7th October, 2000

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

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

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

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



23rd Septmeber, 2000

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

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

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



9th September, 2000

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

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

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



12th August, 2000

Wiki | Video

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

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

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



1st July, 2000

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

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



17th June, 2000

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

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

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



10th June, 2000

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

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

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

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



1st April, 2000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



11th March, 2000

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

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

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



5th February, 2000

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

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

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

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

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



15th January, 2000

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

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

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



8th January, 2000

A new decade, a new century, a new millennium -- and a new voice. That we haven't met Carlos Vives before on this travelogue is due more to chance than to the number ones closely tracking the development of new sounds in Latin Pop; he's a contemporary of Luis Miguel or Ricky Martin who had had a career as a smoldering telenovela presence in the 80s, and his first few records of po-faced ballads didn't have much of a reception. But when he played a vallenato composer in 1991, and started making pop-vallenato music in his own right in 1993, he tapped a deep well of exciting dance music that was largely new to the broader, non-Colombian music audience, and became a star.

Vallenato is a tradition Colombian dance music, originating on the country's western Caribbean coast (as opposed to cumbia, which came from the central Caribbean coast), and its traditional instruments are a hand drum, the scraping guaracha instrument that also makes cumbia's signature sound, and accordion. Vives added a rock band and (on "Fruta Fresca") Andean pipe, and his version of vallenato (to the disgust of traditionalists) is notably more uptempo and Caribbean than the traditional music.

"Fruta Fresca" is a love song, its sentiments as breezy and universalist as its sound, and like practically everything else good in Latin Pop at the turn of the century, it was produced by Emilio Estefan. Which may be how Vives finally ended up at #1 after nearly a decade of stardom. It's the Estefans' world, we're just living in it for now.



11th December, 1999

Wiki | Video

Although he'd been a frequent (perhaps too-frequent) visitor to the Hot Latin #1 spot since 1996, it was not until "Bailamos" that Enrique Iglesias finally landed on the magic formula that would sustain one of the most consistently successful careers in modern popular music: he became, despite all his rock-derived masculine vocal strain, essentially a disco diva, a passionate if limited voice around which his collaborators can wrap high-octane, intricate productions. Which isn't to say that he won't have ballads in the future, and sometimes very successful ones -- but they will be the ballads of a dance singer, not the rock/romántica singer he originally positioned himself as.

His voice is thin and nasal, and he cannot project the authority that his father or Luis Miguel could, and even the easy competence of Ricky Martin is beyond his power. What his voice does have that they all lack is a certain vulnerability, traditionally identified in popular music with women's voices. (Soul music is the great exception, and the great innovation, in Black US music, and all rock singing is descended from it.) So he can be a dance singer, and it doesn't matter that his voice can't necessarily keep up with the thrust of the music, not just because it can be beefed up by modern production methods, but because its very fragility is what gives the music its emotional power.

All of which is to say that "Ritmo Total" (simultaneously released in English as "Rhythm Divine", as which it was more of an international hit than a US one) is not just an imitation of the formula that made "Bailamos" his first crossover hit, but an elaboration and, in some ways, an improvement on it. The clunky bilingual lyric is gone, replaced by either an all-English or all-Spanish lyric (and in the future he will sing in either one language or the other, rarely if ever both), both with parallel meanings if different details. The flamenco guitars return, but there's a rapid flamenco (or Catalan rumba) rhythm too, and indeed the whole production flutters where "Bailamos" was a more staid 4/4. He even breaks into a tremulous falsetto here, escaping his usual heartfelt whine for a non-verbal soar, and it's the most blissful sound we've heard in an Enrique Iglesias song yet.



4th December, 1999

Wiki | Video

Three number-one hits in two years: why have I not been including Carlos Ponce along with Iglesias, Martin, Anthony, Fernández, Lopez, and Shakira as the new generation shaking up Latin pop in the late 90s? Well, because he hasn't been anywhere near as good as any of them, for one -- his gruff-voiced power ballads are well below the standard of their sleek pop variety. And for two, this is his last appearance; barring unforeseen comebacks, he will not trouble us again.

