14.4.14

RICKY MARTIN, “LIVIN' LA VIDA LOCA”

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.

17.2.14

MDO, “NO PUEDO OLVIDAR”

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.

6.1.14

JUAN LUIS GUERRA Y 440, “PALOMITA BLANCA”

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.

16.9.13

MARC ANTONIO SOLÍS, “SI TE PUDIERA MENTIR”

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.

21.5.13

ENRIQUE IGLESIAS, “NUNCA TE OLVIDARÉ”

6th March, 1999



Growth!

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.

13.5.13

SHAKIRA, “TÚ”

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.

30.4.13

JERRY RIVERA, "ESE"

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.

15.4.13

JUAN LUIS GUERRA Y 440, "MI PC"

26 December, 1998




The waning years of the 1990s were, from the perspective of more than a decade later, a minor Gilded Age, a global utopia of brand names and Internet startups. The great struggles of the twentieth century were over, Western capitalism and American hegemony had won, the final eradication of time and distance was at hand via the Web, and there was nothing left to do but set yourself up in a McMansion, keep raking in the money, and spend it on whatever the lords of Madison Avenue and TRL demanded.

It was a time begging to be satirized ― for God's sake, it was a time when a totally earnest commencement address over trip-hoppy washes could become a massive international pop hit ― and while novelists, comedians, television producers, filmmakers, and suck.com gave of their best, pop music rather lagged behind. Of course pop, at least in the United States, is much more likely to set the tone for an era rather than provide a principled opposition, and the occasional "Barbie Girl" aside, very little in any U.S. chart critiqued rather than egged on the brave new era of Internet commerce, upscale mall culture, and bubbling markets ― or at least, not in the Anglophone charts.

The last time we saw Juan Luis Guerra was much earlier in the 90s, with a song protesting (in an ironic, covert, and danceable manner) American imperialism. He's kept up with the times, though, and here delivers a rollicking merengue which poses as a love song in order to satirize online relationships, mass media, aspirational branding, and global celebrity. The title "Mi PC" should need no translation to even the most ignorant of Spanish, but to make it clear, the first verse goes: "Girl, I want to tell you that I have in my computer/A gigabyte of your kisses and a floppy of your personality/Girl, I want to tell you that only you interest me/And the mouse that moves your mouth reformats my head/Girl, I want to tell you that in my PC I only have/A monitor with your eyes and a CD-ROM of your body."

So far so William Gibson ― indeed so far so creepy otaku ― but the chorus is where Guerra takes aim at the world beyond the desktop, by listing all the things his character doesn't want (at least compared to his virtual love). These include: a limousine, a Hugo Boss vest, Cindy Crawford in Berlin, a palace with pagodas, Burger King, a drawing by Miró, a trip to Paris, an airplane ride, Holyfield's ear, a Ferrari convertible, Pizza Hut, a NASA shuttle, and Shaquille O'Neal tennis shoes. The venerable folk/pop practice of defining reality by means of lists gets turned on its head by Guerra formulating his items in the negative, and he plays with cadence and repetition to further disrupt the accumulated meaning of all these signifiers of fame, wealth, and Westernization.

The form he chooses for the song is very much a straight-ahead merengue, though one that's characteristically fast-paced and even frantic, with whirlwind interjections from the brass and a carnivalesque breakdown to punctuate the song's funhouse take on modern society. Which of course means that many of the people who would most enjoy its satire will never take it seriously; the vast majority of pop-culture consmers in the U.S. have long since consigned merengue, like salsa, mambo, and other trad Latin dance forms, to the bin of pure utilitarianism, good only for dancing to or for indicating exoticization. But Juan Luis  Guerra is no Third World postcolonial outsider: he's making his critique from within the heart of the Western pop system. Not only did this song hit #1, but its parent album (almost routinely) went gold and received two Grammys; he had been a Latin superstar for over a decade, living partly in the US and touring worldwide. In another ten years, as Dominican bachata becomes a more integral thread in the Latin pop fabric, he'll even be an elder statesman. But that's looking too far ahead. We'll get there in time.

8.4.13

CHAYANNE, "DEJARÍA TODO"

12th December, 1998




It's been six years since Puerto Rican pop star Chayanne has bobbed to the surface on these top-of-the-chart waters; although he's been working steadily in the meantime and been relatively successful at it, this still marks something of a comeback for him. Written by Estéfano, a prolific songwriter and producer from Colombia whose previous success stories had  included Jon Secada's debut album and Gloria Estefan's Mi Tierra, "Dejaría Todo" continues Chayanne's success with midtempo ballads. This time, thanks to Marcello Azevedo's nylon-stringed guitar, it has what you might call a stereotypically Latin flavor, a vaguely bolero sway, though not so pronounced that the barreling power-ballad chorus gets tripped up in any kind of polyrhythmic syncopation.

