8th May, 2004

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

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

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

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



17th April, 2004

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

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

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

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



27th March, 2004

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

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

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

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



28th February, 2004

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As though to prove that Paulina Rubio could not appear on this travelogue without being in Thalía's shadow, "Te Quise Tanto" is immediately followed by "Cerca de Tí." What the structure of this blog won't show, though, is that "Cerca de Tí" only appeared there for a week, while "Te Quise Tanto" returned to the top afterward, and then again after the next #1. And in fact this is Thalía's last #1 as of summer 2018 (though I have no doubt she could return again given the right circumstances), whereas Paulina has several more to come.

It's rather disappointing for a swan song (if it is one): a midtempo rock holleralong with straight-down-the-middle love lyrics, the chiming guitar line from "Maps" (or perhaps "Yellow") and a went-nowhere English-language version with even more unprepossessing lyrics. (There are also salsa and cumbia remixes, both of which lend the arrangement some much-needed funk.) Little of which is Thalía's fault: she gives a characteristically committed performance, even recalling Gloria Trevi during the later, bigger choruses.

As it is, it represents a sort of dead end: Latin pop is not going to thrive by imitating Anglophone acts like Coldplay or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. To take over the world, it is going to have to be both more Latin and more pop.



21st February, 2004

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Thalía has been appearing here since 2000, which I noted then was nearly a decade late given her long popularity in Mexican pop, but the fact that her one-time colleague in Timbiriche, the 80s Mexican children's pop group which functioned as a response to Menudo as well as a Mickey Mouse Club-style incubation of young pop talent, hasn't appeared here before now is if anything more outrageous, since she was much more popular during their dueling early solo careers in the 90s.

At least "Te Quise Tanto" is a hell of a song to break into the penthouse with. Having absorbed the lessons of crossover hits from Ricky Martin and Shakira (not to mention Thalía's recent #1s), it's an uptempo dance song with rock instrumentation, layering surf guitar licks, flamenco soloing, house piano, chunky 80s hair-metal rhythm riffs, funky drumming, Afro-Cuban percussion, and a cheery pop vocal from Rubio's trademark slightly husky alto into such a dense blend that it barely gives you time to catch your breath.

It's a love song, of course (the title means "I loved you so much"), but the past tense matters: it's about a hopeless love, a fixation that's ruining the singer's life because the object of her affections can't be found. The switch between moody minor-key verses and open-hearted major-key chorus is an old trick, but it's effective here: even if the love is hopeless, its all-consuming passion deserves to be celebrated.

It was produced by (who else?) Emilio Estefan. Rubio's previous album, Border Girl, had been her attempt at a Shakira-style English-language crossover, which hadn't gone nearly as well as Shakira's (its top-charting single just missed the Top 40, though I remember hearing it in Tower Records at a time when I was paying virtually no attention to pop). Pau-Latina signaled her return to her already immense Spanish-language audience, and they rewarded her with not only her first Hot Latin #1 but one of the longest (non-consecutive) runs by a female artist since Pilar Montenegro in 2002.

She'll appear more frequently from here on out, but one of the charms of this travelogue in the 2000s is that there is no dominant voice of the period, nobody whose every single hits #1, the way that Juan Gabriel dominated the 80s or Luis Miguel the early 90s or Enrique Iglesias the mid-to-late 90s. And because no one predominates (at least until the 2010s, but we'll get to that), less is overlooked. Plenty still is; wholly satisfying pop histories could be written without reference to any of the songs that will hit #1 for a long time, but variety keeps me coming back to pop, so I'm always glad to see more of it.



31st January, 2004

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Before beginning this travelogue, I think I would have expected a lot of it to sound like this: heavily-produced international romantic balladry with sensitive Spanish-guitar runs, a caricature of Latinidad borrowed more from the soundtrack to Don Juan DeMarco than from the living music of some twenty-five different Latin nations. And the caricature is at least somewhat rooted in fact: the song was co-written by Chilean composer Cristian Zalles (who makes it sound like an aching telenovela theme) and Catalan singer-songwriter Marc Durandeau (who gives it a lavish romanticism). 

But it's a natural fit for Chayanne, who has aged into the perfect sensitive crooner with a bit of a rasp. (He was a much better singer than Bryan Adams to begin with.) The studio-orchestral production, with close-miked violins and guitar, is classicist in a way that doesn't feel airless the way so much of the classicist orchestral production of the era can. And the song's natural rhythm, a gentle sway rather than the flat-footed 4/4 or waltz time of so much Anglophone balladry, only adds to the yearning in Chayanne's voice as he builds through it.