So it's something of a pity that his last outing is his best yet. His second album, Todo Lo Que Soy, was produced by Emilio Estefan, for whom it was a banner year: he was involved in nearly all of the 1999 songs I've loved. And "Escúchame" is no power ballad, but an airy folk-pop song, the first pop-flamenco (and not just flamenco-inspired guitar runs) we've heard since Gipsy Kings all the way back in 1990. Ponce is by no means a traditional cantaor, but his husky tones can manage a pop approximation of gitano singing, and he plays off against the handclap rhythms in the last chorus like a pro.

But even though it's a sweet song, and I appreciate the tonal variety of the flamenco sound, it's still not on the level that the new generation is, more like (to reach for contemporary Anglophone comparisons) Everlast's pop-blues-hop than what Britney Spears or Destiny's Child were doing the same year: nice enough, but they're building the future.



13th November, 1999

We've seen how Latin music was crossing over to the mainstream US charts with some regularity in 1999; one other major byproduct of the music industry's peak years at the end of the 90s was Christian crossover music, a dream that had been alive ever since Amy Grant first troubled the secular charts in the 1980s, but towards the turn of the millennium was closer to becoming a reality than ever before. Bands widely perceived as Christian like Creed and bands that openly identified as Christian like P.O.D. were wildly successful, and the standardization of all aspects of the music industry that was a feature of the consolidating 1990s meant that there was virtually no difference in sound or professional quality between secular pop and Christian music (as there always had been in my youth, when I was allowed to listen to nothing else).

So the arrival of Jacqueline "Jaci" Velásquez, a Houston native of Puerto Rican descent with a strong voice, wholesome good looks, and a willingness to occasionally be ambiguous as to the divinity of her love songs' object, on the Christian-music circuit in the mid-90s, was a perfect realization of all marketing dreams: She could be sold to the Christian market, to the pop market, and to the Latin market all at once.

The Christian market took to her immediately, as I remember (these were the last years in which I paid any attention to that world before my ongoing attempts to digest All Music Ever took over my life); the secular pop market did not, particularly; but the Latin market, less unwilling to hear religious love as a metaphor for carnal love and vice versa, embraced her too. It helped that with this song, her first Spanish-language single, she put her best foot forward.

"Llegar a Tí" (to get to you) is a strong love ballad in any context, with crisp production that wouldn't have been out of place on any Lilith Fair-adjacent record, and with MDO providing angelically-smooth background vocals (that's them sighing "y volar... y soñar"). The lyric could easily be taken to refer to a human lover: its central image, of love being so powerful that it allows the lover to literally fly to her beloved, had been used by R. Kelly three years earlier in a song that owed much to church traditions. But prickly consciences could be soothed by the chastity and wide-eyed devotion of the lyric, which floats in such gauzy nonspecificity that the song is not just a marketer's idea of heaven, but many Christians' too.



6th November, 1999

It's been a while since Luis Miguel has turned up here. Two years, in fact, which is a perfectly reasonable length of time to go between #1 songs, but his career to date has been so extensively documented here that it's hard to feel this appearance as anything but a falling-off, or even a passing of the generational torch.

But a quick check of dates shows that he was born within a year or two of Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, Alejandro Fernández, Jennifer Lopez, and Selena, all of whom were (or would have been) around 30 in 1999. (Enrique Iglesias was the kid of the bunch at 25, and Shakira even younger at 23.) But where the above (save Selena, QEPD) were consolidating their positions as hitmakers, breakout stars, and even futurists, Luis Miguel was by now a grand old man of Latin Pop, prematurely aged not just by his head start in the business but by his choice of material over the last ten years: a young man singing old men's songs in a faultlessly classy manner, a silken voice united to smoldering good looks without the elasticity or charm of his contemporaries who could play younger and breezier.

If there has been such a thing as a generic Luis Miguel song, "O Tú o Ninguna" is more or less it: exquisitely orchestrated, with the oboe again prominent, but after the punchy fleetness, sexy dynamism, and emotional lavishness of "Ciega, Sordomuda," "Livin' la Vida Loca," "Bailamos," "Loco," and "Dímelo," it sounds tinny and hollow, a thin layer of varnish next to gleaming chrome. "You or Nobody" is the title sentiment, and the lyric is almost exactly predictable: he doesn't care about any face or voice that isn't hers, he doesn't care about his own skin because it's not her. It is, in line with Miguel's history, a well-written lyric, and there are pleasures of imagery and unexpected phrases that the bland sweetness of the music and melody can't entirely erase (the second verse is actually an incisive psychological portrait of the song's object), but ultimately it feels lightweight, and more fatally, old-fashioned. We have seen the future, and Luis Miguel is no longer it.



