7.1.19

DON OMAR, “ANGELITO”

22nd July, 2006

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No sooner has reggaetón been grudgingly accepted within the exclusive club of the Hot Latin #1s than it turns maudlin and literary. Don Omar was Daddy Yankee's principal challenger to the title of supremacy within reggaetón's first explosion in popularity; his 2006 album King of Kings was the first reggaetón album to debut at #1 on the Latin Albums chart, but "Angelito" was only at the top for a week compared to "Rompe"'s three-month reign. Don Omar's true imperial era is yet to come; in the meantime, there's this.

I don't know enough about the history of reggaetón to say for certain whether this was notable as being an early ballad in the style, but it's certainly true that it was the first balladic reggaetón to achieve such widespread success, crossing over to listeners who weren't invested in reggaetón but knew a good weepie when they heard it. In that way it's comparable to something like 2Pac's "Dear Mama," a moment of vulnerability all the more notable for the self-aggrandizing celebrations of violence and excess that surround it.

But Omar's not giving away anything about himself: the voice in which he speaks for most of the song is that of AIDS, the death sentence of a woman who loved a stranger incautiously one night and whose soul is the "angelito, vuela" (little angel, fly away) of the chorus. Pop-song PSAs have rarely been more lavish: the funereal opening and sawing strings before the the dembow riddim finally kicks in on the second chorus are time-tested signifiers of Gravitas, while the spoken-word outro, which in a club-aimed track would be reserved for the shoutouts to producer and label (DJ Eliel does get namechecked in the intro) is a lapel-shaking DO YOU SEE giving the song an Aesopian moral: "Vive la vida minuto a minuto y encontrarás en cada uno de ellos un motivo por el cual conducirte en la forma correcta. Te lo aseguro." (Live your life from moment to moment and you will find in each of them a reason to conduct yourself in the proper manner. I promise.)

But while it can be inferred that Don Omar is advocating safe sex, he's cagey enough to allow the moralist-friendly interpretation that he's advocating abstinence. The background to all of this was government repression and censorship, as the rich white upperclass of Puerto Rico used morality laws to raid nightclubs and record stores where reggaetón, born of the largely Black underclass in San Juan, was being disseminated (many thanks to Eduardo Cepeda's hugely informative column on the history of reggaetón), and Omar, an international star working with a major budget (the video, shot on location in Rome, was not cheap) and already dealing with charges of drug and arms possession, was smart enough to walk the line that would keep his work free from the censor's marker.

Ultimately I find "Angelito" more interesting than gripping: the discourse on safe sex has moved so far past its banal sentimentalities that it's more of a period piece than many of its contemporaries. But Eliel's widescreen production is still pretty great, even in the HD era.

31.12.18

SHAKIRA FT. WYCLEF JEAN, “HIPS DON'T LIE”

27th May, 2006

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"Refugees run the seas cause we own our own boats."

Well, Jesus Christ.

Of course I'm thinking about all the stories, all the photos, all the statistics I've seen about Syrian and Libyan and Sudanese and Colombian and Honduran and Burmese and Tibetan refugees since 2006. Of course I'm thinking about the parallels that are being inexorably drawn between rising anti-refugee sentiment in the US and Europe and the doors which were slammed in the faces of German Jews during the lead-up to the Holocaust. Of course I'm aching with a bone-deep misery over the gap between the triumphant utopianism of pop and the squalid murderousness of the actual world.

I understand that, faced with that gap, one reasonable response is to reject pop as a hollow illusion, an opiate of the masses, Huxley's soma drip-fed into our veins to keep us pacified and unprotesting while Orwell's Big Brother raids our pockets for its unending wars. The squalid murderousness is the fact: triumphant utopianism is a useless and possibly dangerous fiction that obscures our view of reality, reassuring us that everything turns out for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

Well, maybe. But Huxley and Orwell aren't the only midcentury British writers to engage with the effects of totalitarianism on the human spirit. In The Silver Chair, one of his books for children, C. S. Lewis includes a sequence in which the adventuring heroes are lulled into a trance by the Queen of the Underworld, who induces them to believe that their memories of the Overland, including vegetation and the cosmos, are entirely made up, a story they've been telling each other, and that no world but hers, hewn from rock and glimmering fragilely in the endless darkness within the earth, exists. The spell is only broken when the gloomy, sensible, semi-amphibious character Puddleglum stamps out her fire, and makes the following speech:
“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”
Philosophically it's unconvincing -- the argument that because humans can imagine a better world than this one, one must exist, is a very debased theodicy -- but poetically it's magnificent. That, I think, is why I will always return to pop: because it can, and almost necessarily does, imagine radically better ways of living and relating to one another than exist today. But they can; four babies dreaming can't make Narnia exist, but millions of Black, brown, and poor folk working together can reshape the world. It's not going to be easy: all extant power structures and our long inheritance of human inequality are arrayed against us. But we have resources they don't: beauty, and joy, and community, and an equally long inheritance of human resilience and creativity.

That inheritance is on magnificent display in this song, one of the most purely perfect pop songs of the decade. Of course when I say pure I don't mean that it's not complex: a vast array of musical traditions, technological interpolations, and yes, capitalist funding went into it. Supposedly beginning life as a sketch of a song called "Lips Don't Lie" with which Wyclef unsuccessfully tried to tempt Lauryn Hill into a Fugees reunion, it was eventually included on the 2004 soundtrack to Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights as "Dance Like This", a duet with Puerto Rican singer Claudette Ortiz. Listen to that, and you can hear the basic framework of the song, including the unmistakable sample of the trumpet flourish from Jerry Rivera's "Amores Como el Nuestro", but it just circles around itself over and over again, a mime of mutual seduction in which Ortiz sounds utterly anonymous and the song itself sounds bored, trailing off without ever having landed.