It was #1 for three weeks in the winter of 2004, when the charts were historically more open to unexpected hits thanks to diminished sales. It represents the next stage in Chayanne's evolution; into a fully adult crooner. I probably have never given him his full due here the way I have his contemporary Luis Miguel: as of this writing, I'll only have one more chance to do so.



3rd January, 2004

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When the less-distinguished early-2000s musical Obie first cropped up here several months ago, I noted that his album Confesiones was more musically diverse and interesting than the whiny post-breakup song "Antes." On this showing, however, it's not.

"Me Cansé de Tí" (I got tired of you) is a slightly better song than "Antes" -- written by Peruvian hitmaker Gian Marco Zignago (who last appeared here as the composer behind Gloria Estefan's "Hoy"), it has the virtue of being at least a little rhythmic, with a Santana-esque Latin-rock breakdown in the middle eight -- and its crisp, though still relatively anonymous, production is pleasant, something it's possible to nod along to even if you're not exactly feeling it.

Because Bermúdez sounds far more comfortable playing the asshole doing the breaking up than the wounded puppy being broken up with. His nondescript voice even achieves a modicum of grit, and the video is a resentful, unimaginative misogynist's delight, as the girl falls to pieces over losing a guy who (other than being continuously shot in the center of the screen, so we know he's the protagonist) has nothing in particular to recommend him -- his extremely early-2000s chin scruff in particular is a warning against the seductions of nostalgia.



22nd November, 2003

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A new strain in Mexican music opens here. It's not actually new, of course: both members of Sin Bandera, Mexican Leonel García and Argentine Noel Schajris, had been knocking about the industry for the bulk of the 90s, and when they got together the music they made wasn't particularly different from that of, say, Ricardo Arjona. But this is one of the first entrants in this travelogue of a musical tradition which will only grow more important in the years to come: internationalist Mexico City-based pop for thoughtful grownups.

The Distrito Federal's contributions to Mexico's musical traditions have hitherto been limited to the internationalist bolero movement of the 30s and 40s and the schlocky factory-line 80s pop which produced child stars (some of whom became adult stars) like Luis Miguel, Cristian Castro, and Timbiriche; but starting in the early 2000s, a scene began to coalesce that took the earnest, self-conscious artistry of Anglophone singer-songwriters for granted, and married it to all kinds of musical ideas. The producer who helped Sin Bandera's first few albums get off the ground was Áureo Baqueiro (who had gotten his start working for Timbiriche) -- the other debut albums he produced around the same time were Natalia Lafourcade's and Paty Cantú's.

Sin Bandera, who chose their name (without a flag) to indicate their loyalty to no nation or creed, a gesture of artistic freedom with roots in nineteenth-century Romanticism, were not the most creative of the scene's members: in fact "Mientes Tan Bien" (you lie so well) sounds like nothing so much as 70s soft rock, an America or James Taylor with updated production and less distinctive voices. As a song, it's terrific, a series of lies told and accepted which function both lyrically and mechanically as poetry, with superb rhymes and intricate rhythms. But as a record, it's dull and soporific, focusing on the glib prettiness of García's and Schajris' voices with such focus that a listener who isn't paying attention to the density of the words, who is just looking for a hook, is left wanting.

In fact, while the lyric is certainly broadly applicable (YouTube comments are full of broken-heart emojis embedded in countless narratives of trust and betrayal), it never accommodates more than a single idea, reformulated over and over again, and ends feeling rather smug and airless as a result. The video, in which supermodels pretend to be first poor fishing-village waifs and then bored, classy strippers, is the kind of thing which admires its own profundity without actually saying anything, all too indicative of the song's vacuity. The minute-long coda to the video, however, which interpolates an uptempo Sin Bandera song while showing the wrap party for the filming, is much easier to like.

It's a pity that this is Sin Bandera's only appearance at #1 to date (in fact very little of the D.F.'s grown-up pop will ever make it to this travelogue) -- they were more varied than this song suggests. But we have places to be. 2004 awaits.



