- but that's what the tags say. Of course, I could easily have tagged stuff wrong; but there's no more bachata to the only other song that's used the tag, Juan Luis Guerra's "Costo de la Vida" than there is South African mbube, which is to say that it's used as one flavor among many in his postmodern, intentionally culture-clashing gumbo. La Gloria's bachata is, by contrast, not only traditional but positively reverent, which however musically luscious it is can't help feeling a little politically queasy among the pre-revolutionary Cuban pageantry of the parent album: is she really expressing nostalgia for the Trujillo dictatorship?

But of course she too is a postmodernist, intentionally culture-clashing and remixing the past to project an ideal image of today. (Everyone is, these postcolonial days.) The close-miked violin which decorates the second half of this song isn't particularly bachata (which for most of its history was a low-rent, few-frills music, despised by the Dominican elite as drunkards' laments), and structurally it owes more to Mexico-born songwriter Marco Flores' early training in romántica and pop than to bachata traditions of meter and rhythm. It's still undeniably gorgeous, a swooning love song that would work with any underlying rhythm or instrumental filigree.

Still, as a starting point for pop-bachata history (at least within the context of Hot Latin #1s) it's a pretty great foot forward. Gloria Estefan, entirely without meaning to, has now served as our introduction to two major Latin genres, vallenato and bachata, and if (say) Carlos Vives' pop-vallenato has already turned up to show us how it's "really" done, the future of bachata in this travelogue is brighter still.



9th September, 2000

If I'd known how much time I would spend trying to think of something to say about another glossily-produced, sensually-composed, tenderly-sung ballad, I would probably have never started this blog. Which is to say hello to Luis Fonsi, with a Rudy Pérez song that sounds exactly as if Diane Warren wrote it, complete with the gearshift key change on the last chorus.

Fonsi is another pretty Puerto Rican kid with a pleasant, husky voice and no distinguishing characteristics (he may grow into them; stay tuned). "Imagíname Sin Tí" (imagine me without you) is a gloopy, narcissistic song that pretends it isn't because it uses love as an excuse to talk about self. I bet it gets a lot of use on Spanish-language singing-contest shows, since it has a broad melodic structure that allows for plenty of showboating. Fonsi is not a showboater.

That's all I have to say, really. Until such time as the song surprises me into unexpected emotion just because I recognize it and it fits into something in my emotional landscape which it doesn't right now, it will have to do.



12th August, 2000

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There might exist, somewhere in the fractal infinity of timelines, a universe in which Gisselle had Jennifer Lopez's career and vice versa. (They are exact contemporaries, and were both New York-born Puerto Rican dancers who branched out into acting and music.) But in this universe, Gisselle has always been an also-ran, with a moderately successful merengue pop career from the mid-90s that never leveled up the way so many of her generation did around the turn of the century: this is her sole appearance on this travelogue, and her recording career will peter out in the next half-decade. As a singer, as a sex symbol, and as a celebrity newsmaking machine, she was always overshadowed.

"Júrame" is a perfectly adequate tropical ballad, with puffs of trumpets nostalgic for the 60s and 70s easy-listening Latin Pop past. It was written by Kike Santander, the longtime Estefan associate, and has the whiff of a minor Gloria album track, although apparently he borrowed enough of María Méndez Grever's classic bolero of the same title that she got a credit; I can't hear any similarity. The song did well enough during the late summer of 2000, in the midst of Son By Four's intermittent but implacable reign, that it hit #1 for a week; and then Gisselle returned to the oblivion to which non-#1 hits are consigned by this blog.

It's a shame the her 1997 stomper "Quiero Estar Contigo", for example, didn't make it four spots higher; but the charts, and especially the top of the charts, don't memorialize the best of their era, or even the most representative: only what sold, or what got played, the most in a given week. So congratulations to Gisselle, and onwards.



1st July, 2000

The followup to "Dímelo" (there was a single between them, but it didn't have an English-language version and didn't do much business) is an uptempo ballad, with urgent drum kicks and close-plucked guitars giving an air of tension to Marc Anthony's long passionate wails and romantic lyricizing. Like the song that preceded it at #1, it is more generic 90s lovesong than any particular Latin genre, but the flamenco-derived guitar runs and pattering percussion are enough to make it sound of a piece with Anthony's current pan-Latin, dance-centric work.

As "You Sang to Me," it was his biggest English-language hit, kept from #1 on the Hot 100 by Carlos Santana's followup to "Smooth." And it was a significantly worse song than the Spanish-language version. If Marc Anthony is telling the truth, he wrote it as part of the process of wooing Jennifer Lopez; they wouldn't be married for another four years, after three separate high-profile relationships between them. But the English-language version is clunky and strained; his voice sounds thin and nasal in the effort to force emotion into words that don't resonate with him. He sounds infinitely more relaxed and joyful singing "Muy Dentro de Mí," riding the song's rhythm, extemporizing, and participating in call-and-response with the background singers. Although this wouldn't be his last attempt at English-language crossover material, it's a signpost pointing to the way his career would develop as the millennium wore on.



