16.10.17

ALEJANDRO FERNÁNDEZ, “TANTITA PENA”

10th November, 2001

Wiki | Video

The period interruptions of Alejandro Fernández into this travelogue have quietly become one of my favorite features of the journey since the late 90s: he is so rarely chasing new trends or crossover success, and his taste in production and songs tends to be so exquisite, that he can come as something of a relief from the more bombastic or kitschy elements that regularly wander into #1.

"Tantita Pena" (so little pity) revives another classic sound: but where Fernández had largely explored the intersection of ranchera and slow-moving, moody bolero before, at least as far as the #1 spot was concerned, he now combines mariachi structure and flamenco rhythms, with a montuno breakdown toward the end, combining Mexican, Andalusian, and Cuban traditions into a thrilling, explosive dance song too rhythmically complex for most gringos to bop to.

The lyrics are as old-fashioned but modernized as the music: the theme is the ancient one of the belle dame sans merci, but Fernández is no blameless, suffering victim: if she abandoned him and left him to die "sin tantita pena" (without a bit of pity), now he hopes to see her weep over the same sorrow, when he too will be sin tantita pena. The video almost lives up to the song: a surreal, Felliniesque celebration of traditional ranchera fashion, telenovela aesthetics, transatlantic Hispanic dance, and Mexican folklore, it's a monument to Fernández' ability to synthesize past and present, tradition and novelty, his intelligent singing, and his glamorous beauty.

Enrique Iglesias will continue to get the glory, but Alejandro Fernández will remain the thinking pop fan's second-generation Hispanophone star.

9.10.17

CARLOS VIVES, “DÉJAME ENTRAR”

24th November, 2001

Wiki | Video

"Hero" might have been Enrique Iglesias' most lasting contribution to English-language pop of the 2000s (though his, and everyone's, fortunes will change in the 2010s), but on the Latin chart, "Héroe" was only a week-long interregnum between the two most exciting Colombian talents of the period. We'd known Shakira already, and we know Carlos Vives, whose pop-vallenato "Fruta Fresca" was a genial way to close out 1999, but "Suerte (Wherever, Whenever)" and "Déjame Entrar" (Let Me In) were both declarations of a new assurance and global relevance in Caribbean mainland pop.

"Déjame Entrar" is a summery pop-vallenato-cum-cumbia jam produced by Emilio Estefan, and is again more of a global pop song with accordion than a traditional vallenato by any strict accounting. Vives himself admitted that it was impossible to separate what was Colombian from what was Cuban, Puerto Rican or Dominican in it: rhythmically, it's a tropical melange, with guitars as jangly and harmonies as smooth as any North American college rock band; the middle eight is particularly reminiscent of mid-90s alt-rock radio.

But if its pleasures are primarily on the surface, they're still exquisite. Vives' cheerful rock-derived vocals, the circular, boot-stomping rhythm, and the gorgeous textures from timbale to accordion to gaita (the indigenous Colombian flute) give his acoustic song as much energy and rhythmic complexity as any dance track, and the lyrics, an unsentimental (he likes the dirt under her nails), open-hearted request to love and be loved (the refrain "déjame entrar en tu mirada" means literally "let me into your gaze" but can be translated more idiomatically, "let me drown in your eyes"), without any of the emotional blackmail or self-aggrandizement common to male love songs (viz. "Héroe") is as much a breath of fresh air as the guitar strums and romantic, reflective accordion solo.

If "Héroe" is the overwrought fever-pitch fantasy of a narcissistic adolescent, "Déjame Entrar" is a self-possessed, grown-up pitch for a loving relationship between equals. Anglophone pop, being essentially adolescent, is structured to value the former over the latter; one of the wonderful things about Latin pop in this period is that there was still room for grownups.

2.10.17

ENRIQUE IGLESIAS, “HÉROE”

1st December, 2001

Wiki | Video

In September of 2001, I was glued to NPR, trying to understand the suddenly-changed world by organizing information in my head while my fingers clacked at my data-entry job. I avoided demonstrations of unity or communal emotion; I would not consciously hear "Hero" for another decade. (The songs I did hear intercut with 9/11 audio on the radio throughout that fall and winter were U2's "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" and, bizarrely, Bad Company's "Seagull".) I'm not sure I even knew that Enrique Iglesias had a hit around this time: the early 2000s was the nadir of my engagement with current pop. My attention had drifted to the past, enabled by Napster and a succession of similar services.

