13.5.19

ALEJANDRO SANZ, “A LA PRIMERA PERSONA”

25th November, 2006

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When we first ran across Sr. Sanz, as the male foil to Shakira in "La Tortura", I was pretty dismissive of his contribution, approving of his weaselly performance of masculinity without attributing much of the song's punch or heft to him, a European interloper on decidedly American (in the hemispherical sense) turf. But this song has me reconsidering my stance.

Alejandro Sanz was born in Madrid to Andalusian parents, and his earliest musical efforts were entries in a postmodern flamenco revival that was briefly fashionable in late-80s Spain. Even when he made the shift into more commercial adult-contemporary ballad material in the early 90s, his phrasing retained echoes of the throaty "gitano" singing style of flamenco tradition. His 1997 worldbeat album Más remains the all-time best-selling record in Spain, and he responded to that ongoing success by becoming a demonstratively "thoughtful" pop star in the mode of a Sting or a Bono, recording increasingly political material and lecturing at Harvard on Hispanic culture.

His global exposure following "La Tortura" meant that his 2006 album was practically guaranteed to be a hit, which makes this one of the strangest #1s we've ever had, as emotionally florid, hyperverbal and structurally anti-pop as some of Juan Gabriel's most lavish excesses. The flowing, pattery verses recall Bob Dylan at his most motormouthed, though Sanz' soulful, gritted-teeth delivery is in both a flamenco and a rock tradition. The drums beat martially, or funereally, and the trumpet which bursts through the moody, atmospheric instrumentation like a grateful sunbeam could equally be a clarion charge or a variation on "Taps."

Because the point of all Sanz' motormouthed excoriation is the old story: love lost, ego bruised, a man on the hunt for his next source of succor. But there's no confidence that he will get it: the chords perversely refuse to resolve, no chorus ever explodes into certainty, there is only another cycle through the same obsessive refrain. It's a strange art-rock curiosity sitting atop the Hot Latin chart for a week, presumably the beneficiary of early digital download metrics sandwiched in between far more conventional radio pop.

6.5.19

WISIN & YANDEL, “PAM PAM”

4th November, 2006

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It made sense, during reggaetón's first imperial period, when many observers considered it a flash in the pan, a novelty that would be finished in a season or two as the Latin youth audience moved on to the next shiny thing, that one of the hits of the era would join the dots to a flash in the pan of a previous generation. If you're not listening for it, it might be easy to miss the pitched-down flute from Bolivian folklorico group's 1981 rendition of "Llorando Se Fué" in the mix, playing a melody last heard on this blog as played by an accordion in French dance-pop group Kaoma's 1989 "Lambada".

I definitely did not do "Lambada" justice when I covered it in 2010, trying to connect it to contemporary English-language material I already knew rather than working backwards through the Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Peruvian, and Afro-Bolivian roots of the material. But this revival isn't the last time we'll encounter it in the reggaetón era, and the novelty connection I made above is once more an Anglocentric one: the real connection is that the new pan-Latin music of the 2000s is harkening back to an earlier pan-Latinism of the 1980s, giving it a a grittier, minor-key hip-hop gloss, but retaining the dance-centric fusion that an electronic age demands.

But that's just one sound in the stew of sounds cooked up by producers Luny Tunes, Tainy and Naldo for this one-week-wonder, an organic hit which was never released as a single but topped the charts anyway. The lyrics consist largely of the usual boasting: Yandel's refrain "Bailando la toqué y ella se dejó/Me aprovecho y pam-pam-pam, la toco y pam-pam-pam" is perhaps more of a reference to the sexual legend of the lambada than to the actual song (although it structurally echoes the original "Llorando Se Fué" lyrics). I'd translate it "Dancing I touched her and she let me/I seize the opportunity and bam-bam-bam, I touch her and bam-bam-bam."

But in the video (shot in Brazil, and it wants to make sure you know it), the rhythmic "pam-pam" of the title is keyed to the hip and thigh movements which will later be formalized in English as twerking. Some Anglophone musicologists' dismissive attitude toward reggaetón as "just" dancehall in Spanish sometimes makes me eager to catalog the ways in which reggaetón has developed into its own distinctive genre: but it should never be forgotten that all post-hip-hop Afro-Caribbean music, from Jamaican dancehall to Puerto Rican reggaetón to Dominican dembow to New Orleans bounce, feeds on each other, especially in the real physical spaces in which the music is celebrated.

8.4.19

DAVID BISBAL, “¿QUIÉN ME IBA A DECIR?”