25th October, 2003

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And so Luis Miguel bows out of this travelogue. Shockingly, he does so with his best song and warmest performance since the mid-90s -- the airy, jazzy r&b of "Te Necesito" (I need you) is a throwback not only to his own pop youth, when he was a teenager covering soulful 1960s standards for his first #1, but to an entirely vanished era of music-making. Compared to the hard-bodied futurism of a Shakira or a Ricky Martin, it's irredeemably old-fashioned, a late-70s jazz-fusion dream of 50s doo-wop, all soft edges and pillowy sentiment.

Which doesn't make it bad, just out of place. Luis Miguel has never, since achieving adulthood, particularly cared about following the trend of the moment, and while that's frequently led him to artistic success (the first two Romances albums remain stunning tributes to midcentury bolero), it's just as often led to a solipsistic disregard for fashion that means he's the corniest thing in the world. In the video, he looks more like the handsome, tanned, lion-maned Julio Iglesias than Enrique ever has, and although he's a better singer than either of them, his pop instincts are just as schlocky.

Thank God he's not relying entirely on his own instincts here. "Te Necesito," as its hyperverbal patter lyrics might have suggested, was written by the great Dominican polymath Juan Luis Guerra, and the background vocals are by the peerless US gospel-jazz sextet Take 6; their lush rhythms and advanced harmonics push Luis Miguel to keep up, and he sings with more focus and verve than he has in a long time. The song itself is just pleasant, a clever love song married to a cheery tune; the arrangement makes it shine.

For the good times, Luis.



4th October, 2003

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The charting of Gloria Estefan's musical career only by her Hot Latin #1s has told a necessarily incomplete story (for a fuller but still incomplete version, my One Week One Band on her remains available), but one thing it's actually been quite good at has been tracking her shifts into exploring many different flavors of traditional Latin American music from Cuban son to Cuban/Mexican bolero to Colombian vallenato to Dominican bachata to, here, Peruvian huayno.

Best known among English-speaking audiences as the musical genre of "El Condor Pasa" thanks to the Simon & Garfunkel rewrite, and immediately recognizable for its use of Andean panpines, huayno is perhaps the most Amerindian-inflected popular music genre of the Americas, although its dotted rhythms speak to the hemisphere-wide influence of enslaved African musicians over the centuries. We've only heard it here before as one element in wide-ranging mixtures from Colombians Shakira and Carlos Vives (huayno is a pan-Andean music, and so is common to Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina), and it's not entirely uncut here, only the predominant element in what is otherwise merely a sturdy pop song.

It was simultaneously released in an English-language version as "Wrapped", which didn't make the Hot 100 at all and only scraped the upper 20s on the Adult Contemporary chart. In both languages the song seems to be a vaguely spiritual love song to a loved one, although it could as easily be directed to a parent (or even the Virgin Mary) as to a romantic partner. The video, the same for both versions, is set among the ruins of Machu Picchu, which only adds to the spiritual (and neocolonial) overtones. It isn't the last we'll see of Gloria, by a long ways, but it's not as sharp or smart as we've come to expect from her, either. Whenever she tries to get vaguely spiritual (remember "Más Allá"?) her usual excellent taste seems to fail her.



13th September, 2003

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There is, however, a limit.

Sometimes whiny, self-centered guys are just whiny, self-centered guys. What's more unforgivable is that they bring nothing new to the whiny self-centered guy table. Obie Bermúdez is, on this showing, entirely obviated by Enrique Iglesias, whose clutched-fist ball-of-neediness balladry at least sometimes has interesting production touches. Bermúdez' voice is smoother, and there's a Christian-music prettiness to the cascading harmonies in the chorus which a sophisticate like Iglesias would reject, but the lyrics are straightforward uncomplicating whining about a breakup, and how he demands to get the last word in.

This isn't the last we'll hear of Sr. Bermúdez, and I should note that I'm not writing him off: the Confesiones album as a whole is far more interesting and diverse than the undistinguished ballad "Antes" which carried him to his first #1. We've had unpromising starts here before.



6th September, 2003

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Mere weeks after I complimented Ricky Martin for not letting himself be defined by songwriter Franco De Vita's lugubrious chest-beating sentiment-rock, I find that Chayanne has done exactly that. It's probably the best song, and almost certainly the best performance, that we've heard from him throughout this travelogue, but although he's well-suited to De Vita's sturdy, gospel-based sweeping chords and lead-footed rhythms, the result is a kind of emotionally-extravagant narcissist-rock that you have to be keyed into the emotions of or it will fall dispiritingly flat.

