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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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!



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



29th May, 2004

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If Jennifer Peña's career proceeded in emulation of Selena's, this might be the point where Selena's ended: with a frosty, devotional ballad. But Jennifer never crossed over to the English language, preferring to remain resolutely, and indeed polyphonically, Latin -- the regionally-aimed cumbia version of the song also had a video, in which her hips move with much greater freedom than they do in the canonical ballad version -- and this is her last appearance in our travelogue. She would only issue one more studio album, and then marriage (to Obie Bermúdez?!), her recording contract going into legal limbo as a result of label mergers, and finally a turn to Christian music would sideline her pop career for good.

The parent album, Seducción, also featured a salsa version of this song among its bonus tracks, because although the recording industry was undergoing the precipitous slide from its millennial peak, diversification was still a good bet. But it was the pop ballad version that was the hit, judging by its view count (although the cumbia version sounds much more lively and interesting at a remove of fourteen years), and Rudy Pérez's mooning lyrics about the overwhelming, totalizing way that the early stages of a crush affects the enamored one only really make sense in a ballad form: in the cumbia, such lugubriousness ring hollow among so much boot-scooting good cheer.

"Vivo y Muero en tu Piel" means "I live and die in your skin," a striking image that, in the context of the song, is really just an elaboration of the "whither thou goest, I will go" of Ruth 1:16. And I'm reminded again of how much more sensual, how much more willing to consider physical bodies and mention skin and flesh, Latin pop is than Anglo pop. The fundamental Gnosticism of American religion, its pretense that love can be purely an intellectual-emotional exercise without corresponding physicality, casts long shadows.



22nd May, 2004

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We haven't heard from the boyish Puerto Rican crooner Luis Fonsi since 2000, when I was unimpressed. That was written when he wasn't yet on the radar of every music writer for participating in an unlikely global smash. But more about that when we reach 2017: for now, this is a maturation, a more assured return to a spotlight which he will occupy with some regularity in the next few years.

The song itself is a bit of an inspirational power ballad: "Embrace Life" is its title and central theme, and there's enough respectable (rock) musicianship to give it an edge of Seriousness which Fonsi's own performance, alternating between hushed solemnity and clenched-fist wailing, doesn't quite earn. It's still a power ballad, with all the trappings of uncool that implies. But it's a 2000s-era power ballad, which means that before it really starts soaring into post-grunge pomp in the back half, Fonsi's touchstones are genial strummers like John Mayer or Jack Johnson.

This isn't my nostalgia, because I wasn't paying attention to Latin pop yet in 2004, but it's an era which I can recognize the contours of the nostalgia for. My surprising affection for it may be due as much to the silly, casually charming video, in which young Fonsi is in very good looks, as to the music itself.



15th May, 2004

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I had steeled myself for another exceedingly well-written but interminable ballad, when the opening notes scratched into life and my eyes lit up. Cuuuuuuuuuumbiaaaaa!

It's immediately my favorite Marco Antonio Solís song I've encountered on this travelogue, and the fact that it's the second to last Marco Antonio Solís song (as of summer 2018, at least) on this travelogue makes me wish there had been more uptempo songs among the number ones scored by Los Bukis or him solo: my blind spot with ballads has significantly hurt my appreciation of his work. (Although I just did a quick spin through the archives, and I've overstated how much I disliked his work in the past. The three-song run off En Pleno Vuelo in 1996-7 really annoyed me, though.)

The song itself has been identified by YouTube commenters as a "friendzone" anthem: Solís confesses his love, and begs to be considered "Más Que Tu Amigo" (more than your friend). But neither the cheerful bounce of the music nor the video, in which he happily flits from model to model, takes the lyric seriously. It's so unserious, in fact, that it was used as a telenovela theme: Velo de Novia (bride's veil), a juicy and preposterous melodrama.

Which is all to the good: the burbling organ, wailing reeds, triumphal horns, sinuous accordion, and thumping, beach-friendly rhythm section make more sense as accompaniment to a man dishing out a line of bullshit he doesn't expect to be believed, but he sounds so charming while doing it that you (the genderless, featureless object of his affections; any listener, in fact) don't mind.



8th May, 2004

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In the spring of 2004, Gloria Estefan was 46: the perfect age, you might say, for a stock-taking ballad about the emotional gap left by elders who had passed on, leaving nothing behind but old black-and-white photographs. On the cover of the single, she clutches a photo of her in-laws, Emilio's parents, taken on their wedding day in Havana in the 1940s.

