21st August, 1999

In the summer of 1999, when Enrique, Jennifer, and Ricky were having their big pop crossover moments -- we've just heard "Bailando," "No Me Amas," and "Livin' La Vida Loca" -- their generational peer Fernández was playing a longer game, wearing an elegant charro outfit and a serious look on the cover of his seventh album Mi Verdad. He had already had his Hot Latin crossover moment thanks to the Estefans and their crowd, and was apparently uninterested in making a play for the larger gringo audience; Mi Verdad was an album of pura ranchera, if not as rowdy or working-class as his father used to make, then still reverent of tradition and aimed at the Mexican and Mexican-American audience that could be depended on to know the difference between a beachy flash-in-the-pan and a true artist.

And that audience responded. "Loco" was #1 for a week, and while that's a much shorter lifespan than any of his previous #1s had enjoyed, "Loco" is the best song, the best production, and the best performance, he'd sent there yet. The unwavering rhythm set by the bajo sexto (twelve-string guitar) creates an obsessive, relentless atmosphere, layered over by picked guitar filigree, Fernández' intensely controlled and impassioned vocal, semi-ironic Bacharachian trumpet puffs, and one of the most glorious string charts it's been my pleasure to hear in this travelogue. When that string section saws in repetitive Psycho fragments at the end of the chorus, it's one of the great unions of production and lyric.

Because, of course, the song centers on Hitchcockian subject matter: psychotic breaks, sexual obsession, and sublimated violence. He talks to the birds; he's convinced she loves him on the slenderest of evidence, he sees her eyes shining at him over his sheet when he wakes up; he's waiting for her skirt to fall in the streets. It's entirely possible to read it as merely a particularly florid love song, since Fernández doesn't overplay his performance (at least not within the tradition of ranchera, which often goes far more florid than this on much meager grounds), but those alternately swooping and sawing strings give the game away: this ain't Patsy Cline.



10th July, 1999

And here we have the second and final entry in the "wave" of Latin Pop that was supposedly taking America by storm in the summer of 1999, that wave that constantly threatens to come ashore but never actually does. The years ahead will be littered with names who will be hyped as the crossover Latin star who will finally make the US pop machine pay attention to Latin music instead of ghettoizing it; I'll let you know when I see it happen.

Enrique is, of course, a familiar name to those who have accompanied me this far on this travelogue, and he'll grow more familiar still in the years ahead; but given the refracted vision of this blog, the blog of a gringo trying to explain Latin Pop as much to himself as to anyone else, it feels noteworthy that this song, his eleventh number-one Hot Latin hit, was his introduction to the English-language audience that would cement his legacy as a multiplatform hitmaker for decades to come. "Bailamos" is, to date, his only number-one hit on the Hot 100, and the degree to which it was aimed at English-language success can be gauged not just from the bilingual chorus, or even its placement in a high-profile Hollywood schlockbuster (Wild Wild West did no one's career any favors), but from the fact that it was at number one for two weeks on the Hot 100 and only one week on Hot Latin. Which feels almost perfunctory: Enrique releases a song, of course it goes number one; but he will never again be as assured of that top spot as he was for the first four years of his career.

And the song? You know it, even if you think you don't. Generic Latin-lover phrases like "let the rhythm take you over" and Intro to Spanish phrases like "te quiero, amor mío" populate a sweeping, faux-flamenco production that has about as much to do with any traditional Spanish music as Wild Wild West does with nineteenth century technology. It's with a nod of recognition that you read that the song was written and produced by the team behind Cher's "Believe" -- it may not be as haphazardly futuristic, but it's fully as cheesy and orgiastic: both "Believe" and "Bailamos" are big, powerful mecha suits designed to throw the established personas of the stars at their center into giant, cartoonish relief; and if Cher's camp den-mother persona is more to your (or my) taste than Enrique's sulky Latin-lech, there's a lot of people with the opposite preference.