So when Shakira's label reached out to him for a remix to extend the life of "La Tortura", Wyclef said he had a better song that she would be perfect for. She rewrote the female duet partner's lyrics in her inimitably unidiomatic English and beefed up the production with Wyclef's producer Jerry Duplessis. Recording was done in Miami, Nassau, London, New York, Bogotá, and Vancouver; samples were cleared; and the single was released in February of 2006, three months after Oral Fixation, Vol. 2 was released to middling sales, a major disappointment after the way that "La Tortura" had boosted Fijación Oral, Vol. 1. But if you remember the summer of 2006 at all, you know that "Hips Don't Lie" was inescapable no matter where you were in the world (a Spanish version was also released, but I've never met anyone who heard it). 2006 was the absolute nadir of my engagement with contemporary pop music, and even I loved it.

I love it more now, twelve years later, as the world has grown crueller and more hateful toward the refugees Wyclef keeps repping in the song, as outright hatred (rather than ignorance) of Hispanic and Caribbean culture has grown more vocal and regularized in the Trump era even while Spanish-language and Spanish-English hybrids have become the lingua franca of international pop. The boiling insanity of xenophobia, isolationism, and apocalypse-mongering in the Anglosphere feeds back on itself until it becomes a white hunger for Black and brown death that can't be shocked back into sensible morality by reading stories of boats sinking in the Mediterranean or seeing images of dead babies on beaches.

As counterpoint to which a recitation of seduction between a Lebanese-Colombian and a Hatian-American, both millionaires, as formalized and mannered as a Noh play with its symmetrical verses and inevitable rap-verse peroration, might seem less than effective.

But the heraldic fanfare which opens and punctuates the song seems to announce more than a mere two-person exchange of intimacies: it is the opening of a tournament, a call to arms, a reveille, but most immediately of all it is a summons to the dancefloor. And "baile en la calle de noche, baile en la calle de día" is a utopian ideal, quoting Fernando Villalona's classic 1985 merengue "Carnaval" but in spirit stretching back to at least the liberatory utopianism of "Dancing in the Street" and perhaps even the celebratory 1902 ragtime song "On Emancipation Day" by Will Marion Cook and Paul Laurence Dunbar. (En Barranquilla se baila así, of course, and the soundtrack to liberation has never been exclusively in English; but I still know the Anglophone canon best.)

Of course it can go either way: the organization of culture purely by the logic of capital means that oppressor as well as oppressed can draw cheer, comfort, and hope from subaltern popular music. Which is why the ground is always shifting, why yesterday's utopian promise is today's banal muzak, why every triumph is also on some level a surrender. Like Carnival itself, a Dionysian space carved out of the Church calendar which only reinforces its control over all the rest of the year, pop has been assigned its quarter, and the eschatological promise it makes of dancing in the streets day and night, when the shackles of labor and the promise of state violence have finally been smashed, can only be an endlessly deferred IOU. Until it isn't. Lord haste the day.

No fighting.

17.12.18

ANAÍS, “LO QUE SON LAS COSAS”

15th April, 2006

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Any examination of pop in the 2000s is going to have to encounter singing-competition reality shows sooner or later, and I can only be grateful that this song, more than halfway into the decade, is the first time a song by the winner of a singing competition has appeared here.

The Puerto Rican show Objetivo Fama was on its second season: a combination of Big Brother and X-Factor, it featured hopeful pop stars rooming together in a house/studio while competing to win the favor of judges and the viewing public via performances. The first season had only been open to Puerto Ricans, but the second loosened those rules, and Anaís Martínez, from the Dominican Republic, went all the way. Her prize was a recording contract with Univision, and her debut single was a cover of Puerto Rican star Ednita Nazario's 1991 adult-contemporary classic "Lo Que Son Las Cosas" (the way things are, written by her ex-husband, Argentine pop star Luis Ángel Márquez), which only missed appearing here then thanks to Los Bukis.

Of course I like Ednita's version better than Anaís' -- it's straight-down-the-line early 90s adult contemporary in exactly the vein I'm nostalgic for because that was the first period in which I listened to pop music, where the later cover is overproduced and oversung. It's not bad particularly, but it's missing the context of the original: Nazario had been an Olivia Newton John-esque pop starlet since the late 70s, and was entering middle age singing her husband's song expressing fatalistic regret about relationships ending while in the midst of a very public divorce from him. Anaís' cover performs the emotions with convincing correctness, but she's too young and too obviously well-funded (the kitchen sink is thrown at this very reality-show holleralong) for any but the most generalized emotions to come through.

10.12.18

WISIN & YANDEL, “LLAMÉ PA' VERTE (BAILANDO SEXY)”

1st April, 2006

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One of the reasons for doing this project is to tease out unexpected resonances. So rather than comparing "Llamé Pa' Verte" to "Rompe," its immediate predecessor in reggaetón chart-crashing, I'm reminded instead of the last male duo to appear at #1, all the way back in 2004: Andy & Lucas, two Spanish pretty boys peddling Idol-approved sentimental nostrums. It's not just "real," "raw" music as opposed to "manufactured," "telegenic" pop: Juan Luis "Wisin" Morera Luna and Llandell "Yandel" Veguilla Malavé, rough-voiced rapper and smooth-voiced singer respectively, are if anything better-looking than the rather callow teen pin-ups Andy and Lucas; Yandel in particular serves such excellent smolder that he very nearly outclasses the hip-thrusting bikini-clad models in the video.

It's not even a forthright representation of adult sexuality as opposed to fanciful youthful ideas about romance: dance music is certainly a stylized representation of sexual activity, but the stylization is just as important as the sex. Yes, Wisin and Yandel play booty-calling ("Llamé pa' verte" means "I called t' see you") horndogs, Yandel's chorus extremely unambiguous about the sexual metaphor of the dembow rhythm ("a ella le encanta como lo hago y le doy" -- "she loves how I do it and give it") while Wisin's verses are only slightly more clever in their entendres ("yo tengo la crema pa' tu piquiña" -- "I have the cream for your itch"). In its way, it's just as hyperbolic and idealistic as Andy & Lucas, only making grandiose, exaggerated claims about sexual competence rather than the similarly grandiose claims about emotional competence and eternal devotion that romantic balladry promises.