The fact that this obviously very personal, even intimate song still went to #1 perhaps owes less to the undeniable universality of its themes (everyone but the very young has experienced loss and grown sentimental over an old picture) than Gloria Estefan's stature as an icon of Latin pop twenty years in to her hitmaking career. 2003's Unwrapped spawned four singles, but the third, "Te Amaré," was only issued in Spain, where it was a substantial hit, and the second, "I Wish You," was only pushed to English-language radio, where it was a modest adult-contemporary hit; but the two Spanish-language singles released in the U.S. hit #1 on the Hot Latin chart as if duty-bound.

The song itself is perfectly lovely, also co-written by Peruvian songwriter Gian Carlo, with an intelligent, unpredictable chord structure and marvelous, emotionally literate work from drummer Manu Katché and percussionist Archie Peña. Gloria's performance is understated but resonant, reminding me not for the first time of the warmth and yearning in Amy Grant's 1980s records, which is a higher compliment than you may suspect.

It was only #1 for a week, but it only needed to be. In some ways it's the tail end of Gloria's imperial period: we will see her again, but not with the frequency we have since 1989. She's moving towards brand management rather than pop stardom, and as her and Emilo's portfolios diversify, the charts take a back seat. Never mind; the kids are always coming up from behind.



17th April, 2004

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2004 has been a year of belated appearances at #1 -- first Paulina Rubio, now Víctor Manuelle, who had been second only to Marc Anthony as a leading voice of the younger generation of New York salsa singers in the 90s. But although his albums had been cracking the Billboard 2000 since 1999, it wasn't until his ninth album that he was rewarded with his first Hot Latin #1.

In fairness to the Latin radio-listening public, it's a hell of a song. Post-millennial salsa appearances here have been patchy at best: Gilberto Santa Rosa is a legend, but "Que Alguien Me Diga" isn't really salsa; Son By Four were to salsa what *NSYNC were to R&B; Gloria Estefan opted for Cuban nostalgia instead; and only India knocked both sound and performance out of the park. "Tengo Ganas" (I Want) is both classic and modern; as a song, it would have been thoroughly at home in the 80s salsa romántica wave, but Manuelle's detailed, sensitive performance and the plush punchiness of the production (listen for the pause and rush before the chorus) make it fit right in with the Ricky Martins and Shakiras of the modern pop chart.

Manuelle's primary claim to fame is as one of the great soneros of his generation, a singer whose mastery of the improvised post-song son section of a salsa performance (the bit when the other performers chant a scrap of the lyric in unison) was matched only by Gilberto Santa Rosa (who gave him his first break when Manuelle was still in high school). He finds the pocket and lingers in it easily here, but the son is abbreviated because it's a pop record rather than an extended salsa workout.

We'll hear from him again, though not for some time. He hasn't gone away, by any means, although he prefers to make the music industry come to him rather than chasing trends by singing anything other than salsa. His most recent high-profile single was a collaboration with a fellow Puerto Rican, rapper Bad Bunny, which fits Manuelle's silky salsa into the era of reggaeton and Latin trap. This travelogue started in 1986, which felt so removed from 2010 as to be alien; from 2004, we can just glimpse 2018 on the horizon.



27th March, 2004

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The fifth single from his 2003 album Almas del Silencio, and the third to appear on this travelogue: just by sheer numbers, this is Ricky Martin's imperial period, his version of George Michael circa Listen Without Prejudice. And like the British star at an equivalent point in his career, he was taking himself very seriously. "Y Todo Queda en Nada" can be translated as "And Everything Comes to Nothing," and textually it's a standard breakup song in which the man wallows rather more in hyperbolic self-pity than usual.

But the video has Martin repeatedly lies or sits in a crucifix pose and stares down the camera with his unnervingly symmetrical face, as religious imagery -- doves flutter past his face, a crowded bar table is framed like the Last Supper, he contorts his own body to suggest both figures in a Pietà -- flashes past. The Passion of the Martin, then -- and as an aside, Mel Gibson's blood-soaked adaptation of Luke 23 was released a month before this went to #1.

It was co-written and produced by Estéfano, whose signature sound here has largely been just this kind of chest-beating ballad, whether by Chayanne or Thalía. And although much of the sound is super-generic turn-of-the-millennium power ballad, there are details in the production -- the vacuum-sealed background vocals, the sawing strings -- that elevate it beyond the crashing drums that have little function other than as a signpost saying Melodrama Here.

It's notable in Martin's oeuvre to date (or at least his #1s) in being identifiably directed at a woman. The final line of the chorus, repeated again and again, is "Yo no te olvido, mujer" ("I can't forget you, woman," but it's not stilted in Spanish). With that, the over-the-top drama in the lyric, the music, and the video begins to make a little more sense. What if it's not the failure of a particular heterosexual relationship that's torture, but heterosexuality itself?