But though I missed the most obvious and schlockiest expression of the sudden pop-cultural boom of pseudo-admiration for "heroism" -- focusing first on the responders of that Tuesday, police and firefighters and EMTs, and before long the soldiers making the hard lives of Afghan villagers even harder -- the narrative itself was impossible to miss. Brightly-colored spandex-spangled figures leapt into movie screens in order to both metaphorize and overliteralize the story America told itself about the "bad guys" who had hurt us and who therefore justified the use of extraordinary force in defense of a lost innocence, a sluggish economy, a burst bubble. It seemed that everything I had loved as a nerdy teen was pressed into the service of stories about 9/11, and I backed away from superheroes, hard rock, and Lord of the Rings as they were transformed, willingly or not, into metaphors for the West standing against an unreasoning evil, when more and more they all seemed to tell a single story about a bully taking a single stray hit as a pretext for pummeling the offender into pulp.

When, during the false comfort of the Obama years, I started trying to catch up on a bunch of what I'd missed, I finally heard (and watched) "Hero", it struck me how slender and unlikely a reed it was to hang a clash-of-civilizations narrative from. Iglesias' thin whine of a voice, the anonymous wallpaper of the production, the narcissistic lyrics promising comfort while acting out a bottomless well of neediness: if this was what America chose to portray its state-sanctioned heroes as saying to America, it was no flattering portrait on either side. Joseph Kahn's music video is clearer-eyed: Mickey Rourke's (and the state's) readiness to commit violence is true power, not Iglesias' lip-quivering emotional appeals, and Iglesias dying in the rain while Jennifer Love Hewitt wails is a bleakly sardonic comment on the song's own promises.

There's not much daylight between the Spanish-language version of the song and the one familiar to the English-language pop audience: if anything, it's more narcissistic (and slightly hornier). But the delicate wimpiness of the production and Iglesias' spoilt hangdog performance are the same: a form of masculinity no less toxic for its all its extravagant performance of sensitivity.

25.9.17

SHAKIRA, “SUERTE”

6th October, 2001

Wiki | Video

"Suerte que mis pechos sean pequeños / y no los confundas con montañas."

Long before scattering verbal seeds so that a thousand Twitter memes might blossom had become one of the necessary attributes of a successful pop star, Shakira's verbal flights very nearly memed her into oblivion: everyone who addressed her new English-language makeover brought up the "breasts are small and humble" line as an example of her weirdness or perhaps of her limited facility with English. (And everyone else replied that the line was the same, and just as unexpected, in the Spanish version. This conversation will never stop happening, until the end of time.) But look at her grin in the video during the line: she knows exactly what she's doing.

The fact that Shakira Mebarak Ripoll knew exactly what she was doing when she dyed her hair blonde, began writing in English, and contracted with the Estefans to produce her next album has long been a sticking point for those who had admired her '90s shaggy brown mane, her wild Spanish-language creativity, her proud Latinidad. It felt like a betrayal: no longer Latin America's signature alt-rock act, a Southern Hemispherical riposte to frozen-north icons like Björk or Radiohead, she was now just another bottle-blonde global pop star, joining the Britneys and Beyoncés in Anglophone hegemony.

While this is a valuable and necessary take, I think it overrates the importance of alt-rock and underrates the importance of pop -- Shakira may be differently beloved than she was in the 90s, but she is undeniably more, and more widely, beloved. And she has never gone fully Anglophone: her English-language songs nearly always have (often much better) Spanish-language counterparts -- "Whenever, Wherever" is only okay compared to "Suerte," one of her greatest pop songs in a career stuffed with them.

"Suerte" is very early-2000s, in that there's not a particular tradition of music it is set in. Rather, it's a mash-up of many different influences, incorporating Andean huayno and panpipes, Middle Eastern arabesque, and global dance music, including a prominent funk bassline, tribal drumming, and surf guitar: worldbeat, to use a popular if meaningless catchphrase of the era, but with a strong pop sheen. It was the era of Missy Elliott, the Neptunes, and Richard X, in which imperial pop raided global sounds, an analog globe converging into a united digital future until George W. Bush and Diplo ruined it for everyone. But it was also characteristic of the way Shakira had always worked: of Colombian and Lebanese heritage, she mixed East and West, North and South, as a matter of course, and her dancing, which seamlessly blends Afro-Latin and Eastern Mediterranean traditions, is one of the great pop marvels of the millennial era.