Perhaps it's simply more realistic: love cannot be guaranteed, but sex can, so reggaetón (especially early, up-from-the-streets reggaetón) concentrates on the latter: not just because of its inherent attractions, but primarily because of its fungibility. Every reggaetonero, like every rapper and dancehall toaster before them, is, before anything else, a capitalist. Which is what makes this, even more than "Rompe," the first street-level reggaetón #1, with no concessions given to the pop market. With nearly a third of the track left to go, Wisin begins to shout out the track's producers and brag about how many records they've sold, the kind of coda designed for a DJ to fade into the next song.

If your primary conception of music consumption revolves (like mine) around songs as discrete units, every mp3 or stream functioning like an imaginary 45-r.p.m. record, this kind of extra-musical information, an essential element of brand maintenance in a musical world ruled by mixes and soundsystems, takes some getting used to; but pop music doesn't belongs to the bedroom listener carefully placing the stylus on "Surfer Girl" any more (and probably much less) than it belongs to the basement raver screaming to be heard over the bass of a song they'd never know the name of if its performers didn't shout it at them repeatedly. Buckle up; the new world is only starting.

26.11.18

CRISTIAN CASTRO, “AMOR ETERNO”

24th December, 2005

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A former teen idol negotiating his way into middle age has several models to choose from: on one side is Luis Miguel sinking into prematurely soporific nostalgia, and on the other is Ricky Martin remaining preternaturally youthful and au courant. Cristian's choice in 2005 was to change labels but keep on plowing his usual furrow. His previous appearances here have alternated between beautifully-sung ballads (Juan Gabriel at one point called him the most versatile voice in Mexico) and uptempo jangle-rock hits -- this is the latter, wholly in keeping with the twin themes of rock and reggaetón that have dominated 2005's Hot Latin #1s.

As the last #1 of 2005, it was really only a week-long interregnum amidst the 15-week reign of Daddy Yankee's "Rompe" (as though making up for the underperformance of "Gasolina"); it will be spring 2006 before there's a new #1. But it's also a beautiful way to close out this most pivotal of years in our travelogue, an evocation of the eternal truths of pop: love is what matters, a cool voice riding a hot, prettily-frenzied production will always have appeal, and syncopated rhythms make you want to dance.

But it's also a return to a subtle tradition in the Latin Pop chart that has few analogues in the Anglophone equivalents: it could easily, with only the listener's frame of reference changing, be a song about God rather than about an earthly lover. "Eternal love" is a deeply Romantic concept when applied to human pair bonding; depending on the philosophy of life you subscribe to, it may have more theological coherence than material. In any case, a chorus like "Your love changed me, it made me the man I am/You give me everything I want, you brought me peace/Heartache never again" has all-too-obvious significance to someone like me who grew up listening to pop simulacra directed exclusively toward Christ.

Of course, the glory of pop is that you don't have to choose. Obviously people feel that way about their earthly lovers too, and more power to them. Either way, Cristian's never been in better voice, and his angelic falsetto in the middle eight is a high point of a classy if never surprising record. This isn't the future of Latin Pop; but it's a delightful dead end.

19.11.18

DADDY YANKEE, “ROMPE”

10th December, 2005

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Are. You. Reeeaaadddy?

The reggaetón rhythm has appeared twice before on this travelogue: once as novelty and once as auteurist pop. But here, the final barrier falls, and its true, "género urbano," form shows through.

Ramón Luis Ayala Rodríguez, born in the dense urban jungle of San Juan and a participant in Puerto Rico's nascent hip-hop scene since his adolescence in the early 90s, adopted the nom de mic "Yankee" early on, a reference to the authoritativeness he sought to claim for his own as a young colonized subject. He was probably the first person to use the word "reggaetón" (a slang formation which just means "big reggae") while improvising on a 1994 mixtape. He was already a seasoned veteran of the streets, having seen his baseball coach shot in front of him at six years old, and having caught a stray bullet himself while taking a break from rapping for DJ Playero. That injury prevented him from pursuing his dream of baseball stardom, so he doubled down on music, soaking up influences from hip-hop to the north and dancehall to the south as well as the quick, violent vernacular of the mean streets of San Juan. His first solo record was released in 1995, when he was nineteen: he continued to churn out independent albums and mixtapes at a high rate, coalescing specifically around the reggaetón sound around the turn of the century.

His breakthrough was 2004's Barrio Fino -- signed to a major label, with distribution guaranteed beyond the Caribbean and Miami, he called in every favor, loading it with recognizable names from Puerto Rico's urban music scene and relying heavily on the thumping, inventive sonics of producers like Luny Tunes and Monserrate & DJ Urba. It worked. It became the first reggaetón record to hit #1 at the Latin Albums chart, and in fact it charted worldwide, making a dent even in Europe thanks to the undeniable urgency and fire of "Gasolina", a chest-thumping anthem big and bold enough to make a career; but despite having enough traction to break into the Top 40 on the Hot 100 and scoring #10 on Hot Rap Songs, it only went to #17 on the Hot Latin chart. Blame the inherent conservatism of the multiethnic, country-wide coalition represented by Latin radio play: although reggaetón was undeniably the sound of the young Caribbean, Mexican-Americans in the Southwest and the older, entrenched generation in the urban Northeast still regarded it with suspicion.

It would take two things for Daddy Yankee to make his bow here: first, the widely-admired and deeply-respected Shakira would have to bestow her imprimature on the reggaetón beat, making it a respectable music for romantic storytelling rather than a crude noise from the illiterate slums; and second, Yankee himself would have to go rather broader with his appeal. In practice, this meant first commissioning a colorful, cartoonish Monserrate & DJ Urba beat that seemed to take cues from the goofy, ear-sticking beats Dr. Dre had produced for Eminem's pop breakthroughs over the past half-decade. Then DY switches up his flow to incorporate not just chest-thumping boasts and horny chat-ups but nagging pop hooks and crowdpleasing pop-culture references, namechecking "My Boo," Scarface, and brand names from eBay to Frito-Lay to Listerine.