"Un Siglo Sin Tí" means "a century without you," and the lyrics of the song are a description of the singer's desolation at having been left, his contrition at having behaved badly, and his insistence that he has changed. Put that way, it doesn't necessarily sound very appealing (every abuser ever could sing along), but I've made the mistake before of believing that pop songs expressing sentiments that would be questionable in actual interpersonal relations are therefore worthless, and (especially) should not appeal to the female audience which does, in fact, enjoy them. Which is just an aesthetic extension on my part of Nice Guy syndrome. Nobody needs my thesis on why Chayanne's grand gesture at the end of the video is creepy.

Pop is, among much else, an idealized version of reality, a safe space where all emotions are allowed to play out without the repercussions that would attend them in life. Even in the real world closing out the possibility of actual contrition and actual forgiveness can be a mistake; but even if there are no good men in fact, let there be some in fiction.



9th August, 2003

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Since 1999, Ricky Martin's uptempo #1s have been notable for their everything-but-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic, in which elements from all over the pop diaspora are jammed together with less concern for coherence than for energy. "Jaleo" is the next step in that process, still as loud and kinetic as anything produced by Desmond Child, but with more unity of aesthetic: it manages to predict certain elements of global 2010s pop even while representing millennial-era mash-up culture at its lavish height.

The change in producers is one reason. Child had moved on to reality-show fodder like Clay Aiken by 2003, and Martin tapped up-and-coming Puerto Rican producer and songwriter Tommy Torres. We've actually met his handiwork already: MDO and Jaci Velásquez had put Torres's compositions on the map back in 1999, but Martin's 2003 album Almas de Silencio was his highest-profile outing. I didn't think much of the brooding ballad rock on "Tal Vez",  but "Jaleo" is straight fire: electronic pulses keep the rhythm while timbales, arabesque strings, and guitars both flamenco and metal provide flourishes. But it's Martin's voice, thick with performed passion, that is the highlight here: no matter how cartoonishly horny "Vida Loca" or "She Bangs" playacted at being, "Jaleo" feels like the sweat and churn of actual desire.

Or maybe that's my cultural tourism showing, in which the exotic is conflated with the erotic through the gaze of colonialism: this is after all the most capital-L Latin track we've heard from Ricky Martin. "Jaleo" is a term of art from the flamenco tradition, and means the handclap-and-shout breakdowns in a flamenco performance: the song uses it as a synonym for passionate physical activity, which could be simply dancing or much more intimate. In the lyric, Martin plays an ageless lothario who has seduced countless lovers but is obsessed (of course) with only "tu" -- a desire which is consuming him. There's a strong theatrical element to the song's structure, with the verses strethching out in tantalizingly delayed gratification, and heartstopping crescendos on the line "Atrapado! Moribundo!" (Trapped! Wasting away!), while the chorus spins into (a musically stereotyped representation of) a whirling dervish, babbling "jaleoleoleoleoleoleoleola" to infinity.

The faux-Middle Eastern elements in "Jaleo" are of a piece with its faux-flamenco texture: the video, as if to generalize all Latinidad into a single indistinguishable mass, was shot in Brazil, with capoeira dancers showing up halfway through. But that generically thrilling quality also means that it's not far from actual post-millennial Middle Eastern pop, which has taken inspiration from the dynamism and showmanship of Martin and Torres (as well as from a host of other influences, Western and Eastern) and applied it to local styles, with the result that uptempo dance music from Morocco to Iran is among the world's most consistently exciting.

Even so, "Jaleo" is a relatively goofy and silly song, like most of Ricky Martin's uptempo numbers. He is above all else an entertainer, but one still operating at a very high level. That can't be said for all his contemporaries.



2nd August, 2003

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My careless lack of engagement with Latin pop (a few odds and ends excepted) until circa 2010 has been a drag on my analytic and appreciative capacity throughout this blog, but I don't know that I've ever felt it weigh so heavily as it does here. Soraya was entirely new to me: and she never should have been.

Like Shakira, she was a Colombian of Lebanese heritage; unlike her, she grew up in the United States in working-class circumstances. Her mother died of breast cancer in 1992; two years later, she landed a major-label recording contract on the strength of her singing and songwriting. Her first three albums, released between 1996 and 2000, were all released in both English- and Spanish-language editions, and had some success in both markets, gaining some Adult Contemporary play in English and some Latin Pop play in Spanish. Although she sang in Spanish, her music was very much in line with Anglophone singer-songwriter conventions: Carole King and Sheryl Crow seemed to be her lodestars.