But while she's one of her generations's great dancers and great musical synthesists, she's also one of its greatest lyricists: "Suerte" is a fantastic love song in a style that owes as much to modern poetry -- it's romantic, and funny, and quotidian, and heavily imagistic -- as to modern pop. (Modern poetry listens to pop, of course, Frank O'Hara just as much as Warsan Shire.) "Lo que me queda de vida / quiero vivir contigo" (What is left to me of life / I want to live with you) is such a clearer and more heartfelt sentiment than "I'll be there and you'll be near / and that's the deal my dear" that -- although the latter is striking too -- it's easy to see why some observers thought English was a misstep for her. Luckily, we don't have to bother about her English here: which won't always be the case.

This is only the third time we've met Shakira on this travelogue, which feels wrong: she was and is a much bigger star than that, and some of the songs that happened not to make it to #1 include some of the best songs not only of her career but of pop music entirely. In some ways "Suerte" is a lesser rewrite of "Ojos Así", and "Objection (Tango)" is the best tango song the twenty-first century has produced. But although her presence here will continue to be infuriatingly intermittent (especially as compared to figures like the one who recorded the song that replaced this at #1), she has not yet tapped out. We are still living in the Shakira era, and that in itself is reason for hope.

18.9.17

MARCO ANTONIO SOLÍS, “O ME VOY O TE VAS”

29th September, 2001

Wiki | Video

Of all the things I think I've gotten wrong over the first four years of this blog (covering 1986-1998), I feel guiltiest about my dismissal of Marco Antonio Solís, both as the leader of Los Bukis and solo. It's taken me a long time to learn how to listen to men whose primary audience is women, and I'm still not very good at it. (Women whose primary audience is women is much easier, and in fact a comfort zone I would do well to spend less time in.) But more than that, before this I couldn't hear traditional Mexican music in his work. It took the (synthetic, I think) string section on this record for me to grasp that it was in the tradition of Miguel Aceves Mejía and José Alfredo Jiménez: the soft-rock instrumentation and Solís' wimpy, James Taylor-y voice had glooped up my ears before.

And in fact what I've disliked about Solís in the past has, more than anything, been category confusion. I suffer from a bad case of chronological determinism: for me, one of the highest virtues of a song is that it sounds like the year it was made, and no earlier. This is, as I've noted before, a way of privileging the fast-paced, quick-turnover pop of the US (and to a lesser extent the UK) -- in many cultures and subcultures, continuity is more important than reinvention, and just because long hair and beards were no longer fashionable in the US after 1980 (although actually revisiting the non-cutting edge US media of the time would say differently) doesn't mean that someone like Solís wasn't, in his own way, and to his own audience, a sex symbol.

Bringing up James Taylor clarifies much for me: Solís was never as demonstrative or rapturous as Juan Gabriel, but he didn't need to be, any more than Taylor needed to be Springsteen. There's room for both. And even though it's a new millennium, which means that his sheer sound benefits from a light scrub-up, getting some rock instrumentation and separating the elements in the mix rather better than I remember his 90s records sounding -- even to the extent that there's a bit of cowbell on the chorus -- Solís is never going to turn dancepop or hard rock or reggaeton. He plows his soft-rock furrow, and he does it well. Looking up the lyrics reveals a depth of careful insight and expression of gradations of human emotions between lovers that only a practiced, emotionally grown-up writer could produce. He still sounds wimpy, but that's no flaw -- machismo has demonstrably done much more evil in the world, however exciting its musical expressions might be.

"Either I Go or You Go," the literal translation of the title, is more of an ultimatum than the song itself expresses: it's a negotiation of space between people who rub each other the wrong way but remain committed, a reminder that everything is contingent, and that forgiveness, and sometimes a diplomatic silence, is necessary in all things human. I actually, and I'm just as surprised as you are, love it.

11.9.17

OLGA TAÑÓN, “CÓMO OLVIDAR”

22nd September, 2001

Wiki | Video

In her first appearance here, all the way back in 1996, I griped that Olga Tañón was an unsatisfactory replacement for Selena, which wasn't at all fair: the surface-only view of Latin Pop to which this blog structurally adheres means that the body of her work has largely taken place out of sight. So this is only her second appearance, and she's already playing the role of a grande dame: at 34, she was already slightly older than the new generation who overran the late 90s and early 2000s. And her strong mezzosoprano voice (mostly performing in an alto range) makes her sound even older: although "Cómo Olvidar" (how to forget) is one of the most modern-sounding songs we've yet encountered in 2001, her voice resounds in a long Latin (and particularly Caribbean) tradition of deep-voiced divas, a continuum which runs from nineteenth-century flamenco and fado to twentieth-century bolero, ranchera, trova, salsa, and merengue, which last was Tañón's specialty throughout most of the 1990s.