26th June, 1999

And the millennial era in Latin Pop is truly underway. From an Anglophone perspective, this means that it's the first number one from one of the biggest stars of the era; but from the perspective of the Latin audience, the really important thing is that it's Marc Anthony's second chart-topper. Jennifer Lopez, while indeed a major star in both the English-language and Spanish-language markets of the US -- this was only her second single, and she's at the top spot already -- never dominated the Latin charts the way the woman she broke into stardom by playing had. In a way it's fitting that Marc Anthony would be her chaperone into the Latin charts; not only will he (at press time) earn more than twice as many #1 hits than she will, but the marriage of convenience that is this duet would over time turn into probably the biggest celebrity marriage (with the eventual celebrity divorce) in US Latin pop culture.

The story goes that Ms. Lopez was recording her debut album in the same studio where Mr. Anthony was going over the sessions for his sixth; he, presumably more impressed by her background as a Fly Girl than in her musical aspirations, asked her to appear as a dancer in an upcoming video; she, a shrewder bargainer than perhaps he expected, said only if he would record a duet with her. He chose and rewrote an Italian ballad, "Non amarmi," with which Aleandro Baldi and Francesca Alotta had won a festival prize in 1992; she insisted on recording an uptempo version too. It was the ballad version that ended up blanketing Latin radio and being nominated for a Grammy, but J. Lo proving herself on a salsa right next to the reigning king of salsa was nevertheless a minor triumph in addition to the major one.

As with any meaty pop song embedded so deeply in a personal relationship, history has provided a lot of ways to hear "No Me Ames" ("don't love me"). There's the ironic resonance it has now, as a duet sung by a divorced couple who (if their post-breakup singles are anything to go by; we'll get to his, but not hers) are quite happy to be unlinked; there's the fulsome resonance it would have had between their wedding in 2004 and their separation in 2011, when they sang it often at joint appearances, when the emphasis was placed not on the repeated title phrase but on the way the verses give the lie to it; and then there's the simple resonance it had before they became a power couple, when they were just two pop stars who happened to run into each other and recorded a song that could be applied much more easily and straightforwardly to the listener's personal life than to the singers'. I prefer that version, because I'm more interested in the everyday uses of pop than in celebrity culture, and the pleasurable tug between "no me ames" and "siempre te amaré" (I will always love you) means more to my interior state than any far-off fairy tale of rich people can.

It's a sturdy song, well-constructed and built to dig into the memory and lodge there. Marc Anthony knew what he was doing when he picked it; even if the ballad version sounds like Pop from Nowhere (an Italian specialty in the 90s), with few traditionally Latin flourishes, that only helps it spread more widely.



24th April, 1999

"Give a little more vibe on the track, please..."

I probably crow too often about new realities, new beginnings, new usherings-in of the present era. Reality is manifold; newness begins over every wave. Yet it feels more accurate than ever to say that the millennium begins here -- at least the millennium seen through the specific lens around which this blog is oriented.

It's not the first Hot Latin #1 to also hit #1 on the Hot 100, not by a wide margin (Los Lobos was twelve years ago), but it does introduce a new sense of intimacy between the two charts. Crossover between them will still be rare, but not quite so rare; even if specific songs aren't familiar to both audiences, a good many artists will be. There was a deal of hype the summer of 1999 about a Latin Invasion (which consisted of about three songs), but apart from Tony Concepción's Irakere-imitating trumpet towards the end, there's little that's particularly Latin about "Livin' la Vida Loca."

Indeed, with its whirlwind velocity, rubbery surf guitar, and energetic horn charts, it actually has more in common with that other cod-tropical vogue of the late 90s, third-wave ska, than with anything specifically Puerto Rican. Which is part of the point, both of Martin's crossover pop and of this whole travelogue: Latin identity is not -- cannot be -- tied to some travel-brochure stereotype of UNESCO World Heritage frozen-in-amber cultural practice. Latin people live in the present tense, and Latin pop is modern pop; whatever and whenever that is.

Desmond Child, the producer of "Vida Loca," made his name with the shiny gloss of Bon Jovi and Aerosmith's late-80s hair metal, and that sense of compressed power gives the track its grab-you-by-the-shirt-front immediacy; an important stage in the loudness wars, it was the first all-ProTools hit, electronic even in its Dick Dale gibber, the punchy horns and skittering drum as influenced by the noisy, jungly end of drum 'n' bass as by Child's rock background.