"Rompe" is probably nobody's favorite Daddy Yankee song: it's very 2005 in the way that means that nostalgia has not yet had quite enough time to reclaim it, and it works overtime to entertain and ingratiate in a way that keeps it at a distance where a more vulnerable or single-minded record could sink down deep into a listener's affections. But it is the song that marks reggaetón's first real appearance at #1, not as a novelty dance or as a pop accent but as the music that reggaetón actually was: a ground-up fusion of hip-hop aesthetics and urban Caribbean culture, compulsively danceable, hyperbolically aggro, and textually dense in a way that pop before or apart from hip-hop almost never is. The oversized jerseys and bling in the video -- I believe this is the first time living hip-hop culture has shown up in a #1 video -- makes it clear that a new generation is taking over Latin music, and that they're not interested in the continuity of musical or cultural traditions which have accompanied this travelogue over the the last nineteen years.

But it still sounds great turned up loud, and insofar as it represents the triumph of reggaetón in a chart dominated by ballads, midtempo rock, salsa, regional Mexican music, and dancepop, we are still living today in the world that it made.

12.11.18

LUIS FONSI, “NADA ES PARA SIEMPRE”

27th August, 2005

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Three stone-cold classics in a row is not normal for a run of #1s on any pop chart in any year; once we set aside simple nostalgia, the law of averages would dictate that the #1 spot bear its share of flashes in the pan, middling work buoyed by affection for prior greatness, and other detritus. But sometimes the stars align, and Juanes, Shakira and now Luis Fonsi have ushered in a new era -- like Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias, and Marc Anthony did in 1999, but less invested in English-language crossover and more invested in particularly Latin sounds.

Which, granted that Juanes's guasca rock and Shakira's pop reggaetón were "particularly Latin," what's so very Latin about Luis Fonsi's shuffly ballad, sounding like every rootsy Bush-era crooner from Jack Johnson to Jason Mraz? Two things: the enveloping string arrangement, which has been a regular feature of this travelogue since Luis Miguel's symphonic boleros of the 90s, and the solomonic lyrics, which manage to be both very philosophical and very emotional in the best Spanish tradition.

Because it's impossible, once you know the context of the song, to hear it as anything but a gorgeous, broken-hearted love song about facing your lover's mortality. It was written by Afro-Cuban trovero Amaury Gutiérrez (himself a bit of an inspiration for folks like Johnson and Mraz), but Fonsi recorded it in the context of his wife Adamari López's diagnosis with breast cancer.

She survived, and is currently a Telemundo host (they divorced in 2010), but the song remains as beautiful and endlessly adaptable to the listener's own circumstance as ever. The title is plainspoken: Nothing is forever. But it's the chorus that resonates: "Quiero amarte hoy/Quiero amarte hoy/Por si no hay mañana" (I want to love you today/I want to love you today/In case there's no tomorrow). The post-2008 trend of cataclysmic pop in the English-speaking world is anticipated here, but Fonsi's scope is smaller and more intimate than the widescreen apocalypses invoked by the likes of Ke$ha; when one person is your whole world, you don't need an apocalypse for the world to end.

5.11.18

SHAKIRA FT. ALEJANDRO SANZ, “LA TORTURA”

4th June, 2005

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Although I love it, I ended my summary of "La Camisa Negra" last week by admitting that it is, after all, only a minor classic. That is the limit to which guitar-led rock music can ever aspire in the twenty-first century: major classics require more of an electronic kick.

And so we arrive here, to the single that set the pattern which so much of the Hot Latin chart would live up to over the next decade and more. It is the first reggaetón #1 proper -- which is to say, the first song to hit #1 which uses the beat universally recognized in its moment as belonging to reggaetón -- which also makes it one in a long list of colonial trend-jackers to be more commercially successful, and earlier, than the originators of the music. Like the Original Dixieland Jass Band, Pat Boone, and Vanilla Ice before them, Shakira and Alejandro Sanz are coded white (Sanz isn't even Latin American, but straight-up Spanish) and so able to break barriers that the musicians of color -- usually descended from African slaves -- who created their various genres could not.

So it's a testament to Shakira's (and to a lesser extent Sanz's) ability to synthesize a wide range of musical material in order to articulate a genuine artistic vision that the song is actually good -- much better, indeed, than "Tiger Rag," Boone's version of "Ain't That a Shame," or "Ice Ice Baby."

The narrative impetus of the song is one we've heard hundreds of times over the course of this travelogue: Sanz plays a man who comes crawling back to his former lover, begging her to take him back; "Yo sé que no he sido un santo/Pero lo puedo arreglar amor" (I know I haven't been a saint/But I can make it right, love), while she acknowledges the pain he has caused in the classicist ranchera-inflected chorus: "Ay, amor me duele tanto" (Oh, love hurts me so). But if it the song were a ranchera ballad being buoyed by swooping strings or an oompah rhythm, it would end in a reconciliation: his self-description as a bird who must fly (consciously evoking classic Southern Rock imagery) returning to its nest would be the final word. But it's not a ranchera, it's a reggaetón, and the democratic bump and grind of the music allows her to give as good as she gets: "Not by bread alone does man live/And I can't live on excuses." The song closes with a striking reversal, as she acknowledges that yes, it was torture to lose him, but he can go on crying for pardon, she will cry for him no more.

