15.1.18

OLGA TAÑÓN, “ASÍ ES LA VIDA”

1st February, 2003

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The miniaturized and necessarily distorted picture of entire careers that this blog, scraping only along the top level of a single ancillary chart, presents is rarely given such a finished narrative as Olga Tañón's three appearances. (This was the third; as of this writing, fourteen years later, it's unlikely but not impossible that she will return.)

In her first appearance, she had partnered with the great Mexican songwriter Marco Antonio Solís to create an elaborate diva ballad on a very traditional Spanish-language pattern with poky, amber-frozen production; in her second, five years later, she had moved on to millennial-era adult-contemporary, all glistening production and sublimated R&B. Here, she finally sounds like the merengue star she always was, even if the pop production is more generic kitchen-sink Latin Pop than actual merengue -- the merengue version of "Así Es la Vida" (Such is life), all rhythm and horns, is an object lesson in the way that Peak Music Industry of the millennial era understood regional Latin music as essentially subtractive.

But having the third act of a #1s career being a celebratory uptempo song is in itself not particularly noteworthy, although as a rule I'm all for celebratory uptempo songs. What really makes it narratively satisfying is the lyrics. In "¡Basta Ya!" (Enough!) Tañón was ending a relationship, fed up with deception and aloofness; in "Cómo Olvidar," (How to forget) she was mourning the loss of physical love, the body remembering what the mind doesn't want to; and in "Así Es la Vida," she responds to the overtures of a past lover with a lightly philosophical chorus (my rather free translation): "Isn't that like life, your luck changes day to day, I gave my life to have you, and now you want me back / Isn't that like life, you win some you lose some, I lost when I loved you, and now you're losing so much more."

It's practically an Elizabethan kiss-off, and paired with the dramatic flamenco guitars, drumline percussion, and merengue horns and delivered in Tañón's deep, resonant voice (she was 33, which in traditional pop terms meant she was due for divadom), it's one of the strongest songs we've had in what has been a pretty good couple of years. 

8.1.18

RICARDO ARJONA, “EL PROBLEMA”

7th December, 2002

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Ricardo Arjona's relatively complex and poetic singer-songwriter rock has been a necessary counterweight to the more demotic and direct millennial-era pop which had largely enveloped the top of the Hot Latin chart over the past few years; but this, his biggest-ever hit, is as direct and pounding as any dance song, even if the lyrics' simple structural conceit is still a highly poetic one.

The bulk of the song is made up of couplets whose lines begin "El problema no es que..." and "El problema es que..." (The problem is not that... / The problem is that...), in which the first line describes a difficulty about the beloved, and the second details how it impacts the lover. From the first, relatively benign line "The problem wasn't not finding you / The problem is forgetting you," it grows increasingly obsessive and even masochistic, until lines like "The problem isn't that you hurt me / The problem is that I like it" and "The problem isn't the wounds / The problem is the scars" signal, if the repetitive pounding rock of the music and Arjona's grainy shouting hadn't already, that we're in darker territory than usual.

The music, though, is more varied and even uplifting than just "pounding rock" -- a gospel choir gives its usual unearned gravitas to Arjona's distorted self-pity, and crisply funky piano and guitar runs recall the Rolling Stones at their decadent peak in the early 70s. Arjona's classic-rock instincts work for him on "El Problema," as his first-person character edges into the same kind of psychological unpleasantness that Jagger's protagonists plumbed regularly. None of which really explains why it was such a huge hit in 2002 and 2003: even Arjona, who made it the lead single off Santo Pecado (Holy Sin) was befuddled by the song's success, claiming he never expected it to be played on radio. Maybe it's as simple as that there's a greater hunger for emotional masochism in the pop audience than is generally assumed: I know I relate, strongly.

25.12.17

LAS KETCHUP, “ASEREJÉ”

9th November, 2002

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All right, settle in.

One of the reasons I wanted to start this blog, way back in 2009, was that I saw British people talking about "Aserejé" as a glorious piece of ephemera that came from nowhere and led to nothing, and I suspected that there was more to it than that, that there was a history there invisible to Anglophone eyes. As it happens, I had never heard the song: I lived in the only major market (the United States with the English-language overlay switched on) where the song was not a massive hit, and had not happened to be interested in both pop and the broader world in 2002 -- my interest in the UK's experience of music at the time was entirely NME-led, to my regret.