And the lyrics position it directly in Anglophone rock history, the woman who is living the vida loca one with all the brown sugars and witchy women and maneaters that thirty years of guitar-driven misogyny have chronicled. But Martin's performance has none of the spitefulness of a Jagger; he rather admires her rapaciousness than otherwise, and why not? With this production behind him, he's easily able to keep up with her. (And besides, he's not her target. But that's later history bleeding into earlier.) Once more, it's the beginning of the modern era: hedonism presented not as warning temptation or as knowing deviance, but as the basic premise of pop music. EDM, at least in the popular imagination, starts here too.



27 March, 1999

It took until the end of the second decade of this travelogue, but we have finally encountered the group whose name was synonymous with Latin Pop, at least in the US, for the half-decade leading up to the beginning of it. Menudo (for it is they) hit their peak of popularity before 1986, and since then their passionate fanbase had been too small a portion of the overall Latin-music audience in the US to push them to the top before the late 90s made unabashed teenpop fashionable again.

Then again, this isn't quite the world-famous Puerto Rican boy band Menudo, kept famous today by Anglos who remember the 80s shaking thing their heads about how crazy Latin pop culture is; this is four of the five guys who were in Menudo in 1996, when the rights to the name were sold by Edgardo Díaz, the Puerto Rican svengali who had cooked up the concept back in the 70s, to a Panamanian company. So they called themselves MDO and carried on. There was no difference in the sound or the concept: cute boys singing love songs and dancing, and not doing either very well. "No Puedo Olvidar" (tr. I can't forget) isn't one of the more deathless songs we've encountered; its strongest selling point is the drum loop which suggests that someone involved in the production heard M/A/R/R/S at some point. The voices are pretty but personality-free, the lyrics are the definition of bland, the melody is just sticky enough to hang around but not enough to do anything once it's there.

But hey, it's M(enu)DO at number one! Good for these boys, all of whom joined between 1991 and 1995, long after the group's heyday, and only two of whom were even Puerto Rican (Alexis Grullón is Dominican, and Abel Talamántez is Tejano). It's too bad the teenpop-friendly climate didn't catch them on a better single. But stay tuned.



20th March, 1999

Our second encounter with Juan Luis Guerra in four months (in chart time, not blog time!) sees a total transformation in approach, content, and even form. Where "Mi PC" was a tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of the brave new computerized frontiers of the late 90s delivered as a whirling merengue, "Palomita Blanca" is an uber-classicist romantic love song delivered as an ornate bachata. They both came from the same album, the 1998 Ni Es Lo Mismo Ni Es Igual (it's neither the same nor equal), one of the hyperliterate, restlessly innovative singer-songwriter's best-selling albums across his multiple fanbases.

The song's title has been used over and over again in popular (and folkloric, and classical) Spanish-language music: the "little white dove" invoked is a traditional Spanish and Latin-American image of purity, hope, and love. Guerra begs the dove to carry his message to a sundered love: "Tell her that the nights have not been quiet / They've talked of love and haven't gone / Tell her that I love her and miss her / That I haven't forgotten and that I've suffered." The harmonies suffusing this chorus are as crystal-saccharine as in the country-rock/soft-rock prime of the Anglophone 1970s (or maybe I'm forcing an association with the café's soundtrack of Pure Prairie League and John Denver leaking through my earbuds as I write this), creating a gorgeous romantic bed for the extravagant neediness of Guerra's lyric.

Since it's missing the complicating irony of his earlier appearances on this travelogue, it would be tempting to call "Palomita Blanca" a lesser work, but pop doesn't work that way. It became his signature love song, the song that even people who wouldn't normally care for his intellectual games and political grandstanding will happily sing along with, the sugar pill (including very traditional gender roles) to make the rest of his more modernist, idea-heavy discography go down more easily. He was always able to pull out something this uncomplicatedly beautiful; that he hadn't before — or that it hadn't been so successful before — is one more element of his skeptical relationship with the pop stardom thrust upon him.