This is a turning point in more than one way, not only for this blog, but for all of Latin pop. I've repeatedly expressed, sometimes at wearying length, how gross and artificial I find so much of the romantic machismo that has has recurred in the lyrics of song after song over the twenty years since the chart began in 1986. Exceptions to stifling gender conventions have not necessarily been hard to find -- Juan Gabriel, Ana Gabriel, Juan Luis Guerra, Ricky Martin, and Shakira's early work stand out -- but they have been just that, exceptions to a pervasive cultural narrative that it is the man's prerogative to act, and then beg forgiveness, while it is the woman's lot to feel pain, but ultimately to believe in love and forgive. I don't want to suggest that this is a narrative unique to Latin music. Of course you can find a lot of the same attitudes throughout rock, soul, country, and hip-hop; but Latin machismo, perhaps because it has been so thoroughly analyzed by Latin feminists, is particularly easy to identify. Shakira is thoroughly aware of that  analysis -- the titles of her 2005 and 2006 albums, Fijación Oral and Oral Fixation, are even a pun on male sexual inadequacy -- and as a declared feminist herself, her refusal to let the man off the hook draws a line in the sand.

Of course it would be too much to claim that from here on out there will be no more machismo in Hot Latin #1s -- the coming wave of reggaetón will certainly have its regressive elements, and there will be rock and banda and more besides -- but the sheer scale of "La Tortura"'s success means that it had an inevitably outsized influence on the culture, and that it will be harder for any male singer to play the regretful cheater without Sanz's deliciously weaselly performance ringing in his head. Because the twenty-five weeks it spent at the top of the chart accounts for nearly half of 2005, and even with its sales split between physical and digital it still ranks as one of the top-selling singles of all time. It was the first-ever entirely Spanish-language video to be aired by the flagship MTV channel (and I haven't even mentioned the video, which goes into greater detail about the narrative between Shakira and Sanz, including a remarkable choreography which draws parallels between the convulsions of sobbing and of orgasm), and it still sounds thoroughly modern when much else that hit #1 in 2005 sounds increasingly trapped in the amber of the past.

There will be much more space to discuss reggaetón in the future, including the first authentic Puerto Rican reggaetón #1 coming up soon; but for now the fact that it is the soundtrack to even a qualified example of feminist liberation should be noted. Reggaetón, like all other genres, will have generations; and it will be useful, once enough time has passed, to remember its popular roots.

29.10.18

JUANES, “LA CAMISA NEGRA”

9th April, 2005

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It's been a while since we last encountered a song that, if I gave each of these songs scores out of ten, I would have given a ten. (The last one would have been "Que Me Quedes Tú".) I'm not even entirely sure I would give "La Camisa Negra" a ten (it's no "Que Me Quedes Tú," for one thing), but the impulse is there, and that counts for a lot with me.

Like many people who didn't pay much attention to Latin pop in the 2000s, I first heard Juanes via this song -- and if you think you haven't heard it, try listening to it first, because you well may have without noticing. It was not only one of the biggest hits of 2005 (eclipsed only by the next stop on our travelogue), but a generational hit: it was still being spun regularly when I started listening to the Phoenix-area Latin pop stations in 2009, and I've heard it fairly frequently in Mexican restaurants and at cookouts in Chicago for the past five years.

It's a bit curious that it's become such a pan-Latin touchstone, because it was written as a very Colombian song, Juanes' tribute to the elder statesman of Colombian guasca (rural) music Octavio Mesa, whose cumbias and parrandas were as earthy and salty as any blues or roots reggae. Because Juanes is a polished pop composer, "La Camisa Negra" (the black shirt) is not actually filthy -- but his patter lyrics keep setting up potential filth before veering off to an innocent meaning, in the age-old tradition of double-entendre. It was still suggestive enough for its airplay to be banned in the Dominican Republic. Meanwhile, Italian leftists protested it for a different reason: the black shirt of mourning in Juanes' lyrics was reinterpreted by neo-Fascists as an approving reference to Mussolini.

None of the controversy hurt its popularity, of course, and the crisp, slick production, which blends blues smoke, reggae lilt, and parranda scrape with masterful skill, makes it one of the highlights of 2000s pop. Juanes' performance, the entire song sung on the edge of lascivious rasp, is also superb: with this song, so indebted to specifically Colombian traditions, he perfectly inhabits the global rocker persona he's been playacting all along. Still, it's the Big Pop Key Change into the soft-lens refrain "Por beber del veneno malevo de tu amor" (due to drinking the malevolent poison of your love), where his voice goes from rasping to yearning, that pushes this song out of rurally-bound tradition whether Colombian, North American or Jamaican, and into the sphere of glorious internationalist pop.

2005 was the beginning of the nadir for pop-music videos in the United States; cable TV had by and large gotten out of the music-video business, and the Internet had by and large not yet gotten into it. But the different broadcasting cultures of Latin pop, especially big-budget Latin pop, were still producing inventive and original videos: and this one, like the song that soundtracks it, is a minor classic.

22.10.18

INTOCABLE, “AIRE”

5th March, 2005

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Two Mexican regional songs in a row in the #1 spot might suggest that 2005 is seeing something of a return to traditionalism; but although certainly there was and is overlap between the Conjunto Primavera's fanbase and Intocable's, they're also very, very different bands with different approaches to their material.

Part of that is just the difference between conjunto chihuahense and a tejano ballad band; although they both feature prominent accordion, square rhythms, and romantic vocals, Primavera's Tony Melendez is a squarely traditional singer in an almost bel canto tradition, perfect at making itself heard in unamplified plazas, while Intocable's Ricardo Muñoz is, well, Texan: his vocal technique is derived from African-American soul and the longstanding intimacy of US pop recording.

And that's the real difference: between Mexican regional music and tejano, which is marketed as Mexican regional music (and is quite popular in many regions of Mexico), but is also part of the larger North American pop universe. Intocable (whose name means Untouchable; the Clint Eastwood movie was five years old when they first started using the name) is as much a U.S. band as a Latin one; they're just so wildly popular in the Latin market that they don't need recognition from the Anglophone portions of the U.S.

That "Aire" is our first encounter with them is due to chance more than to their popularity; they've been million-sellers since the late 90s, and it's not even necessarily one of their most popular songs. But it is a great song: straightforward and beautiful, with enough rhythmic shifting to remain interesting (the underwater half-time middle eight is a remarkable effect in a #1 song) and such a lovely, vulnerable central performance from Muñoz that even the rather hackneyed lyrics of the chorus ("tú eres aire que respiro," you are the air I breathe) sound invested with emotion and, thereby, truth.