It took me this long to get to it, and I can't be sorry it did, because my knowledge of Spanish girl group and novelty pop history would have been incomplete without the researches into 1977 I did in 2012 and 2014 or the deep dive into 80s Iberian pop I did in 2015. But even this blog contains hints of what would come: Mexican girl group Pandora a decade ago, Mexican pop group Onda Vaselina four years ago, Nuyorican hip-hop group Barrio Boyzz, novelty dances from Banda Blanca to Azul Azul, pseudo-flamenco from Gipsy Kings to Enrique Iglesias and most prominently, Ricky Martin's own novelty crossover.

It's the surf guitar from "Vida Loca," mixed down and looped throughout the chorus as a constant drone (and in so doing, getting back to the Eastern origins of the surf twang) that is Las Ketchup's most prominent association with current Latin pop trends, but there are others: the affection for, but cultural distance from, hip-hop (the nonsense refrain is a Hispanicization of the opening bars of "Rapper's Delight"), the acoustic dance-pop instrumentation (throw in accordion and it could be a Carlos Vives song), and even the vague Orientalism (a constant feature of Iberian roots music) is consonant with Shakira's contemporary gestures towards her Lebanese heritage.

But all of that is incidental, and possibly coincidental. What Las Ketchup are really in dialogue with is in their own country's history of novelty girl-group songs, from the unison-sung flamenco-rock of Las Grecas, whose Franco-era "Te Estoy Amando Locamente" was as heavy as Zeppelin, to the electro-pop of Objectivo Birmania, whose "Los Amigos de Mis Amigas Son Mis Amigos" was a hookup anthem for the movida madrileña, to the flamenco-house of Azúcar Moreno, whose "Bandido" lasted better than the songs that beat it at the 1990 Eurovision.

Although Las Ketchup were from Andalusia, "Aserejé" doesn't include any traditional flamenco signifiers, unless the lyrics' coding of their hip-hop-loving protagonist as Roma counts, but rather gestures towards Western European urban music. The rootsy shuffle-and-guitar of the backing track represents an early-2000s pop assimilation of 90s worldbeat pioneers like Manu Chao and Rachid Taha, in which Spanish, French, American (often via-Britain), and Arabic musical traditions were blended: if the result sometimes sounded painfully generic, that's one of the hazards of attempting to boil a continent's worth of musical diversity down to its common denominators.

But part of that global mish-mash is Catalan rumba, the urban Barcelonan variation on the Cuban-influenced "rumba" palo of flamenco, as popularized in the 70s by Peret and continued in the 90s by Spanish-pop heiress Rosario Flores (among many others). A greater emphasis on rhythm (as befits its Afro-Cuban origins) and less on florid emotional virtuosity made Catalan rumba one of the default roots musics of post-Franco spain: "Aserejé" just barely qualifies, as its rhythm aims for dance-pop consistency rather than "gitana" funkiness, but the great joy of millennial-era dance pop was its ability to assimilate any cultural tradition and return it to the world: 2010s dance-pop flattens everything into the build-and-drop patterns of EDM, leaving textural differences as the only distinguishing characteristics between songs.

But, background aside, what do I think of the song? It's a pleasurable enough way to pass the time; its four-week run at the top of the Hot Latin chart is about right. I always appreciate novelty songs more than I actually enjoy listening to them, and my generalized American chauvinism includes the entire hemisphere: despite the length of this post, the most exciting and interesting Latin Pop in the millennial era was not coming out of Spain. "Aserejé"'s most noteworthy quality is its global success, which (like that of Psy and OMI a decade later) was less dependent on the specific qualities of the track itself and more on the popular appetite for a particular kind of nonsense in a given moment. 

18.12.17

THALÍA, “NO ME ENSEÑASTE”

26th October, 2002

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Two singles, two number ones: Thalía, after a decade of hard pop work, has fully arrived. She is part of the generation of pan-Latin modernizers like Enrique, Marc, Ricky, Alejandro, and Shakira, and although a silly gender-essentialized literalism might suggest that she has the most in common with Shakira, she actually reminds me more of Enrique Iglesias. A similarly limited range, thin voice, and reliance on expressiveness over sonority means that she's carried by production more often than the burnished voices of Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin or Alejandro Fernández are. (Shakira's even more unconventional voice is its own animal.) But unlike Enrique, Thalía knows how to use her voice to ends other than balled-fist self-pity.

This was the second single from her 2002 album Thalía, and since "Tú y Yo" was an uptempo jam, "No Me Enseñaste" (you didn't teach me) is therefore by venerable pop tradition a ballad. At least on the album it was: the single release, in a now-familiar attempt at covering all bases, contains the "Estéfano Mix" (a club version), the "Marc Anthony Mix" (a salsa version), and the "Regional Mix" (a cumbia version). When she performed the song at the 2002 Latin Grammys, the first half was the ballad original and the second half was the salsa mix, in a triumphant performance that cemented her belated but complete arrival on the US Spanish-language music scene.