17th June, 2000

To pick up on my analogy from two posts ago, where I said that these Hot Latin #1s are not the tip of the iceberg, but only the tiny portion of the tip exposed to the air (everything below water, in this analogy, never charted at all, but its vast bulk sustains the rest), Thalía's career to this point has taken place entirely within the iceberg, but mostly above the waterline. A pop star in Mexico since 1986, when she joined the juvenile pop group Timbiriche (which also incubated another figure we have yet to meet on this travelogue, but will), and a telenovela star since 1987, she released her first solo album in 1990 and had her first pan-Latin crossover smash in 1994 (with production and songwriting assistance from... Emilio Estefan). That she has not shown up here before is a product of chance, not her lack of starpower.

In fact by 2000 it would be possible for a devoted Latin Pop watcher to think of Thalía as being rather long in the tooth, especially with the sinuous, more forcefully artistic Shakira coming up from behind. (Wait for it...) The success of this song, indeed, bears all the hallmarks of a turn towards adult contemporary: shuffling rhythms and wordless chants lifted from the kind of South African pop that Anglophone stars have been using to sound classy ever since Graceland, twinkly percussion, a vaguely spiritual, nature-infused lyric (the title translates to "between the sea and a star"), and an unflustered performance from Thalía that calls to mind Gloria Estefan at her most comfortable. Since other songs on the album included a Gloria Estefan cover and a remake of the great 60s South African hit "Pata Pata," this feels right at home with other turn-of-the-millennium adult-contemporary hits like Sting's "Desert Rose."

But although "Entre el Mar y una Estrella" was the first single, in the context of the album Arrasando it functions more like a traditional second single, the ballad after the uptempo smash: the electronic "Regresa a Mí" or the punchy title track, which became singles later, would have fit in just fine with the Ricky Martins and Marc Anthonys who were the most exciting things in Latin Pop at the moment. But they didn't hit #1, and this did.



10th June, 2000

A victory lap to close out the millennium, a slice of content for the brand-new Latin Grammys (where Emilio was on the board) to award her over, a breezy slab of nostalgia to prove to the younger generation whose party it is that they're crashing -- various cynical readings of this song are possible, but they all melt away in the face of those bright horns, that clave rhythm, and the call-and-response montuno at the end. It's been seven years since Gloria Estefan reinvented her adult-contemporary self (which was itself a reinvention from the Latin party den mother of the mid-80s) as an avatar of nostalgic Cuban identity, and while she has kept up well, not to say brilliantly, with shifting trends in Latin pop, there's a paroxysmic joy to a song like this one that there wasn't to the more high-tech (if still brilliant) "¡Oye!" -- she's aging into a patriot.

An incurious listen would suggest that this is more of the salsa revival, perhaps fueled by the runaway success of "A Puro Dolor," but it's not Nuyorican salsa but Cuban mambo, which is what salsa always was (ask Tito Puente, who refused to call his music salsa), with added Puerto Rican and rhythm & blues overlays. The Havana-nostalgic video (for which she won an inaugural Latin Grammy) makes it clear: this is a celebration not of the horny, sweaty music of the immigrant 70s, but of the faultless, romantic entertainment of the pre-revolutionary 50s.

As a song, it's primarily an exercise in genre: the lyric is a demand that her lover not stop loving her, performed with the confidence of someone who doesn't feel particularly anxious about the result. (Whether that's because she has absolute trust in her partner's fidelity or doesn't really care about it is left as an exercise to the reader.) Compared to the high-energy, recklessly psychologizing music of youngsters like Ricky Martin or Marc Anthony, it's perhaps a little hermetic, a little too classy; but then maybe it's not as overdetermined, not as noisy for the sake of noise. But as a relief from the unchanging reign of "A Puro Dolor," it's a breath of the freshest air.

(Note: this is the first Gloria Estefan song I've had occasion to write about here since I wrote about Gloria Estefan for a week straight three years ago at One Week One Band. A bunch of the YouTube embeds no longer work, but if you like me on Latin Pop, here's a bunch of it.)



1st April, 2000

Over the past year or more of Hot Latin #1s we've tracked how the Latin Pop industry (as variously constituted over some two dozen countries and innumerable regional and local scenes) worked to consolidate its selling power by issuing music in various formats, whether generic or linguistic. Following in the footsteps of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, who were the first to crack the crossover code in the 1980s, and of poor abbreviated Selena, who blazed a new path in the 1990s, a new generation of pop stars has effortlessly taken to code-switching between language and genre, a game which will only grow more high-stakes as the music industry recedes from its turn-of-the-millennium apex. This song represents that apex, a confluence of luck, dedicated craft, and industry willingness and preparedness to immediately exploit any available market.