In fact, "Cómo Olvidar" appeared on its parent album in both "merengue" and "ballad" forms, and Tañón was so much a worthwhile investment for WEA that a video was made for each one; while both were (and are) extremely popular, the ballad has about twice as many views on YouTube, so I'm taking it as the primary version. (Although both no doubt counted toward its placement at #1.)

While the orchestration (piano, synthetic strings, "smoky" guitar) is as senses-numbingly tasteful and safe as possible -- I'm reminded inevitably of Thomas Kinkade paintings and other sentimental schlock from the turn of the century -- there's an electronic pulse in place of a kickdrum to remind us it is the twenty-first century: and Tañón's voice, with one of the strongest vocal performances we've heard this century, takes cues from contemporary r&b singing (it has to, as the melodic line is all over the place, in line with millennial-era adult-contemporary tastes) as much as from full-force divas like Céline Dion.

It's still only a good, not a great, song -- even the merengue version only raises its temperature to a simmer -- but it's enough to make me revise my opinion of Olga Tañón heavily upward, and to make me eager to hear what she'll sound like on her next appearance.

4.9.17

JACI VELÁSQUEZ, “CÓMO SE CURA UNA HERIDA”

1st September, 2001

Wiki | Video

Christian pop singer Jaci Velásquez makes her second appearance in this travelogue with a song that backs even further away from the only vaguely cool sound of her first: this is straight melodramatic balladry, with none of "Llegar a Tí"s light syncopation, crisp guitars, or silky MDO background vocals. There are strident drums, wispy guitars, and on the last chorus massed-choir background vocals -- but the affect is entirely different; where "Llegar" was an expression of (tasteful) joy, "Herida" is all about chest-beating pain.

Fan gossip is that the song is a pained-but-faithful response to her parents' divorce, and indeed the lyrics are full of wounded betrayal (the title means "How Is a Wound Healed") and, eventually, reconciliation through the sublimation of faith; but the song wasn't written by Velásquez, and it can easily be transposed onto a the failure of romantic or even sheerly platonic relationships.

It's full of the kind of banalities that aren't at all banal when you're in a position to express them, which means that despite the dull production and duller sentiments, her performance is genuinely moving, using both the high-octane belt required of any contemporary Christian singer and a lighter, more emotional register that owes a very slight (but real) debt to the emotional vocalizations of ranchera singers. It's not much, but it's something.

28.8.17

CRISTIAN CASTRO, “AZUL”

30th June, 2001

Wiki | Video

It's been four years since Sr. Castro last troubled the top spot of the chart, and glancing forward, he won't do so again for another four. He's been an intermittent presence since 1993, never distinguishing himself with a great song or embarrassing himself with a terrible one: his middle-of-the-road instincts mean that even when the arrangement is modern or inventive his performance is never more than agreeable.

"Azul" starts off sounding as though it might be a breath of fresh air: an honest-to-gosh rock song! maybe a little thin-sounding, but... no, it settles immediately into a mid-tempo chug, and it turns out the rock guitars and drums are just an arrangement, a way of distinguishing a generic love song by sound, not by genre. It could just as easily have been backed by electronic music, or orchestral pomp.

The song, like its parent album, was co-written and produced by long-time Estefan associate Kike Santander, but while I've generally appreciated his touch on the work of Alejandro Fernández, "Azul" just ends up sounding stodgy and out-of-date, the guitar heroics just imitating an older decade's classic rock imitators. In some of the more ballad-heavy doldrums of the 90s, I might have embraced this as a breath of fresh air; but the millennial era has raised my expectations.

"Azul" means blue, but the connotation of sadness which the color has in English is nowhere in this lyric: it's an uncomplicated love song, the blue that of a cloudless sky and calm sea. But "Azul" is also a woman's name: which makes any search for thematic coherence in color symbology fruitless. There's no deeper meaning: the song's pleasures are all on the surface.

21.8.17

AZUL AZUL, “LA BOMBA”

9th June, 2001

Wiki | Video

With this record, we turn another page in the history of Latin Pop: it is, by some reckonings, the first reggaetón number one.