13th March, 1999

In this ever-changing world in which we live in, it's nice to know that some things never change. The sun rises in the east, water remains wet, and Marco Antonio Solís records drippy, overblown ballads which don't even pretend to keep up with musical trends. There have been very few songs over the past several years which could have fit without a murmur into the Hot Latin chart's origins in 1986; that this one could pass unblinking and no questions asked isn't necessarily a mark against Solís as it is a reminder of how slowly the Latin chart can move compared to Anglophone charts and how many disparate audiences it serves, generational as well as regional, ethnic, and socioeconomic.

Here at the end of the twentieth century, Solís has abandoned any hope of forcing his way back into the youth market, and is focusing with consummate skill on the madrecitas and abuelitas and varones-ya-no-jovenes who still swoon to his old-fashioned sweep and bluster. This is a Latin chart that still has a place for his overstated, slightly corny romanticism -- in another ten years, it won't. Solís resides at the most easily-mockable level of adult contemporary (his Anglophone counterpart might perhaps be Sting), which can obscure the solid craftsmanship of his work.

Beneath the soprano sax and the padded drums, "Si Te Pudiera Mentir" (if I could lie to you) is a well-constructed song of romantic regret. The title phrase is followed by "te diría que aquí todo va marchando muy bien... pero no es así" (I'd tell you that everything's going great here... but it isn't), the kind of venerable formulation that reminds the English-language listener of classic country or soul. Like many a guy given the ability to plead his own case over swooping strings, he indulges in negging -- the last verse, repeated twice includes the line "Sé que no hay un corazón que sienta lo mismo por tí" (I know there's no heart that feels as much for you), a sentiment that's closer to the abusive "no one will ever love you as much as me" than I'm comfortable with. But that's overstated romanticism for you; this too is a venerable tradition.



6th March, 1999


Because Enrique Iglesias still holds the record for the most #1 Latin hits in the US — Luis Miguel would have to stage a decade-long comeback to get anywhere near him — at a certain point, this blog just becomes a means of tracking his career arc. And while this isn't the most interesting song he's sung, it's notable for being his most mature performance to date. The fact that it's the first of his #1s that you could imagine his father singing no doubt has a lot to do with that.

"Nunca Te Olvidaré" (I'll never forget you) was the theme song to a Mexican telenovela of the same name, and it's also the first song Enrique Iglesias brought to number one that he's credited for writing and composing alone. I've touched before on the importance of telenovelas to Latin pop — it's similar to, but not the same as, the effect Hollywood soundtracks had on Anglophone pop in the 90s — but by providing an avenue for creative expression and alternative musical identities outside of the rigorous, micromanaged single-album-single-single release schedule of a major label, novelas throw an element of unpredictability and novelty into the fermenting stew of Latin pop. Not that an Iglesias #1 was anything but predictable in 1999 (and there are more to come), but this relatively old-fashioned, restrained song, the second in a row to employ a real string section, is hard to imagine coming out of the pop-industrial complex that so far had governed his career.

The lyrics are the familiar pledging-eternal-love sort — the opening line is "Three thousand years may pass/You may kiss other lips/But I'll never forget you" — which dovetails perfectly with the novela's plot of star-crossed love across multiple generations. It's so old-fashioned, in fact, that it doesn't have a chorus in the usual rock-oriented sense, only A and B sections with variable lyrics, and of course the repeated refrain of the title phrase. It's been years since we've seen that kind of structure, and my affection for it — as well as my delight that Iglesias isn't making hamfisted rock moves — may be coloring my pleasure in this song. He's still overemoting, making up for his vocal deficiencies with strain, but he's learning to improvise a little, if only emotionally.



20th Feb, 1999

In accordance with convention, the Hot New Pop Star On the Scene's second number one is a ballad, dreamy and vulnerable where "Ciega, Sordomuda" was lively and whip-smart. The fingerprints of 90s transatlantic rock are all over it, from the smeared guitar lines that could code as either alt-country or neo-psychedelic (shades of Cowboy Junkies) to the string section that chugs from "November Rain" to "To the End." She's long since worked out how to perform ballads in her idiosyncratic vocal style, and if she's less assured than she will later become she'll rarely trust herself to be so naked again without receding behind studio trickery and pop history.