Intocable's ability to invest traditional tejano instrumentation and structure with North American pop gloss and soul emotionalism have made them so wildly popular for forty years that it's a shame this is the only time we'll meet them on this travelogue, at least as of this writing. I wouldn't be at all surprised if they somehow gamed the streaming era too, though.

15.10.18

CONJUNTO PRIMAVERA, “HOY COMO AYER”

25th February, 2005

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From the opening notes, it's clear that Juan Dominguez and his men have no interest in playing the pop game of keeping up with trends and changing with the times: they're keeping on keeping on, sounding almost exactly like they would have in 1988, with perhaps fuller production and a little more grain in Tony Melendez's voice, but otherwise unchanged.

The previous time we heard them, Félix Contreras was playing an accordion, and this time he's playing a Casio keyboard, which means that "Hoy Como Ayer" (today like yesterday) isn't technically conjunto sinaloense, but a regional ballad. It's a very good regional ballad, possibly the best we've heard since the 1990s, but it's a rapidly-vanishing tradition, at least at the #1 spot.

The song's melody is as sturdy and repetitive as a hymn's, and there's a churchy stateliness to the entire proceedings, punctuated only by Dominguez' sensual saxophone solos. Whether Conjunto Primavera knew they had a hit and invested it with all the dramatic tension at their disposal or whether the high drama of the production was what made it a hit is an open question; either way, it's a late classic in a style that dominated the early and mid 1990s in this travelogue, the likes of which it's doubtful we'll run across again.

8.10.18

JUANES, “VOLVERTE A VER”

5th February, 2005

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said not long ago that we'd hear Juanes do better than "Nada Valgo Sin Tu Amor." Peak Juanes is yet to come, but "Volverte a Ver" (see you again) isn't far off: a Nineties-style combination of rock grit and reggae flow, it's corny, but authentically corny: the emotions it communicates are sincerely communicated, if easily commoditized and hyper-consumable.

Juanes' performance at the center of the song is what really sells it, of course: his voice is as thin and strained as ever, but he knows how to use it to maximum effect to sell the song's heroic-faithfulness emotions without spinning into the kind of self-regarding bathos that (for example) Enrique Iglesias would. And the production backs him up with classic rock-band dynamics: Emmanuel Briceño's Fender Rhodes laying out a rootsy but polished bed for the opening verse and Juanes' guitar only crunching into stop-start bridge to the reggae chorus.

Juanes is undeniably a pop classicist, in love with the sounds and structures of the past, but the gloss and dynamism of his work means that he can sound just as contemporary and vital as his generational peers like Ricky Martin or Shakira. As of this #1, he hasn't yet achieved their heights with a perfectly iconic song; but one is on its way.

1.10.18

OBIE BERMÚDEZ, “TODO EL AÑO”

8th January, 2005

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The first new number one of 2005 is also (probably) the last time we'll be seeing Obie Bermúdez on this travelogue. It's also his best song, record, and performance of the three we've heard: a year on from his breakthrough, his voice is huskier and less whiney, which exactly suits the low-key, largely acoustic mood of the song. It's the kind of song which an Anglophone contemporary like Gavin DeGraw might have blanketed malls with, but because Latin pop is so musically diverse (and because Sr. Bermúdez as a pinup had only very limited appeal) it would be quickly left behind in the rush to elevate more dazzling songs and sexier stars.

But while it's here, it's a very good rock ballad with slow, barely discernible island rhythms. The almost inaudible maraca insisting on a dotted triplet on the second verse while the drums plod in straight rock time is a vague gesture toward Cuban bolero, or even Puerto Rican plena. It's soon overwhelmed by the galumphing rock sheen, of course, but its memory and Obie's faithfulness to a soulfully syncopated rhythm makes the song engaging where a smoother, more straightforward singer would make it soporific.

2005 is an unusual year in the middle of the 2000s, a sort of preview of what the chart will be like under streaming: so dominated by a few massive hits that there will only be nine #1s all year, the record low since 1991's eight. That record will be broken in a decade's time, but the modern period of Latin Pop really starts this year. Stay tuned.

24.9.18

PAULINA RUBIO, “DAME OTRO TEQUILA”

25th December, 2004

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The last #1 of 2004 is Paulina Rubio's second #1 of the year (and in total): her "Te Quise Tanto" had recurred throughout the first quarter, and as the decade marks its halfway point she's looking like actual competition for Shakira's genre-blending dance-centric global pop.

"Dame Otro Tequila" (give me another tequila) is very much in the mid-00s genre of songs by women feeling liberated from a bad boyfriend: the tres plucks leading into the chorus, as well as the whole quiet-loud structure, sound a bit like "Since U Been Gone," and the video features Rubio smashing up her abusive boyfriend's car à la Carrie Underwood in "Before He Cheats." But it's worth noting that both songs were released after Rubio's -- co-producer and co-writer Emilio Estefan was still thoroughly in tune with the pop zeitgeist, even if Gloria was moving away from it.

It's also a very Mexican song, or perhaps I should say very much a caricature of a Mexican song (fitting enough for a song written and produced by Cubans and Panamanians) -- not just the tequila of the title, but the pseudo-ranchera instrumentation (the aformentioned plucks of the tres and the drunken mariachi horns in the chorus) are invested in reminding you that Paulina es una mexicana. As far as I can tell, it doesn't seem to have been much of a hit in Mexico, and it's not even on her official YouTube channel.

In retrospect, it's a fairly slight song, with a melody that doesn't particularly stick in the mind, very dated electronic percussion, and virtually no low end; the conceit of the production, that the phasing vocals and samples are supposed to imitate the sensation of drunkenness, makes it a relatively uncomfortable fit for casual listening. All of which means it's had very little afterlife: although kudos to Paulina and her fans for getting it to #1 during the quietest sales week of the year. She'll be back, and with better.

In the meantime, bring on 2005!