Not that it would have been recognized as such at the time; not only was reggaetón as a scene and a culture still primarily an underground scene based in Puerto Rico, with little exposure outside the Caribbean, but a savvy Latin pop listener would have known that "La Bomba" was already three years old, having been a hit in Bolivia, Chile, and surrounding territories, by the time it made its way to the top of a U.S. chart. And it might have felt a little long in the tooth even in 1998, when it was new: Azul Azul's music was unapologetically derivative of the great Panamanian dancehall toaster El General, quite possibly the first performer to record a song with what we now recognize as the reggaetón rhythm as far back as 1992.

I first heard El General ca. 1991, when the video for "Muévelo, Muévelo" was in constant rotation on the Guatemalan music-video channel, second only to Gloria Trevi's "Pelo Suelto" in the little canon of Latin music then shaking me up. The story of El General, and how Jamaican-descended Panamanians pioneered "reggae en español" (really dancehall, more than roots) with the help of producers from New York and Miami in the late 80s and early 90s, is still less well-known, especially in English, than it deserves to be. But all this is an aside.

"La Bomba" is the first proper novelty dance hit we've had since "Sopa de Caracol" all the way back in 1991 (the Hot Latin chart kept "Macarena" down at 12 even as it went to #1 on the Hot 100, a feat of frankly baffling chart calculation). That it came from a party band formed in mountainous, landlocked Bolivia, one of the poorest and proportionally most indigenous countries in Latin America, rather than any of the hundreds of Caribbean port cities it might have been expected from, is a testament to just how international and borderless Latin popular culture had become by the mid-90s: while there were and would still be regional scenes, the reach of broadcast, satellite, and (rapidly approaching) broadband and cellular communications technologies is making everywhere a lot more like everywhere else than it used to be.

(Another aside here: the period I focus a lot of my energy on these days, 1920-1940, was able to make the same observation: the dissemination of recordings, radio, and cinema rapidly transformed local musical and theatrical traditions, which more often than not resulted in the creation of something new. We should never make the mistake of thinking that technologically-driven cultural change is unprecedented.)

The lyrics hardly bear analysis: like any novelty song, they're mostly encouragement to dance, instructions on how to, and a dorky reminder to be sexy while doing it. It's hard not to let the rhythm catch you by the hips, though: one reason reggaetón will go on to conquer the Latin charts entirely is sheer Darwinian force: it's the best rhythm to dance in a lot of different ways to. But we'll have lots more opportunities to go into that in the future.

14.8.17

JERRY RIVERA, “QUIERO”

5th May, 2001

Wiki | Video

As with Jerry Rivera's previous appearance in these pages, "Quiero" was released in both glossy romántica ballad form and awkward midtempo salsa form. The ballad got the video treatment and (I'm guessing) the majority of the crossover general-Latin airplay, while the salsa version would most likely have been limited to tropical or club formats. In any case, the ballad is what I'm considering.

And in the space of two years, Rivera (or his management's apparently accurate conception of what will make for a big hit) has not changed. "Quiero" is a lesser retread of "Ese" in just about every way, overblown and lugubrious where the earlier song is light and syncopated, and straight down the middle where the earlier song revels in its (however telegraphed) twist. Nylon-stringed guitar solos are the only interesting element in the production, and even they are not particularly engaging: smooth, fluid, and entirely superfluous, the fact that it spent five weeks at number one is mind-numbing, especially considering what else was going on in Latin Pop in 2001. The best song of the year will only match its reign.

The fact that this is our second and last encounter with him is a shame. Jerry Rivera was never one of the deathless voices of salsa music, but his early-90s pop-idol career was engaging and often delightful, from his 1992 breakthrough "Amores Como Lo Nuestro" (with its, uh, familiar horn intro) to the adorably cheesy "¿Qué Hay de Malo?", and I wish I'd known about hits like those when I was writing about the music that did make it to #1 in those years. His slow transformation into a romántica ballad singer over the later 90s was no doubt a canny move, growing up with his initial screaming-teens fanbase, and it notched him the hits we've met here, but he wasn't equipped to compete with the likes of Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias in that arena.

7.8.17

RICKY MARTIN, “SÓLO QUIERO AMARTE”

7th April, 2001


As if to seal away Juan Gabriel's old-fashioned but singular emotionalism forever, the next number one is all sleek hypermodernism, generic sentiments and vacant emoting. Ricky Martin has mostly operated in a forward motion in these pages, but this is his comfort zone: using the tropes of soulful singing to do little more than smolder at the camera, or the audio equivalent.