But shortly after her 2000 album was released, she was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer herself. She took three years off to fight it, and in 2003 released her fourth, self-titled album, also released in two different editions (although the English-language version was not entirely in English). The first single from the record, "Casi" (almost), was her first, and only, Hot Latin #1 hit.

It's a strong pop/rock song in the 90s post-alternative mold, guitar-led without being aggressive or leaving her excellent sense of rhythm behind. The lyrics are vague enough to be cast in a romantic situation -- "I almost gave up... until I thought of you" -- but are certainly applicable to her experience as a survivor. She had been a vocal proponent of breast cancer support and education before, thanks to her mother's death, but her activism increased since her remission. It would not be enough; in 2006, after a fifth and final album, she succumbed to cancer.

I can see -- or rather hear -- why she didn't leave much of a footprint on the wider Latin Pop landscape: her folky, harmony-heavy pop songs were rather old-fashioned and rarely particularly distinctive, and even before her diagnosis she had no interest in playing up her sex appeal. The Colombian-American community is too small for her to have become a Selena-like icon, and although she won a Latin Grammy for her self-titled comeback, she was neither ahead of trends like Shakira nor operating within a longstanding Latin tradition like India.

But I'm glad I got to hear "Casi." It's a good song.



19th July, 2003

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Summer, 2003 was fairly late in the millennial-pop era which had first crested in the late 90s: in the Anglosphere, *NSYNC had parted ways, Beyoncé had gone solo, and even Eminem had started taking himself seriously with 8 Mile. The Latin boomlet of 1999 was experiencing its own growing pains, as the next generation of Latin pop stars were coming into their own; mainstays like Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias, and Shakira would have to adapt to new climates.

This song introduces two voices we'll meet again (one more frequently than the other), and whose highest moments of pop imperiality are still some years off. But their careers, intersecting here for the first time, have run in odd parallel. Their debut albums debuted within a week of each other in October 2000, and their first hits, "I'm Like a Bird" and "Nada," though quite different thematically, showed off a shared melodic flair and deceptive lightness of touch (and thinness of voice) that meant they would both be perpetually underrated for years.

"Fotografía," as the title suggests, is in a long string of pop songs about mooning over a lost loved one's recorded image: the Pretenders/Selena, Def Leppard, and a bit later Nickelback have all bettered it in terms of staying power, but for sheer charm, the Colombian Juanes and Portuguese-Canadian Furtado are hard to beat. The thin, shuffling beat, the carefully but not intricately picked guitar, an electronic whine, and eventually an electric buzz, make up nearly the whole of the production: the focus is on their voices, both nasal and unadventurous, sticking closely to the sing-song pseudo-reggae template. Which sounds like a formula for dullness, but Juanes' melodic gifts and Furtado's surprisingly excellent Spanish make the song one of the best Hot Latin #1s of 2003, behind only Shakira and India.

They would collaborate again, reversing the ft. credit on Nelly Furtado's 2006 single "Te Busqué", but since it only hit #1 in Spain, we won't cover it here. But we'll have plenty of time to get to know Juanes: he's only getting started.



12th July, 2003

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My moderated take on Maná's music last week is the product of having worked on this blog for eight years: when I started it, I was certain I would adore Maná as a breath of fresh air. But my esteem for straight-up rock has diminished, while my esteem for the romantic Mexican balladry Maná was always a reaction to has only grown. I've publicly despised (or, more kindly, didn't get) a lot of Marco Antonio Solís's work over the years, but here's where I come around fully on the man.

Possibly it's just the production, thick but detailed, with tenderly atmospheric horn charts and swooping strings, a  rhythm carried by timbales and bajo sexto, that generates this response; the aging classicist in me appreciates how well this follows the template of the Golden Age of Mexican song. Solís's thin voice isn't very like the burnished flexibility of Jorge Negrete's or Pedro Infante's, but his shift into a fuller-throated register for the chorus "Tal vez es un error hoy de mi parte..." (Perhaps it's a mistake on my part) is more than adequate.