28th October, 2006

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We interrupt your regular Latinoamericano programming for a three-week interpolation of furrowed-brow idol pop from Spain. David Bisbal first gained attention on the peninsula as the runner-up of the first season of Operación Triunfo (the Spanish edition of Star Academy) in 2002. He kicked around for a while, failing to win the opportunity to represent his country at Eurovision, before embarking on the kind of pop career that everyone in those early days of reality singing competitions was allowed. Smartly, he hooked up with producer and songwriter Kike Santander, who had helped shepherd the solo Gloria Estefan and Alejandro Fernández to glory, and used that production savvy and his own imitation-soul singing to become Spain's biggest pop star, for a time.

We've not been troubled by him here, but not for lack of effort: his second single went to #3 on the Hot Latin chart in 2002. It would take his third album, Premonición, and its debut single, an ungainly and outdated mix of rock muscle, flamenco noodling, Bisbal's impassioned yowl, and electronic scratching, before he landed at #1 stateside.

The single's cover art makes all too obvious what early-2000s careers he's trying to emulate: Justin Timberlake's Justified fedora, Ricky Martin's Almas de Silencio tight t-shirt and Pietà pose. Unfortunately he doesn't have either man's charisma or lightness of touch, and the result is a self-aggrandizing plod that slides off the memory almost as soon as it touches it. The lyrics are a bombastic, hyperbolic description of doomed love, exactly in line with Hispanist tradition and with nothing whatever new to say.

Not to worry, we'll hear from Bisbal again: the Latin market loves nothing more than a handsome, self-consciously brooding man. Maybe the second time's the charm.

1.4.19

PAULINA RUBIO, “NI UNA SOLA PALABRA”

30th September, 2006

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I compared Paulina Rubio's last entry here, "Dame Otro Tequila", to "Since U Been Gone," a song it preceded by several months. The debt that "Ni Una Sola Palabra," two years later, owes to "Since U Been Gone" is notable, although more in the space which Kelly Clarkson and Max Martin's adaptation of indie-rock aesthetics to chart pop opened for female pop artists using rock sounds to do well commercially than in anything inherent to Rubio, whose appearances here have frequently used rock sounds.

But if "Since U Been Gone" was a pop-auteur's adaptation of the Yeah Yeah Yeah's "Maps," "Ni Una Sola Palabra" (not a single word) is no adaptation, but a union of indie-rock and chart-pop sensibilities. It was written by Xabi San Martín of Spanish band La Oreja de Van Gogh, who weren't indie at all in the cloistered Spanish scene (where they were as central to pop as Mecano in the 1980s) but certainly would be in an American context, and it would require a more overtly pop personality like Rubio's to take their sound from local sensation to transatlantic phenomenon.

The result is the best song we've heard from her yet, and one of her most enduring classics regardless of chart placement: with a chugging power-pop guitar line, an exquisite candyfloss melody, and Rubio's throaty vocals playing with the stuttering descant on "amanece-eh-eh-er," it's become something of a Latin pop radio standard in the years since, the Paulina Rubio song that can hold its head up alongside the Julieta Venegases and Natalia Lafourcades who were even then assuming critically-claimed auteur status in Mexican pop. (We will hear from at least one of them down the line.)

The fact that the song never shifts into a key change, forcing Rubio to strain at the upper level of her range in order to approximate a Clarkson-like banshee wail, is probably why it never reached higher than #98 on the Hot 100; bellowing as an approximation of emotion is littered all over postmillennial Anglophone pop, to the degree that something like this which merely circles around its own tight groove may sound unfinished or undercooked to ears conditioned to expect a build-and-release.

But I think that's a failure to appreciate genre. This song doesn't need catharsis, it's not an emotional break-up song, but a wry song about being emotionally ghosted; puzzlement, rather than pain, is its keynote. The campy video, in which Rubio poses as a superhero over the Los Angeles nightscape, gives the game away: at its core, despite the whining synth and spaghetti-western flourishes, this is a pop-punk song.

25.3.19

MANÁ, “LABIOS COMPARTIDOS”

5th August, 2006

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Maybe it's the date. Thirteen years in the past is long enough to seem embarrassing by its failure to be current, but not so deep in the past to have achieved the varnish of widespread cultural nostalgia. (Of course, i'm in my forties; if you're younger it may seem an eon ago.) It doesn't help that Maná doesn't sound particularly 2006 here, and is closer to the radio-friendly alt-rock of 1996, which sounds particularly ungainly in a chart quickly being reorganized according to the pulse of reggaetón.

The song itself is perfectly serviceable; with a different arrangement, it could have been a ranchera classic, the age-old whine of a man unwilling to share his lover's lips with another, but who can't bring himself to leave her over the infidelity either. If it is infidelity (one irony of hairy rock dudes bellowing this song is that rock was supposed to have relieved us of our sexual hangups back in the seventies. Lennon being a jealous guy was meant as a regretful confession, not a cri d'amour propre); but it's hard to imagine such rigid cultural fetishists as Maná being even aware of polyamory.