Lyrically it's a straight-down-the-middle love song (as the title, "You," might hint to those who know pop practice) with a sprinkling of Shakira's signature left-field analogies and metaphors on top. The first line is "te regalo mi cintura" (I give you [the gift of] my waist), which sounds just as odd in Spanish as it does in English,  but in a genre in which hearts, hands, eyes and lips are regularly proffered, why not other, equally sensual, body parts? The chorus, however, is all straightforward sentiment, in trusty list format. The object of the song ("túúúúú-júúú") is: her sun, the faith by which she lives, the strength of her voice (typical Shakira hyperbole: surely she'd keep that for herself!), the feet with which she walks, her desire to laugh, the goodbye she doesn't know how to say. She's as strong (if eccentric) a writer as she is a singer (on both counts), and here she produces the rare ballad that repays intellectual attention as much as emotional.

When people complain about Shakira's going blonde and chasing a global (i.e. Anglophone) audience (and there are — still! — some who do), it's because the star she was at this point in her career so precisely satisfied a desire in the Latin audience for a performer who was easily as magnetic, as prodigiously talented, and as wildly creative as any US or UK rock star, but who was entirely theirs. Beck and Radiohead don't record albums in Spanish; Spanish-speakers have to go to them in order to enjoy their fruits. Why shouldn't the world have to come to Shakira, instead of the other way round?

But although ¿Dónde Están Los Ladrones? was certainly in conversation with Beck and Radiohead, her sights were already set higher. When next we hear from her, her peers won't be white male rockers, but the young women — black, white, and Latin — who are, in early 1999, already deeply engaged in the process of transforming the face of pop music in the US. Some of them will make their own appearances on this travelogue; like Shakira, they go to their audience, and are comfortable wearing the clothes of many places.



30th January, 1999

I've had occasion to lament before that I wasn't listening to Latin radio at the time, which means I'm working at a disadvantage in regard to ambient information and cultural awareness. There are two versions of "Ese" on Puerto Rican singer Jerry Rivera's 1998 album De Otra Manera, one which remains a ballad throughout and one which switches to uptempo salsa about a minute in. Sony released a music video for the ballad version, so that's the one I've embedded and will be talking about, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if airplay being counted for both across radio formats was a factor in driving the song to number one. (The salsa version is here, for comparison.)

Jerry Rivera was an enormous deal in salsa before he reached #1 here. He had been a youthful prodigy in the late 80s, and his 1992 album Cuenta Conmigo broke sales records and remains the highest-selling salsa album of all time. The success of "Ese" on the heels of such a blockbuster might be attributed to what Chris Molanphy calls the AC/DC Rule, if Rivera hadn't released six albums in between. The real difference, from what I can see, is that the top of the Hot Latin chart has been newly open to salsa since Marc Anthony stormed it in 1997. And, of course, the ballad version of "Ese" is by no stretch pure, uncut salsa.

The only reminder of any Cuban/Borinquen influence is in the slow-paced congas and timbales that underlay the glossy synths, nylon-stringed guitar, and Rivera's smooth singing: otherwise, it's simply a romantic ballad that could belong to any Western musical tradition. Even so, the chorus switches to an ordinary drumkit to pound out the rhythm rather than keep up the tropical accents. The result is a big, maudlin love song: the title, roughly translated as "this guy," is invoked over and over again to describe the the big passionate, mercurial, and hopelessly devoted lover of the song's "you." And then, in the very last line of the song, TWIST! "Ese soy yo" — this guy is me. Shock, swoon, clinch, fadeout.

The problem, of course, is that it is practically on the fadeout. The natural peaks of the song, the big swells at the ends of verses and choruses, are romantic declaration enough; no one who's listened to pop before needs to have the lover's identity uncovered, so it's inevitably an anticlimax. Rivera delivers it as slickly as he can, which is considerably, but I can't help feeling as though he'd rather be singing something with more bite and snap; something more, well, salsa. At press time, we're only going to hear from him once more; we'll see in a couple of years whether he — and we — get to pick it up.