"Tu Amor o du Desprecio" (Your Love or Your Contempt) takes a relatively unusual theme in the love-song genre: it's a breakup song, but the singer is hesitant throughout to commit to actually saying so, aware of how much pain -- and how much power to inflict pain -- it will create. The final line, "I will have to take either your love or your contempt," is a remarkably clear-eyed and adult summation, refusing either self-martyrdom or self-pity.

It does run on a touch too long: five minutes is an eternity when you've sung the entire song in two. But I can forgive a lot when it sounds this good.



5th July, 2003

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I've been using the "rock en español" tag quite liberally since starting this blog eight years ago (real time) and fourteen years ago (chart time), but this may be the first time it actually applies, at least to the degree that "rock en español" was ever an organic musical movement and not just a marketing campaign. (And to the degree that, under capitalism, there is a difference.)

In the 1980s, "Rock en Tu Idioma" (rock in your language) was a publicity campaign started by a Mexican subsidiary of an international (originally German) record company to sell the middle-class youth of Latin America on local bands playing in styles which had originated in the US and Great Britain between 1956 and 1980, as a complement to rather than as a replacement for the English-language originals; what "rock en tu idioma" was meant as a replacement for was local (and often heavily racialized) styles of music which working-class audiences played and enjoyed, and which nationalist elites, after enough time had passed for nostalgia to do its work, always appropriated for propaganda purposes. What young Mexican Maná fans in the early 90s were rejecting was not the imperialist ubiquity of U2 or Pearl Jam, who they also loved, but the supposed provincialism and sentimentality of Los Bukis or Juan Gabriel (and never mind the traditional bolero, trova, and ranchera music which would have been the Mexican equivalent of jazz song).

When the English-language music press caught on to the Spanish-language rock scene in the 90s as part of their dilettantish interest in "world music," they used "rock en español" as a replacement for "rock in tu idioma," boosting acts like Maná and Café Tacvba whose massive popularity throughout  Latin America was scarcely increased by a handful of semi-adventurous English-language fans. My introduction to Maná was in this English-language press (my younger siblings, who paid closer attention to local popular culture when we lived in Guatemala in the early 90s, knew them already), but it wasn't until I began to really dig into Latin music in earnest in the late 2000s that I listened to them with any attention.

And? They're fine. The trouble with "rock in tu idioma" was the same trouble that rock in general was having in the 1980s and 90s: genre-requisite signifiers of rebellion and Dionysian menace had long since turned itself into the complacent, self-perpetuating mainstream, which by its nature shuts out the poor and otherized, so that truly countercultural rebellion and visions of sexual freedom were taking place elsewhere: in the underground, in hip-hop, dance music, and (in Latin America) the electronic blends of Jamaican and Latin music which would eventually coalesce into reggaetón. (Which in 2018 has become its own hollow, self-perpetuating mainstream, but one thing at a time.)

This is a long way to go without talking about the actual song. Which is unrepresentative of Maná's dully earnest hard-rock catalog, but perfectly representative of where the top of the Hot Latin chart was at in the early 2000s: "Mariposa Traicionera" (Betraying Butterfly) is an old-fashioned swaying bolero played by a rock band with high-gloss studio accompaniment, not wholly unlike recent entries from Gloria Estefan, Alejandro Fernández, or Charlie Zaa. The main "rock" signifiers are singer Fher's hoarse tones and guitarist Sergio Vallín's tasteful guitar runs, which also fit into the Cuban-Mexican tradition the whole song is cast in. The final refrain, with its repeated "ay ay ay ay ay dolor," is even specifically Mexican, a nineteenth-century corrido trope which the trova (troubadour) tradition kept alive in the twentieth century.

Our first encounter with Maná is late enough in their career trajectory that Revolución de Amor was heralded as a masterful self-reinvention; if they're comparable to U2, it's their Achtung Baby. It won't be the last time we see them, but the genius of the charts, the way they flatten out all subcultural distinctions and actually lived patterns into sheer unmeaning numbers, is that they sound here not as a revelation but as continuity. 



31st May, 2003

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Another Enrique Iglesias number one, another throaty, unconvincing ballad. This one is particularly unprepossessing because the verses borrow imagery from a song (and a legendary performance) so immeasurably better that everyone involved in "Para Qué la Vida" (what's the use of life) should have been too ashamed to carry on with the rest of it. It's different enough from "Nothing Compares 2 U" that there would be no danger of running afoul of the Purple One's (or the Bald One's) legal teams, especially since no English version was ever cut that might attract more attention, but calling up the ghost of that crowning moment in pop history only underlines how damp of a squib the present offering is.