Although the "Estéfano Mix" is period trance (and so has perhaps aged better than any of the others for an EDM-centric music scene), Colombian superproducer Estéfano had also co-written and produced the original. The lyric, surprisingly wordy for such a straightforward pop song, is nominally about loss (the central line is "you didn't teach me, love, how to live without you"), but Thalía doesn't play it that way: her gospelly woah-oahs at the end are a celebration of getting over the bastard. Love didn't teach her, goes the narrative of her performance, so she taught herself.

11.12.17

ENRIQUE IGLESIAS, “MENTIROSO”

28th September, 2002

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The nadir of the mid-to-late 90s on this blog, when every other single was Enrique Iglesias proving himself incapable of wrangling his strangled whine of a voice into the power-ballad patterns of classic Latin pop, returns!

It's not the song's fault. It would be easy to imagine lovely, powerful, dramatic readings from contemporaries like Marc Anthony, Alejandro Fernández, or Ricky Martin; even Luis Miguel at his most sleepwalking would outperform Iglesias here. It's a good song, and a shimmering production in both the pop and mariachi versions (a cross-genre promotion which made for perhaps the least natural fit for Iglesias' voice), with a lyric confessing to a man's deceptive, predatory behavior towards a woman, all justified because "es que te quiero tanto" (it's that I love you so much).

To a degree, the callowness, self-pity and perpetual adolescence of Iglesias' vocal performance matches the weaselly "I'm a good guy because I'm admitting how bad I am" lyric, but it's hard to believe that any of this was intentional, or that it was received by Latin pop listeners in that spirit. The quivering jaw and tremulous emotion in every line (somehow simultaneously over- and under-sung) strikes me as so patently phony that it's hard to enter sympathetically into the head of a listener who hears it as fulfilling any aesthetic, emotional, or even erotic requirement.

But plenty of selfish, immature brats engage in romantic and sexual partnerships: it must appeal to someone.

4.12.17

JENNIFER PEÑA, “EL DOLOR DE TU PRESENCIA”

24th August, 2002

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The hunger, as much spiritual as commercial, for a replacement for Selena had been an undercurrent of the Latin music industry since her death. One of the likeliest candidates was Jennifer Peña, whose first large-stage performance had been at a Selena tribute concert at the Astrodome in 1995, when she sang "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" at eleven years old. She was already being managed by Selena's father; her debut album as a singer fronting Jennifer y los Jetz,  would be released the following year.

But like Selena herself, her career was less one of meteoric success than of constant work, slow movement forward, and gradual leveling-up. Libre, released in 2002 when she was eighteen, was her fifth album, but the first attributed entirely to her name and also the first after jumping from EMI, where the Quintanillas had signed her, to Univision, which had also broken Selena widely in 1993. She retained the cumbia sound which was her signature, but with production from Rudy Pérez and Kike Santander, aimed more squarely at the broader Latin Pop market.

It worked, clearly. "El Dolor de Tu Presencia" (the pain of your presence) is both a lush r&b ballad and a skanking cumbia jam, with pure pop harmonies and a bassline that won't stop. Although it was written by Rudy Pérez, it's very much a teenager's song, moaning about how the boy she's in love with is in love with her best friend, tearing their friendship apart and causing her pain. Still, it's smartly produced and sung with a warmth older than her years.

A power-ballad pop version, all swelling strings and crashing drums, was also released, which no doubt had a lot to do with bringing it to #1 (cumbia remained popular on the border, but not necessarily in the larger US Latin Pop market), but the cumbia rendition made the video, which cuts shots of her mooning over the love triangle with shots of her dancing in front of her cumbia band, acknowledging that after all, everything's a performance.

27.11.17

THALÍA, “TÚ Y YO”

20th July, 2002

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It would no doubt be unfair to attribute the high-gloss sheen, uptempo rock attitude, and high-octane production on this single entirely to the example set by Shakira's English-language makeover, or even to the generational game change led by Ricky Martin now more than three years ago. My examination of the Hot Latin chart solely from the vantage point of its #1s has left me disgracefully ignorant as to the bulk of Thalía's career; but her previous appearance here almost exactly two years ago was less than a knockout.

It's not her fault that the luck of the charts has cast her as playing catch-up: certainly the production and even the instrumentation of "Tú y Yo" sounds exactly like a sequel to "Livin' La Vida Loca," or even to "She Bangs," but it can be understood more in terms of a trend-hopping victory lap than as trend-hopping desperation. The music industry was still feeling relatively imperial in 2002, so multiple renditions of the song were issued: the video version, as linked above, plus a cumbia version featuring the Corpus Christi genre-straddling band Kumbia Kings, founded by Selena's (Q.E.P.D.) brother A. B. Quintanilla; the album version, edited down from the video, and a year later, an English-language rewrite with lyrics by Kara DioGuardi.