Which isn't to say that the song, or the band, don't matter; but its gargantuan success spread far beyond the limited capacity of either, so that any examination of "A Puro Dolor" necessarily becomes not about the story within the song, but the story about the song.

That story: Son By Four were a Puerto Rican boy band in the best boy-band tradition, dating back to doo-wop legend: a group of friends who could harmonize behind one angelic-voiced singer and won local talent contests and a record-label exec took a flyer on them. Panamanian composer and producer Omar Alfanno, whose brief career as a singer in the 80s had led to more remunerative behind-the-scenes roles working with legendary salseros as well as up-and-comers, agreed to write songs and produce for them. He remembers writing this one in ten minutes to fill out a major-label debut, and any deep study of the song's lyrics, composition, and arrangement will bear that out: it's a wholly generic love-as-pain song, in a long and often far more distinguished Spanish-language tradition.

But because it was 2000, it was released in both a ballad version and an uptempo salsa version, to get both romantic pop airplay and tropical play, to squeeze a few more nickels out of it before Son By Four inevitably ended up on the ash-heap of pop history. And it became a hit, starting almost immediately in early 2000, as Ángel López's creamy lead vocal and the smooth harmonies of the other three injected 90s R&B smoothness into Latin radio if not for the first time (we remember the Barrio Boyzz, among others) then at a moment when listeners were particularly receptive to it. It was a wider boy-band moment, as anyone alive in 2000 will surely remember: Backstreet, N'Sync, and the rest were also busy injecting 90s R&B smoothness into music that a non-R&B audience could feel comfortable with. Son By Four were in the right place at the right time: riding both the boy-band wave and a return-of-salsa wave (see also in these pages Marc Anthony, Jerry Rivera), they were also perfectly positioned to take advantage of Latin Pop's new-found legitimacy in the wider Anglo pop world.

Because as soon as it was clear that "A Puro Dolor" was a phenomenon, they were rushed back into the studio to record an English-language version, "Purest of Pain", which didn't set the Anglophone charts alight but did respectably. They would also record a ranchera version (inexplicably not online) for the Regional Mexican market. And although Son By Four themselves weren't involved, a cumbia cover and a Brazilian cover were two more of the biggest Latin hits in 2000, keeping Omar Alfanno (and the record label) happy and the song blanketing pan-Latin consciousness throughout the year and beyond.

The Latin Grammys held their first ceremony in 2000. Son By Four won the inaugural Pop Song of the Year and Tropical Song of the Year, and performed with N'Sync, who were peddling their Spanish-language version of "This I Promise You." In total, "A Puro Dolor" spent 20 weeks at the top of the Hot Latin chart, a record at the time, and which even in the streaming era of slow turnover and epic chart reigns has rarely been exceeded. (As of this writing, it's only been broken twice in sixteen years.) Not bad for a song the success of which even its composer couldn't understand; Alfanno told Billboard a year after its release that he had gone back to the piano to try to analyze the song's structure to figure out what had made it a hit, without success.

But that's pop for you: mercurial, fickle, inexplicable, infuriating, adorable, unforgettable. It's why, despite feeling that we've heard it all before, that there are no surprises and no innovations left, we keep listening.



11th March, 2000

The iceberg of Latin Pop, of which the #1s discussed in this travelogue represent not even the above-water tip, but rather only the layer of molecules exposed to the air, has contained far more salsa than we've been allowed to glimpse, to the extent that about half of everything on this blog tagged as "salsa" isn't. And neither is this, really, except that Gilberto Santa Rosa is a salsa singer, and so everything he sings is salsa. Kind of.

He's been knocking around Puerto Rican salsa since the mid-70s, he exploded to worldwide fame with a legendary 1990 Carnegie Hall concert (his four-minute improvised soneo in "Perdóname" became so frequently played that he was forced to to memorize it for future concerts), and here on the cusp of the 2000s he's settled into an elder-statesman role. "Que Alguien me Diga" is a romantic song written by Panamanian salsero Omar Alfanno (remember that name) to the accompaniment of a classy string section and glassy keyboards, which only breaks into a gently percussive sway on the chorus rather than breaking into a full-bodied salsa montuno. His voice is undoubtedly a wonderful instrument, soulful and flexible, but like an Olympic athlete playing with kids he's using less than half of its capabilities.

It's probably more accurate to class the song as a bolero rather than salsa, despite the light piano guajeos on the chorus, which isn't a bad thing -- some of my all-time favorite songs are boleros -- except that it's unfortunate that this looks likely to be the sole representative of Santa Rosa's talent in these pages. Swept up in the current of a much bigger hit (stay tuned), he's largely only present as an adjunct, rather than in his own right. But do listen to "Perdóname."