Enrique had more or less mastered the craft of ballad-singing by this point, to the degree that he ever would: nothing but vulnerability in the voice, melodies by committee, and hangdog in extremis lyrics that make a sympathetic listener want to comfort the broody boy with perfect cheekbones and unthreatening stubble. He could go on forever at this rate, and looks likely to. He eclipsed Luis Miguel as the artist with the most Hot Latin #1s with this record, and although the contest isn't technically over yet, it's all but a foregone conclusion.



12th April, 2003

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After two major crossover dance-pop albums whereby he had become the Disney-prince handsome face of Latin Pop for the English-speaking world, Ricky Martin had earned a self-important Spanish-language record. The credits for Almas del Silencio (souls from the silence) are a who's who of Latin pop producers and songwriters, from the omnipresent Emilio Estefan and Estéfano to (masculine) stars who were famous in their own right like Ricardo Arjona, Alejandro Sanz, and (still to be met on this travelogue) Juanes. "Tal Vez" (perhaps), the first single and first Hot Latin #1 from the album, was written by Franco De Vita, who we haven't heard in his own voice since 1991, but who was responsible for my favorite Chayanne song in recent memory.

True to De Vita's form, the song is a power ballad with Srs Rock Instrumentation, and Ricky Martin's soulful voice very nearly gives it the sweep and cheesy emotional heft of a Bryan Adams song. Doubling and trebling his voice in the studio, he fails to match the grain and sounds instead like his own duet partner, a gesture towards solipsism which will mark his career going forward. Like many of the charmed generation who came of musical age around the turn of the millennium, he no longer has to try: he's going to be rich and famous no matter what. All that's left is to fill in the details.

So "Tal Vez" represents one path toward a sustainable career in maturity: the chest-beating ballad singer, attractive because brooding, bleating out his masculine pain. It's not an uncrowded field: many exponents are already regulars here, from Chayanne to Enrique. But it's not entirely a comfortable fit for Ricky, and not even necessarily because of any reluctance to enact traditional gender stereotypes. The key line in "Tal Vez" comes at the end of the third verse: "Tal vez yo nunca supe a quien amaba" (Perhaps I never knew who I loved), a stealth uncloseting under the guise of a straightforward "I did you wrong, babe" ballad. The video makes it a generalized love song, about parent-child and even friend relationships as much as romantic ones, Martin himself only a watchful spirit above it all.

A waste of his dynamic boy-band-bred physicality, you might say. But he'll be back.



22nd March, 2003

Wiki | Video

Juan Gabriel has made his swan song as a performer on the chart, but his songs remain. "Una Vez Más" (Once more) was a song on his 1982 album Cosas de Enamorados (Lovers' things), and its swoony romanticism, a fragile soft-rock ballad in the original, is an unusual if ultimately congruent fit for a sound which we have only met once before on this travelogue: conjunto chihuahuense.

Mexican conjunto is a style of norteño focused on relatively small combos of musicians with formalized instrumental setups. The style of conjunto played in the state of Chihuahua is almost unique in that a saxophone is typically added to the accordion as the primary carrier of melody in the conjunto, which is otherwise almost all rhythm: electric bass, drums, and the plucking bajo sexto.

As if to underscore the importance of the saxophonist to the Chihuahua sound, the only member of Conjunto Primavera to have remained constant since the band was founded in 1978 to the present day is saxophonist and leader Juan Domínguez. Singer Tony Melendez, whose buttery, reverb-drenched pipes place "Una Vez Más" in the classic midcentury pop tradition, was Primavera's second lead singer starting in 1988, and under his voice the band became more than just a local success, slowly gaining ground over the 90s until they scored an unlikely #1 in the midst of the world-straddling pop stars of 2003.

Compare them to the rowdier Rieleros del Norte, the only previous chihuahuense combo to appear here, three whole years ago, and there's a mellowness and classiness to Primavera's sound that isn't wholly due to the cover. Juan Gabriel was writing in a self-consciously classicist pop mode, but the intense intimacy of his vocals is smoothed out in a much more self-possessed cover: even though the lyric is a drama of longing and renunciation, Melendez' voice only shows any strain on the middle eight, where the key shifts into the stratosphere.