The very nineties drumming, which has heard of breakbeats (or, to put it another way, Afro-Latin rhythms) while the rest of the song plods along in a hairy yarl, sounds particularly wan and insignificant compared to the authority and insistence of the dembow riddim, and if the chiming guitars and sub-Bono vocalizing are even more anonymous, it's hardly a point in their favor.

Maná will return, and I may feel differently about them when they do, but it's worth noting that 2006 was so unsettled a time in the US charts, as physical sales tanked, digital sales had not yet fully replaced them, and streaming was still in utero, that this song remains the highest Maná has ever charted on the Hot 100. Why this utterly anodyne moan, which offers so little novelty to the non-Hispanophone, should represent them, other than to confirm the stereotype of rock en español being wholly derivative and failing to transcend its Anglophone models, is a puzzle. But it's not our puzzle.

Onward.

18.3.19

RAKIM & KEN-Y, “DOWN”

29th July, 2006

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Another minor first: the first reggaetón song to replace a reggaetón song at the top of the chart. Industry observers were quick to note all the signposts of a craze, which sounds comic from the vantage point of 2019, but it was not obvious at the time (especially if you were older than thirty and not attuned to Caribbean culture) that reggaetón would transform the pop landscape rather than burning bright before fading away like, say, Selena-era tejano.

But what Rakim (who would soon start spelling his name R.K.M. to avoid tripping over the legendary Long Island MC's trademark) and Ken-Y have introduced to reggaetón's quickly-growing multiplicity at the top of the chart is a pop element. We've seen pop reggaetón before, of course: but where Shakira and Alejandro Sanz were international pop stars borrowing the dembow riddim for some dancehall authenticity, Rakim and Ken-Y were a Puerto Rican reggaetón duo who aimed for uncomplicated pop sheen from the beginning, an unthreatening hearththrob version of Wisin and Yandel. (Four months ago, I contrasted Wisin & Yandel against Andy & Lucas; Rakim & Ken-Y split the difference.)

Rakim raps rather anonymously, Ken-Y croons in a falsetto-free Timberlake imitation, and they shift between Spanish and English so fluidly that it's hard to believe crossover appeal wasn't uppermost in their mind. The production by Mambo Kingz is similarly straightforward and frictionless, and the lyrics are so uncomplicatedly plaintive a recitation of romantic heartbreak (and so entirely free from the sexuality and violence which the moral guardians of Puerto Rican culture used to justify anti-reggaetón legislation) that these two perhaps better merit the comparison (which I levied against Shakira and Sanz) to the role Pat Boone played in rock 'n' roll history.

Which isn't entirely as a villain, but also as a prophet, hailing the domestication, prettification, and (yes) whitening of a once-dangerous music. For Rakim & Ken-Y, although they'll not trouble us again, set a template which pop-reggaetón crossover acts continue to follow to the present day. Late-2010s reggaetón, with its universalizing romanticism, sounds much less like mid-2000s Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, or Wisin & Yandel and much more like Rakim & Ken-Y. For what that's worth.

7.1.19

DON OMAR, “ANGELITO”

22nd July, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

31.12.18

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

27th May, 2006

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

Well, Jesus Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No fighting.

17.12.18

ANAÍS, “LO QUE SON LAS COSAS”

15th April, 2006

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

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

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

10.12.18

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

1st April, 2006

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

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

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

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

26.11.18

CRISTIAN CASTRO, “AMOR ETERNO”

24th December, 2005

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

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

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

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

19.11.18

DADDY YANKEE, “ROMPE”

10th December, 2005

Wiki | Video

Are. You. Reeeaaadddy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

12.11.18

LUIS FONSI, “NADA ES PARA SIEMPRE”

27th August, 2005

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

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

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

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

5.11.18

SHAKIRA FT. ALEJANDRO SANZ, “LA TORTURA”

4th June, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

29.10.18

JUANES, “LA CAMISA NEGRA”

9th April, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

22.10.18

INTOCABLE, “AIRE”

5th March, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

15.10.18

CONJUNTO PRIMAVERA, “HOY COMO AYER”

25th February, 2005

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

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

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

8.10.18

JUANES, “VOLVERTE A VER”

5th February, 2005

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

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

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

1.10.18

OBIE BERMÚDEZ, “TODO EL AÑO”

8th January, 2005

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

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

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

24.9.18

PAULINA RUBIO, “DAME OTRO TEQUILA”

25th December, 2004

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

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

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

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

In the meantime, bring on 2005!