29.9.16

ENRIQUE IGLESIAS, “RITMO TOTAL”

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.

26.9.16

CARLOS PONCE, “ESCÚCHAME”

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.

22.9.16

JACI VELÁSQUEZ, “LLEGAR A TÍ”

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.

19.9.16

LUIS MIGUEL, “O TÚ O NINGUNA”

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.

15.9.16

MARC ANTHONY, “DÍMELO”

2nd October, 1999


Whoops.

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.

12.9.16

RICKY MARTIN, “BELLA”

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.

8.9.16

MILLIE, “DE HOY EN ADELANTE”

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.


5.9.16

BIENVENIDOS DE NUEVO.

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.

29.2.16

ALEJANDRO FERNÁNDEZ, “LOCO”

21st August, 1999


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

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

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

4.5.15

ENRIQUE IGLESIAS, “BAILAMOS”

10th July, 1999


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

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

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

26.1.15

JENNIFER LOPEZ & MARC ANTHONY, “NO ME AMES”

26th June, 1999


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

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

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

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

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 February, 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 linked to 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.