17.9.18

ALEJANDRO FERNÁNDEZ, “ME DEDIQUÉ A PERDERTE”

23rd October, 2004

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Throughout the last decade of this travelogue, whenever Alejandro Fernández has shown up it's been cause for celebration. One of the most tasteful and careful musicians of his generation of Spanish-language pop stars, he's been a better singer than Enrique Iglesias, a more thoughtful selector of material than Ricky Martin, and less interested in chasing trends than Marc Anthony.

And he's paid the relative penalty for it; fewer #1s, of shorter duration, than his peers, and no crossover hits. He hasn't sung in English, remaining a faithfully Mexican star, and he has mostly stayed out of the Anglophone media circus: the Hispanophone media circus is giddy enough on its own.

But his 2004 album A Corazón Abierto (with open heart) signals a change. The classy suits and charro cosplay of his twenties are gone: and the on the cover of the single for "Me Dediqué a Perderte" (I dedicated myself to losing you) he's in a t-shirt and hippie wristbands, like he's trying to be one of those younger, more rock-oriented stars, a Luis Fonsi or a Juanes.

The song is similarly contemporary: although there's still a bolero inflection to the percussion, it's drowned out by the studio drum kit playing straightforward ballad rock. The song was written by Leonel García of Sin Bandera, and that band's generic music-from-nowhere sound has overwhelmed Fernández' classy traditionalism. But then, classy contemporalism gets you hits. For a season.

Fernández the singer is still a marvel: nuanced and emotive, he savors every syllable in his burnished throat like the singer Enrique Iglesias wishes he was. But the song just sits there instead of taking flight: the string arrangements which have so often been a highlight of his appearances here just flutter uselessly instead of providing dramatic contrast.

It's the sound of a singer aging into a comfortable stasis. From here on out, it's increasingly unlikely that Alejandro Fernández will challenge himself or his audience; like Luis Miguel, his place as a permanent fixture of Mexican culture is secure, and he can coast. The kids are coming up from behind.

10.9.18

JUANES, “NADA VALGO SIN TU AMOR”

25th September, 2004

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From the viewpoint of the #1 spot, the mid-2000s is the most rock & roll that Latin Pop has ever been or presumably will ever be again. It's still not very rock & roll -- pop serves its own needs -- but the signifiers at least of rock have been present on six out of the sixteen forgoing songs of 2004, which feels like a kind of wave. And then there's this, the most straightforward rock song since, gosh, maybe "Ciega, Sordomuda"? (Not that anything Shakira has done has ever been all that straightforward.)

Juanes' shoulder-length hair, tattoo sleeves, and Seventies guitar solo are all valorizing a particular historicized (and Anglo-American) vision of emotional authenticity in popular music, but the glockenspiel hits on the rousing chorus show that he's paying attention to contemporary (Anglo-American) indie rock as well. Since the last we saw of him was a cod-reggae duet with Nelly Furtado, this makeover might be kind of a surprise, but he's always been a rocker, or at least he's always enjoyed playing dress-up in rock clothing. And the shifts between the slow, power-ballady verses and the rousing Ramonesy chorus are a model of how to make rock interesting and engaging to a pop audience that doesn't have automatic affection for it.

It was a big hit, dominating the last half of 2004 on Latin radio and winning Best Rock Song at the Latin Grammys and the first-ever Rock/Alternative Song of the Year at Univision's Lo Nuestro awards. (Lo Nuestro had been awarding Latin cultural achievement since 1989; that they just now started recognizing rock speaks to the change I noted in my first sentence.) And yet... it's a bit soggy, a bit unwieldy. The title, translated as "I'm not worth anything without your love," is the kind of old-fashioned romantic hyperbole that the honesty and irony of Anglo-American rock had once been understood as puncturing. It's a very Latin sentiment, but because it's expressed in a blues-derived form without the traditional emotive flourishes of Latin music, there's a tension between the joyous bounce of the chorus and the plaintive feelings it's expressing.

Which doesn't mean it's bad, just a touch awkward. Juanes has done better. We'll get to hear some of it.

3.9.18

ANDY & LUCAS, “SON DE AMORES”

18th September, 2004

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One of the beauties of Billboard's old method of determining chart placements for various musical subcultures -- like R&B, hip-hop, country, alternative rock, or Latin -- being primarily about what was popular on the playlists of radio stations which served those audiences is that one-week miracles like this were still possible. Another Andy & Lucas will never happen in the streaming age, which is set up to reward the broadest-audience music possible as long as it's given the appropriate genre tag, regardless of whether the music's core audience cares about it, with endless reigns only occasionally broken up by viral sensations.

There was nothing particularly viral about Andy & Lucas, aside from the age-old sensation of cute boys singing sensitive love songs. The flamenco-inspired guitar runs which open and interrupt the song are more an indication of their Spanish nationality, as if their lisping accents hadn't given it away, than an indication of musical virtuosity. There hasn't been as simplistic, or even simple-minded, a song as this on this travelogue for quite some time -- maybe not since "Aserejé," which at least had the virtue of being fun.

But the comparison points to Spain's odd-man-out place in this travelogue. Enrique Iglesias aside (and a argument can be made that he really belongs more to Miami than to the mother country), Spanish artists can only really be novelties on the Hot Latin chart after the millennium. Which would have surprised me back in the 80s, when Rocío Dúrcal and Julio Iglesias were a regular presence; but one consequence of the increased Latinx population in the US over the last thirty years is that it's more and more Central American and Caribbean, so that the white, Iberophilic Latinos who once made up a much more significant portion of the Latin music audience are less significant, and Spain now plays an even more diminished role in Latin pop than the UK does in US English-speaking pop.

All of which is by way of skirting the fact that while Andy & Lucas are certainly cute and give good puppy-dog eyes, there is almost nothing to say about the song: its pseudo-profundities are nostrums that were old when the book of Proverbs was written, and its one lyrical stroke of inspiration, the three-syllable rhyme of "calor y frío" (heat and cold) with "escalofrío" (shiver) is still pretty goofy. Everything else is super generic, from the electronic shuffle of the rhythm to the rise and fall of verse and chorus. I hope the young people who made it #1 for a week in 2004 remember it fondly; that's probably the best use it could have.