The song came out in two different versions simultaneously: the English-language version is a duet with Christina Aguilera, and is dancier and more florid, with orchestra hits and an 808 rhythmic bed. Without Christina's fluttering extemporizing vocals -- which function as essentially another instrument in the mix -- Ricky doesn't have enough force of personality to hold it together. But the dullness of the Spanish-language version isn't entirely his fault: a more power-ballady production and generic "Latin" guitar runs make it run-of-the-millennium Latin Pop.

He still had enough charisma and goodwill that it spent a month at #1 at a time when the chart moved far more quickly than it does today, but although we aren't saying goodbye to him yet by a long ways, it's a slip down from the his peak of the two previous years. From here on out, the music will take a backseat to the much more important work of remaining Ricky Martin.

31.7.17

JUAN GABRIEL, “ABRÁZAME MUY FUERTE”

27th January, 2001

Wiki | Video

The songwriter who inaugurated this travelogue, who was the first truly great artist I learned about for the first time because I chose to do this blog, whose voice and songs were all over its first dozen years, takes his leave of the #1 spot with this valedictory, fifteen years before he took his leave of everywhere else. I am grateful to this blog for letting me share, even if briefly, in the astonishment and adoration that millions of Latinos (but especially Mexicans) have felt towards JuanGa and his work over the decades.

And I note that the impulse which led me to start this blog almost eight years ago, a baffled frustration with an Anglophone music-crit discourse which refuses to acknowledge or understand Latin music as anything but peripheral, an exotic fringe to the English-language center rather than a center (indeed multiple centers) in its own right, was by no means diminished by the conversations which followed his death last year. Comparisons to David Bowie and Prince on the basis of a shallow sense of gender-play and label skirmishes were less than accurate, merely timely: a combination of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, and Freddie Mercury might have been truer, but in fact comparison itself is useless: Juan Gabriel was himself, a figure so towering and all-encompassing that not only are there no Anglophone equivalents, but even reaching for them is a subtle act of disrespect, another intimation that the fringe can only be understood by reference to the center.

All right, then. "Abrázame Muy Fuerte" was the title song of his 2000 album, which wasn't a comeback -- he had been releasing music regularly since the resolution of his label woes in 1994 -- so much as a final acknowledgement that he was now ceding the pop game to the youth. He turned fifty in 2000, and (not incidentally) got all his publishing back; in the next decade, he would release only one more album of entirely new material, before turning retrospective in 2010.

Characteristically for Juan Gabriel in his late period decadence, it's less a pop song than a tone poem, its structure not a cyclical one of verses and choruses but of plateaus and builds. The orchestral pomp (courtesy of Argentine-born orchestrator and producer Bebu Silvetti) which has characterized much of his work since the 1990s doesn't enter until nearly two-thirds of the way through; the focus is on Gabriel's voice, thin and cracking and full of suppressed emotion, as he recites a lyric so metrically uneven and repetitive that only one singer could ever make it work. But it does work: and it's in this moment that I finally recognize the affinity he always claimed in interviews with the great soul and r&b singers of the US. The late Martin Skidmore on soul music is my reference point here: and the way Juan Gabriel uses the crack in his voice in "Abrázame Muy Fuerte" is as smart a use of the technique of emotion as anything Al Green or Gladys Knight ever accomplished.

"Abrázame Muy Fuerte" means literally "Embrace Me Very Strongly" (an idiomatic English equivalent might be something like "Hug Me Tight"), and the song keeps circling back to that request, or demand, or plea: hold me close, to banish the pain of my past and the awful passage of time. "God forgives, but time does not," is one of the more striking phrases among the rush of philosophical and emotional sentiments he expresses, and although in the world of the marketplace the song is a supremely confident triumph, within the world of in the song it's the rage and terror of an aging man (perhaps even particularly an aging gay man, but vanity is not limited by sexual orientation), full of regret and neediness, an open wound begging to be filled by love. It's an astonishing song, and as the orchestral pomp grows and swirls and Juan Gabriel's voice pushes into the next octave, it can be almost battering.

And then, suddenly, it's over. Breaking off almost in the middle of a thought, with the abruptness of a cut to commercial. Death? Orgasm? The final scene of The Sopranos? It's dramatic tension as an art in itself, and of course it was used as a theme song for a telenovela of the same name: what a way to kick into the first scene.

Because if it's a swan song of sorts, it is also one last challenge to the whippersnappers: "top this." No one did; although its reign at the top was intermittent (as were many Hot Latin reigns at the turn of the century, "Abrázame Muy Fuerte" spent nine weeks in total at the top of the chart, and was ultimately declared by Billboard the best-performing Latin single of 2001, outstripping Ricky, Enrique, and even a newly-blonde Colombian we will catch up with later.