2nd October, 1999


I've been saying for some time that "Bailamos" and "Livin' La Vida Loca" were the entirety of the "Latin Invasion" that was more hyped than actual in the summer of 1999. I had forgotten about "I Need to Know," the first of Marc Anthony's two major English-language hits around the turn of the millennium. (And, of course, Jennifer Lopez was also having her first hits, and though neither "If You Had My Love" nor "Waiting for Tonight" featured any particularly Latin sounds or Spanish lyrics she would have been lumped in as well.) I can only offer by way of excuse that I was not particularly paying attention in 1999, and that "I Need to Know" has not stuck around with the tenacity of either Ricky's or Enrique's hits.

What interests me more is that "Dímelo" is the second appearance in a row of a phenomenon that, until now, has in this travelogue been confined entirely to Gloria Estefan and Jon Secada: the simultaneous release of a song in both English- and Spanish-language versions. From the vantage point of nearly two decades later, this can be understood as a mark of the music industry's turn-of-the-millennium strength or, if you like, hubris. Why not maximize profits by selling the same product to two distinct markets, and build a new generation of doubly profitable stars at the same time?

But while English-language audiences are often happy to jump on an uptempo bandwagon, they're less willing to stick around for the history lesson that earnestly respectful stars like Marc Anthony want to provide. Probably a lot of people who danced to "I Need to Know" in the second half of 1999 thought they were dancing to salsa, but the opening violin figure is very clear: it's actually a tango. (Well, really, once the cowbell gets going it's a slick, sweaty 4/4 dance song, but tango rhythms are more persistent than the mambo rhythms that define salsa.) When Marc Anthony got back to singing real salsa, it was not so well-attended.

But we'll be able to trace what happens to his dual-language career as this travelogue continues. For now, the song's the thing, and it's a great song in either English or Spanish, one of the magical pop songs of 1999, the immediately premillennial party year that seemed to respond to Prince's 1982 invocation of it by trying to create a soundtrack to utopia (or doom) worthy of the simile. Tango is, of course, a great soundtrack to romantic paranoia and obsession, the most noir of the classic Latin musics, and Anthony's performance is all needy, reckless assertiveness, demanding to know whether it's true that his beloved loves him, with such over-the-top intensity (he's dying for her love, his desire won't let him live) that any reasonable lover would be scared away. But in the heightened, cowbell-frenzied world of the song that intensity is just an emotional match for the rhythmic thrust and whirl of the music.



4th September, 1999

One of the effects of glancing through all the old entries in this blog while getting ready for this return was becoming very embarrassed about how dismissive I was of the many ballads that have made up the bulk of Hot Latin #1s in the twentieth century. Perhaps I'm growing mushy and sentimental in middle age, perhaps I understand Spanish lyricism better than I used to, or perhaps I'm belatedly getting the critical distance which allows me to hear past flimsy or generic production to the emotion, the performance, the song itself. (Particular apologies to Marco Antonio Solís, probably the most undeserved target of my splenetic boredom over the years.)

All this dawned on me while I was listening to "Bella" again and realized that I'm predisposed to rate it highly not because of Ricky Martin's sensitive performance, or because the soaring melody or elegant lyrics are anything out of the ordinary, but just because the production is modern and full-bodied and full of interesting textural accents. The sitar and tabla atmospherics that open it, the falsetto soars leading into the chorus, the fretless bass murmuring throughout, the gated drums, the swirling strings: this is the second most expensive-sounding song we've heard yet. The first, of course, is "Livin' la Vida Loca."

And it's really only within the shadow of that enormous cross-platform hit that "Bella" makes any sense, both as a chart hit at the time and as a pop memory today. As "She's All I Ever Had," it apparently went as high as #2 on the Hot 100, but I have no memory of it, and listening to it now I'm much less impressed with it in English, where the lyrics (and the rhymes) are more generic and the focus is more on the man singing the song than the woman he's singing about.

Not that it's a deathless love song in either language: Ricky Martin was never particularly convincing as a man tortured by love for a woman even before he left the closet, and his performance here is more remarkable for his burnished soulfulness (the song was co-written by Jon Secada, and you can hear hints of his R&B-derived melodicism, even while the tempo lumbers unfunkily) than for any emotional nakedness. Fair enough; lots of straight men have sung unconvincing love songs too. But there's a reason that "Livin' la Vida Loca" and another song still to come are the ones he's remembered for from the millennial era, rather than this.