27.8.18

CARLOS VIVES, “COMO TÚ”

28th August, 2004

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For eight years and more, I've had "Welcome to my beach party" as the first line of my About slug on the right side of this page, and today the prophecy is fulfilled in your hearing.

Which isn't to say that none of the foregoing eighteen years of number ones were beach party-suitable (that would be as foolish a claim as to say that all Latin music is). Vives himself, indeed, has provided several excellent jams that jibe with sea breeze and sunburn; but this hit marks a subtle turning point, or rather is a key instance in a turning continuum, of all music that enters the Latin #1 spot being transformed into party material.

There are two primary elements in this song: vallenato (or at least the pop-vallenato that was the closest 2000s international pop radio would get) and rock n' roll (or at least ditto). While the rock instrumentation may predominate, the vallenato shuffle sets the tempo, and the vallenato accordion duels with the electric guitar in discrete solos. Vives' hoarse, delighted singing, with patter verses indebted to hip-hop or perhaps to dancehall toasting (his dreadlocks in the video aren't the only island signifiers in the song), splits the difference between Black Crowes-ish bluesy boogie and souped-up millennial-era Latin pop.

Emilio Estefan was a producer, which explains why the music simply explodes out of the speakers the way it does, but it's Vives, hard-working but always genial, who makes it so deliriously joyful. This might be the best, most thrilling pop jam we've met on this travelogue since "Suerte", and the fact that both Vives and Shakira are Colombian isn't lost on me: its international pop scene may have gotten a late start (at least compared to Golden Age Latin pop nations like Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, and Cuba), but it's more than made up for it since.

20.8.18

LOS TEMERARIOS, “QUÉ DE RARO TIENE”

24th July, 2004

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We first encountered Los Temerarios in 1997, singing a 1977 Vicente Fernández ballad. Now, seven years later, we meet them again, singing a 1990 Vicente Fernández ballad. That's not all they ever do, of course (we met them again in 1998 with an original), but it's apparently what the most people wanted out of them during the few particular weeks when nothing else was grabbing as many people's fancy.

Their 2004 album, Veintisiete, was as the title suggests their twenty-seventh album, and the image of the two bandleaders, brothers Adolfo and Gustavo Ángel Alba (Gustavo sings, Adolfo is the musical director) in sepiatone on the cover is an indication that it's an album of covers: not only Vicente Fernández but Juan Gabriel, Pedro Infante, and Cornelio Reyna are among the mariachi and ranchera classics the Ángel Alba boys tackle.

As with their 1997 cover, it's a perfectly adequate reading of a song that, not being Vicente, Gustavo doesn't have the lungpower to make his own. It's a classic barroom tearjerker, the complaint of a man who has lost everything, including the respect of society, because he can't keep away from women. "Qué de raro tiene?" he asks: "what's strange about it?" -- that's just how men (weak) and women (temptresses) are. Which is of course profoundly misogynist, and Los Temerarios try to palliate that a bit by making the video about a love triangle in which the woman dies, breaking both men's hearts.

But misogynist or not, classic mariachi will not have a place much longer on this travelogue. I'm inclined to enjoy it, despite its political limitations, while it's here.

13.8.18

MARC ANTHONY, “AHORA QUIÉN”

19th June, 2004

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The song that replaced Jennifer Peña's "Vivo y Muero en Tu Piel" (and indeed danced a duet with it, as the two songs passed the #1 spot back and forth for eight weeks in the summer of 2004) is a perfect illustrative example of the way the Latin pop industry, and even the Latin pop listenership, treat men and women unequally. "Piel," you may remember, was released in both a pop and a cumbia version, with a glossy video for both (more or less the same video, but her lip-syncing is different to go with the different styles) -- and "Ahora Quién" was released in both a pop and a salsa version, with the same glossy video for both; only slightly more frantic editing in the salsa version distinguished them.

But where for Peña (at least going by current YouTube counts, which is the only data I have) the pop ballad version was more popular by an order of magnitude, Marc Anthony enjoys the privilege of having the regional, tropical, "ethnic" version be the more popular one, again by an order of magnitude. For both of them, the swelling, bombastic pop renditions of the songs are full of florid emotion and a certain amount of stately narcissism; the ones with the Caribbean rhythms and punchy arrangements make the same emotional point, but also invite the listener to participate in a living tradition of dance and movement rather than just wallowing in lugubrious emotional identification.

It's indisputably true that throughout the history of pop music women have been used as a point of lugubrious emotional identification more frequently than men, who are more often awarded the guardianship of ethnic traditions and the authority of inscribing their personality (rather than just their emotional reactions) onto whatever they perform. This is sexism at its most basic and primal, and few listeners in even the most progressive circles are wholly free from its logic (I certainly would not claim to be). But it's also true that Marc Anthony was, and is, just a bigger star -- both his videos are several orders of magnitude more popular than Peña's -- and his career both preceded hers and has continued since her withdrawal from the market. There's no one-to-one correspondence here.

With its neurotic, motormouthed expression of jealousy, "Ahora Quién" is a pretty good song qua song -- songwriter and producer Estéfano plays the role here that Rudy Pérez did for Jennifer Peña -- but it's neither Marc Anthony at his best nor entirely free from awkwardness: it's pretty obvious that it was composed as a power ballad and had to be retrofitted into a tropical dance number. And even in the salsa version, the first verse still contains a fragment of the pop ballad; but once the montuno gets the upper hand, the funky rhythm never leaves it.

It's the second salsa #1 of 2004, which given how little salsa has appeared here since 2000 might mean the music was experiencing a bit of a renaissance -- but it's only too obvious how unrepresentative the #1 spot is of the entirety of musical activity. It's the mid-oughts already; other island rhythms are coming up from behind.