24.7.17

MDO, “TE QUISE OLVIDAR”

13th January, 2001


Son by Four had ridden the crest of a larger boy-band moment in global pop, but they were far from the first. MDO, now without a single Puerto Rican left (the 2000 lineup was Dominican, Cuban, Mexican, Tejano, and Italian-American), were back with a... well, decidedly not a brand-new invention. A sturdy old invention, lustily sung and expensively produced. written by Venezuelan singer-songwriter Carlos Baute: "Te Quise Olvidar" (I wanted to forget you) is a we-broke-up-but-you-haunt-my-memory song, steroided up to a power ballad, and even the middle-eight tribal harmonies are (though great) too little, too late.

But the lyrics are surprisingly frank for a boy band: the chorus is about how the singer has sought forgetfulness by having sex with another woman, but to no avail. Which fits well with Baute's womanizing persona, but sounds refreshingly adult in the mouths of young men whose uniform white dress, outstretched hands, and cupid's-bow lips are presumably targeted at a rather less adult demographic. (I confess I have never studied the lyrics of the millennial boy bands very closely; maybe I'm wrong and they were all about sophisticated adult sexual triangles.) But that's the most interesting thing about the song.

10.7.17

SON BY FOUR, “CUANDO SEAS MÍA (MISS ME SO MUCH)”

30th December, 2000

Wiki | Video

I haven't tracked it in this blog, but the entire back half of 2000 has been punctuated by Son by Four's "A Puro Dolor" -- nearly every song we've looked at since has had its chart reign interrupted by the return of the millennium's silkiest salsa band. Now, here at the end of the year, Son by Four are back with their second, and final (as of press time), number one.

As a piece of popcraft from songwriting to production to performance, it's far superior to "A Puro Dolor," with a tense, dramatic arrangement, gorgeous tropical instrumentation, and Ángel López singing to save his life. Despite the title ("When you are mine") setting the emotion in the future, it's a grownup song about adult relationships (the physical very much included), where "A Puro Dolor" is sheer adolescent bathos. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call "Cuando Seas Mía" an undiscovered gem, but if I were assigning these songs numbers out of ten it would easily clear the 6.

But it only topped the chart for a week at the slowest point of the year, and that was it, from our vantage point, for Son by Four. Ángel López left the group several years later for a solo career which has so far only fizzled (he campaigned for Bush in 2004), and the rest now produce Christian music for the evangelical Latin market. Gentle as doves they may have been, but in the cutthroat music business serpent's wisdom is preferable.

3.7.17

CHAYANNE, “YO TE AMO”

2nd December, 2000


Chayanne has mostly been an unremarkable, if consistent, presence in these pages: this is his fifth appearance since 1989, and there's not really been any narrative throughline to the songs with which he has bobbed to the surface. Blandly glamorous, suavely sentimental, with a thin, high voice which rarely changes even as the production drifts from moment to moment. The title of this new #1 is the kind of thing which needs to be a hell of a song to live up to its unadorned directness: how many really great songs called "I Love You" can there be?

This isn't one of them. It's fine: the lyric even acknowledges how hard it is to make "yo te amo" sound new, and the rhythmic descant on the chorus is a nice touch. The spacy 70s synthesizer which warbles up and down the track is the most interesting thing about the production, once more handled by Colombian mastermind Estéfano. The shuffling gospel rhythm already sounds dated; and while a full choir never comes in, there's enough claustrophobic thickness to the production that it's unnecessary.

Estéfano's lyric is really good, actually, worth looking up and reading through, whether in the original or translation. It's a more or less ordinary love song, but in its details and structure it's the kind of pop-literary performance that deserves a better song, and a better singer.

26.6.17

RICKY MARTIN, “SHE BANGS”

4th November, 2000


Tom Ewing's framing of "imperial phases" in pop is an idea I come back to a lot. It's been fueling how I think about the "Latin invasion" of 1999-2000, in which a brief confluence of popular dance songs, broad ethnic affiliations, and carefully managed careerism made English-language stars out of people who were already (or would be anyway) stars in their own right. The point of imperial phases is that they don't last, and in that sense the Latin Invasion (which Chris Molanphy recently dubbed a "mini-invasion") was unlike the twin British Invasions of the 1960s and 1980s, in that it didn't remake US pop in its image, only flourished for a time and then fell.