5th February, 2000

I've been spending a lot of time lately with the literary movement that Spanish calls Modernismo, which is a different beast from the Anglo-Celto-American novels and epic poems we usually refer to as modernism in English: primarily a poetic flowering (the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío kickstarted it in the 1880s), influenced by the French Symbolists but without the strict metrical heritage to rebel against (and so equally influenced by the French Parnassians), deeply romantic in the Harlequin-novel sense as well as the Keats-and-Shelley sense, and very much a Europe-oriented movement, with its its Latin American poets and feuilletonists like Leopoldo Lugones or Horacio Quiroga just as identified with their nations' European elite as Spaniards like Antonio Machado or Juan Ramón Jiménez. It's a whole world of literature I was largely unaware of before the past year, but which my newly-discovered facility with reading Spanish has opened up to me, and which I'm still excited to explore.

I bring all this up because Ricardo Arjona is from Guatemala, but his music is not particularly Guatemalan. Like Enrique Gómez Carrillo, the Guatemalan Modernista poet who spent his career in Europe boosting the Estrada Cabrera dictatorship, Arjona is an internationalist, which (in Latin America) is to say a European; and if I'm particularly sensitive to this point in regards to Guatemala when it doesn't necessarily bother me from any other Latin American nation, it probably has more to do with my own bad conscience towards the place I spent my teenage years than with Guatemala's particular ethnic or aesthetic identities.

But I also bring it up because Arjona is himself a Modernista, aesthetically if not chronologically: "Desnuda" could have been written by Jiménez or Darío, it so thoroughly examines its central image ("desnuda" can be both the adjective "nude" and the imperative "take [your] clothes off") and complicates it, turning it inside out so that a shedding becomes a filling up, and he applies all the rhetorical tricks at his disposal to convince his apparently shy lover of the naturalness, the profitability, and the giddy lunacy of nakedness.

It's one of the best lyrics we've encountered in this travelogue, judged simply as a lyric, poetic and erotic and funny, so it's a bit disappointing that the musical backing is so soft-rock standard. It's as professional and tasteful as Arjona's text, with Elizabeth Meza's harmonies and wordless sighs adding erotic weight to the guitar curlicues and accentuating percussion. Arjona's voice is a fine, burnished instrument in the post-stadium rock tradition -- a little gritty, a little sensitive -- but his performance doesn't live up to his writing. He's a generic Western singer, in other words, which is why I think of him as failing to be particularly Guatemalan.

But Guatemala is not one thing. (Nothing is ever one thing.) Although it is has one of the largest indigenous populations by percentage in the Americas, it is just as much a Western nation as Argentina, or yes, the United States -- if we want to talk about non-Western nations as those with impoverished underclasses, stratified by race and language, that's not a conversation that will flatter the traditional great powers. Art for art's sake has historically been the province of the elite, in every culture, and at least in Arjona's case, his mass art, blanketing radios, constantly on tour, and accessible via every cell phone in the hemisphere, is more widely available, and more widely beloved, than that of any of the precious, finicky Modernistas of a century before.



15th January, 2000

For a gringo (like me, not long ago) who thinks all Mexican regional music sounds the same, it would be tempting to assume that this is the first flowering of banda, which will, if not dominate, at least punctuate the Hot Latin #1s in the coming decade. But Pemo González' saxophone is, while unusual in a norteño conjunto (at least outside of Chihuahua), not definitive: the real giveaway that this isn't banda is that the bass is electric, not a tuba. "Te Quiero Mucho" is instead one of the periodic appearances of norteño, and Los Rieleros are only slightly less venerable than Los Tigres in 2000. Formed in Chihuahua in the 80s by men who used to work on railroads (thus the name), they've primarily operated out of Texas since hitting the big time in the 90s.

González' saxophone and Daniel Esquivel's accordion are as unified in the melodic thrust of the song as Thin Lizzy's dual guitars, and the pulsing bass and skittish drums set up a granite-steady beat against which Esquivel's rather fruity voice, alternately simpering and soaring, can deliver a simple declaration: the title means "I love you very much," and with that as a starting place, there are no surprises to be found in the lyrics. But while sobbing passion is a standard device in classic Mexican regional music (think of Juan Gabriel's florid rancheras), norteño singers tend to play their emotions closer to the vest, as befits a desert music.

But why did this song hit #1, two decades into their career, smack in the midst of all these younger, internationally-oriented, pop-native singers? No idea. One of the happy accidents of a heterogenous pop market -- and a pop statistical model that allows for subtle shifts in taste and disparate listening bases to make their presences felt. There's a decade and more of that to come, before the end of all things.