It's a "she's leaving me, my world is ending" song — more or less literally — and if the emotional hyperbole of the lyrics doesn't quite match up with the bland, adult-contemporary longeurs of the production, that's nothing new. Chayanne's voice isn't powerful, but it's pretty and well-suited to the aching romanticisms he's called upon to emote. (Enrique Iglesias, for example, would make an unlistenable fist of what Chayanne relaxes into.) It goes on for too long, as the chorus repeats and repeats, but it remains listenable throughout, Estéfano's production magic keeping each instrumental injection just this side of stultifying. The choral effect on the last several iterations of the chorus is both gilding this particular lily and getting to be a bit tiresome on this travelogue — how many faux-gospel choruses does that make within the past year? — but I'm surprised to discover that I have some affection for Chayanne.

Which is good, because he'll be back.

25.3.13

SHAKIRA, “CIEGA, SORDOMUDA”

21st November, 1998




And the last piece of millennial-era Latin Pop falls into place. Here we enter the modern world.

Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll had been a child prodigy, writing songs at eight years old and releasing her first album at thirteen; but it wasn't until her third album, Pies Descalzos, that she came into her own: a combination of rock energy, dance rhythms, and pan-global sonics unified by her unmistakable, sweet-and-sour voice and a real brilliance in lyric writing that pushed past conventional expressions of love or self to incorporate bizarre imagery, extravagant hyperbole and unusually rhythmic uses of language. The gospel-tinged "Estoy Aquí", her first mature hit, and the first to do business outside of Colombia, turns the chorus into a breathless rush of syllables imitating the intense everything-at-once emotional whirlwind of the adolescence she was still emerging from.

But that was three years ago, in 1995. And because this travelogue only skims along the surface of the Latin Chart, we have been unable to track her progress. Very few (non-Iglesias) performers begin their careers at the top of any chart; the slow and patient building of a coalition of fanbases, of proving that you make solid work and that listeners can trust you with their ears, hips, and heart, of inculcating enough of an image that it's a surprise and a scandal when you subvert or expand it, is a longer, more arduous, and perhaps more honest task. Shakira in the 90s was not unlike Madonna in the 80s: a bolt of lightning, as ambitious as she was talented, and hard-working enough to compensate for any deficiencies either way. Although I'd say that Shakira was more purely talented than Madonna ever was  as a singer, songwriter, and dancer, and on more or less the same level as an applied theorist of popular music; "Estoy Aquí," in that comparison, would be her early, "Holiday"-era light dance material. "Ojos Así" would be her imperial-era, "Like A Prayer"/"Express Yourself" material. And "Ciega, Sordomuda" would be, oh, say "Into the Groove."

Comparisons can only carry you so far, however: real understanding requires the thing itself. And "Ciega, Sordomuda" is very much a product of the late 90s: the light house beat touches on Swedish pop of the era (the Cardigans, Yaki-Da, Robyn), the mariachi trumpet and guitar were accenting everything from No Doubt to Cake, and even her voice could be similar enough to Alanis Morissette's pained yowl that comparisons litter many of the early English-language introductions to the new Colombian pop/rock starlet. But the sonics of the song, however pleasurable, are only part of what makes it so masterful a piece of pop music: the lyrics, the structure, and Shakira's performance do the rest.

"Ciega, Sordomuda" means "blind, deaf and mute," and are part of an extensive catalog of adjectives she applies to herself as the result of her lover's proximity. (The full list: bruta, ciega, sordomuda, torpe, traste, y testaruda; ojerosa, flaca, fea, desgreñada, torpe, tonta, lenta, nécia, desquiciada, completamente descontrolada. Or: crude, blind, deaf, mute, awkward, clumsy and mulish; haggard, skinny, ugly, unkempt, awkward, foolish, slow, stupid, unhinged, completely out of control ― all of them, naturally, cast in the feminine.) This kind of self-abasement would be unthinkable in English-language pop, especially from such an extremely attractive and self-possessed woman, but it's undoubtedly a faithful report of the kinds of things many of us have felt in the presence of someone who pushes our buttons.

Even her ability with hooks serves the emotional content of the song: apart from the chanting chorus, the swooning "ai, yai yai, yai yai"s that follow the chorus and make space for emotion entirely separate from words are beautiful, sentimental, silly, and sad. Then there's the middle eight, with angry guitars and the bulk of the adjective assault, in which she spits "y no me eschuchas lo que te digo" (and you don't listen to what I'm telling you), admitting that not only is it an incapacitating love, but a hopeless one as well. Shakira's privileging of the contrary and grandly silly vacillations of the human heart over being cool or even making sense has been one of her greatest and most consistent features as a writer over the years.

We'll have plenty of further opportunities to see this in practice: now that she's finally here, Shakira will be a frequent return visitor to the top spot, and indeed the next decade-plus in Latin Pop might well be considered the Shakira Era. Although the chart is getting too busy and diverse for it to be dominated by any one voice, if any voice deserved to dominate, it would be hers.