The clear end of that imperial phase -- perhaps it would be better to describe it as an imperial moment, a (Re)conquista that was always demographically unsustainable -- would be this song, with its lavish CGI video, its endless remixes for every imaginable market, and its all-in marketing bet on Ricky Martin as a hetero sex symbol, only reaching #12 on the Hot 100. "She Bangs" may be more fondly remembered in the Anglosphere than "Livin' la Vida Loca," perhaps because it's a better song (though not a better production), less fueled by casual misogyny, but it wasn't nearly as big a hit. No need to weep for Ricky Martin, of course: his eventual withdrawal from the English-language pop market was the English-language pop market's loss, not his; as Tom noted in his analysis of imperial phases, it doesn't mean the hits stop. We'll be seeing lots more of Ricky Martin around these parts.

But none of this describes the actual song, a pumping jam with flamenco guitars, salsa -- and later swing -- horns, mambo piano, and... surf guitar again. If it's Livin' la Vida Loca, Mark Two (also produced by  Desmond Child), that's not a bad thing to be. Unlike with "Vida Loca," there is an actual Spanish lyric, with the only leftover English phrases "she bangs" and "she moves," appropriately enough, as there are no possible rhythmic equivalents in Spanish. It may not be as misogynist as "Vida Loca," but it's surely as objectifying. Which it's hard to fault Ricky for; nobody ever sounded less lecherous than he does singing this song. Joy this unqualified is almost as rare in pop music as it is elsewhere in life, and just as precious.

18.6.17

OSCAR DE LA HOYA, “VEN A MÍ”

28th October, 2000


Yep, the boxer. And if you've clicked through to the video, yep, that's the Bee Gees' "Run to Me." The turn-of-the-century Latin wave had unsettled things so much that an athlete's vanity album could be one of the year's biggest sellers. On the other hand, it was produced by Rudy Pérez, with writing contributions from Diane Warren, so it was very much part of the Latin pop of the era (it was recorded when he was wooing Millie Corretejer, who we met briefly last year; they remain married). So a vanity album, but  a well-funded and properly marketed one: the English-language version of the song got a bit of Anglo adult-contemporary play, while this Spanish-language one did so well that it turns up here.

De La Hoya's voice wasn't particularly strong, but neither are lots of pop stars'. The production is, charitably, generic adult-contemporary of the period. The lyric is a one-to-one translation of the original, and just as sappy and generic, and the harmonies, produced by session singers, are ported directly over from the Brothers Gibb's.

And that's about all I have to say about it. This will, unsurprisingly, be the last we see of the Golden Boy.

12.6.17

CHRISTINA AGUILERA, “VEN CONMIGO (SOLAMENTE TÚ)”

14th October, 2000

Wiki | Video

Although in low-resolution hindsight it's easy to mistake Christina Aguilera for being part of the wave of young Latinos renovating Latin pop around the turn of the century -- a peer to Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, at least -- this is her sole appearance (as of mid-2017) on this travelogue, and after the comparatively middling sales of Mi Reflejo would rarely record in Spanish again, and then only in duet with an established Latin star.

While she did hire hitmaking Cuban-American songwriter and producer Rudy Pérez (we last saw him assisting Luis Fonsi) to translate "Come on Over Baby (All I Want Is You)" into vernacular Spanish, the production remains pure Stockholm, Johan Åberg's piano, string stabs, and fake scratching ported over wholesale from the English-language original.

So ultimately, despite Aguilera's half-Ecuadorian heritage, "Ven Conmigo" is exactly as much an opportunistic cash-in on the newfound brand-expansion possibilities of the Latin market as any Anglo star might have done: indeed, acts like N'Sync were recording versions of their hits in Spanish, as would Beyoncé years later. That it worked, to the extent that she is one of the exclusive club to have both Hot 100 and Hot Latin #1 hits with the same song, is a tribute to the breezy, galvanic joy of Åberg's production, Pérez' solid work finding rhythmic equivalence in Spanish, and her slightly mechanical but always impressive performance.

It's one of those songs (common early in her career, much rarer later on) when her overdriven vocals sync up with an overdriven emotional state (the excitement of young, sexually curious love), so that her endless elaboration feels like a spontaneous expression of excitement rather than mere showboating. If we're not going to see here again here, at least she left her mark.

6.3.17

RICARDO ARJONA, “CUÁNDO”

7th October, 2000


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

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

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

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

20.2.17

GLORIA ESTEFAN, “COMO ME DUELE PERDERTE”

23rd Septmeber, 2000


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

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

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