28st August, 1999

Two steps forward, one step back. The new generation of Rickys, Marcs, and Shakiras may be investing this chart journey with more consistent excitement and pop thrills than we've ever had, but it will be a long time, if ever, before we shake off the rhythmically uninteresting romántica ballad which in so many ways has defined the 90s in these pages.

Millie, like Martin and Anthony, is Puerto Rican, and is actually younger than them both, but this, her only appearance in these pages as a singer (she may appear again as a muse), is a throwback to the early 90s if not to the 70s, an utterly sincere slice of burnished AM pop with all the sonic attributes — glassy keyboards, anonymous strings, below-heart-rate tempos, and a rich if not particularly skillful voice — that I've come to expect from romántica ballads.

The most interesting sound is a high-pitched oscillator whining like a steel guitar, and while there are enough details to the production to make listening to it on repeat more of a voyage than a chore, the entirely straightforward lyric about resolving to forget a previous lover is far more utilitarian than resonant outside of the specific use-case of putting it on repeat during the getting-over-the-bastard phase of a breakup.



Hey there. It's been a while. And it was a while before that. And before that. And &c....

I've been spending the past week sweeping the dust out of the corners and straightening the tablecloths on this blog, trying to get it ready for renewed updating, if not on a strict schedule, then at least with some regularity. If you flip back through the archives (easier to do now, if you scroll down and look to the right), you'll see that I've beefed up the single/album art and removed the shoddy mp3-streaming interface which only ever worked on some browsers, replacing it with links to YouTube clips and Wikipedia articles. (Please let me know if you come across anything that doesn't work.)

It's coming up on seven years since I first launched this blog, and three since I last updated it regularly; why start up again now, when the internet is littered with half-finished monuments to best-laid schemes gang way, way agley? Social media doesn't care; the corporate internet doesn't care; venture-capital-funded fandom-driven internet entertainment media doesn't care. If it's not this minute's hashtag, it's yesterday's news. Well, that indifference is one good reason. I started this blog because I realized that nobody I knew or read cared about Latin music, and I thought I might be able to. I'm stubborn, or eccentric, that way; show me an unattended-to plot of culture, and I make a beeline for it. And everyone else still doesn't care, and I still do.

Which is to say that my world is much more Hispano- and Ibero-centric now than it was seven years ago, or even three. I've extensively refreshed my Spanish over the last several years, and started learning Portuguese, and reading Spanish and Portuguese literature, and listening to Hispanophone and Lusophone music almost more than Anglophone. I visited Guatemala again for the first time in twenty years last month, and am still processing a lot from that trip. Latin Pop fits much more clearly and neatly into my world than it used to, and I want it to be even more important to me.

But the main reason is that Juan Gabriel died last week, and I was struck with a grief I hadn't expected — because I hadn't known who he was before I started this blog. I still haven't heard most of his vast catalog; but I've returned to the songs I learned of here, and several others, many times over the years, with increasing respect and affection. And as I sat refreshing Twitter and watching all my music-writer friends gear up for the MTV Awards, I started to get mad. The deaths of David Bowie and Prince (both of whom I adore) earlier this year had stopped the world in its tracks; why should Juan Gabriel, at least as important in his field as they were in theirs, not get the same respect?

I know why. You do too.

I can't do much about centuries of racism, monolingualism, and ethnocentrism, but I've done what I could. Here is my tribute to the man, including several songs I first learned about here; I'm deeply grateful to the volunteers who chipped in to round out my (still limited, still blinkered) understanding.

I have the next several posts all written up, catching us up to 2000, and will be rolling them out over the next few weeks. Since I've done away with the mp3s, creating posts should be far less of a hassle, even as the music itself has never been more available. Inevitably for a blog that's taken such long hiatuses and involved such a steep learning curve, I am not remotely the same person who started writing back in 2010. Hopefully I know more, and am less obtuse or easily-bored or arrogant than the person who wrote so much of the foregoing (cleaning up the posts has involved a lot of being embarrassed by my former opinions); hopefully, too, I can be more perceptive, maybe even more entertaining.

We'll see.