The industry formula for "Latin crossover hit" had been perfected by this time, thanks to Desmond Child's Ricky Martin hits, hits by Enrique Iglesias and Marc Anthony, and (sigh) Santana's "Smooth" -- uptempo rock music featuring a montuno piano line, a rhythm section heavy on cowbell, and bright horns that emphasize dynamics rather than carry the melody. The production was handled by the song's co-writer, Colombian hitmaker Estéfano, who has appeared here primarily as the wizard behind Chayanne, and if the formula is predictable it's still effective: Thalía's emotionally-driven performance, snarling and whimpering as necessary, is all personality and no dull virtuosity. She's an excellent pop star still well in her prime -- this song went to #1 a few months before she turned 31 -- and if the song ends up being more about a generalized feeling of excitement than any specified emotion, with fill-in-the-blank lyrics, that's a long pop tradition too.

20.11.17

CHAYANNE, “Y TÚ TE VAS”

15th June, 2002

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The last time Chayanne appeared in these pages, I complained that (at least as far as his #1s history goes) he lacked a real identity beyond "smoldering jawline," his thin voice and limited expressiveness held hostage to his choice of material, and his production rarely keeping up with the times. As if in answer to my complaints, his new #1 begins with a twitchy electronic rhythm which sounds exactly like 2002.

Unfortunately, it's then overlaid with a pillowy bed of bombastic ballad signifiers, less of its time than of the generic "anywhen" of adult contemporary, and all that's left is emoting.

Surprisingly, the emoting works. That's because the song itself is a good one, architecturally well-constructed, and Chayanne's overdriven performance matches the heightened emotions that the chordal structure, the pacing, and the production dynamics evoke. For this, we can thank the song's writer, an almost forgotten name which we only met once, in 1991: earnest Venezuelan singer-songwriter Franco de Vita. I sneered rather heavily at him then, in terms that I now think are not entirely warranted, but his emulation of pop craftsmen like Billy Joel pays off here: "Y Tú Te Vas" (and you leave) is a strong song, its sound structure able to overcome a self-pitying lyric. When Chayanne allows a little pseudo-soulful grit into his voice on the chorus, it's the most effective singing I've ever heard from him.

The video is exactly as lavish and generic as the song: but I like it because its sympathies are never entirely with Chayanne, who smolders ineffectively; the woman leaves anyway, and all his self-pity is for naught.

13.11.17

PILAR MONTENEGRO, “QUÍTAME ESE HOMBRE”

30th March, 2002

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In the years immediately predating the reign of reggatón (a reign which has mutated and transformed enough that it's now possible to talk of reggaetón generations, but that's for the future), Puerto Rican music made itself more and more central to the Hot Latin #1 spot. It had always shown up there -- Puerto Rico was the third most frequently represented nation in US-oriented Hispanophone pop behind Mexico and the mainland US -- but in the 90s whole years went by without PR representation. The gravitational well around Ricky Martin surely had something to do with it, but improving economic conditions on the island around the turn of the century also helped: the generation of Puerto Ricans who had helped create salsa in the 50s, 60s and 70s were giving way to a new generation less geographically bound to either New York or San Juan, more internationalist in both outlook and reception.

Which may be an odd way to start off a song from a Mexican singer. But "Quítame Ese Hombre" (Take That Man Away from Me), a cover of a 1988 single by Puerto Rican pop singer Yolandita Monge, written by the great Cuban songwriter José Luis Piloto, a rather stately and high-toned request that the singer's new lover erase all traces of the old, unsatisfactory one. For Pilar Montenegro, no doubt, the song's non-Mexican provenance mattered not at all: she wanted a good, familiar tune which her throaty delivery and skimpy video outfits could adorn. Her primary career has been as an actress, primarily in telenovelas, and this is her sole appearance on the travelogue.

With all due respect to her vocal and self-promotion talents, that appearance is probably due more than anything else to the production of Cuban-American Rudy Pérez, whose production work has regularly appeared here (he ran in Estefan circles during the 80s), sometimes noticed and sometimes not. Listening to Yolandita Monge's and Pilar Montenegro's versions of the song back to back is an education in production shifts from the late 80s to the early 00s: if the 80s sounds better today, that has more to do with fashion trends than with the skill or acumen of the producer.

6.11.17

CARLOS VIVES, “LUNA NUEVA”

23rd March, 2002

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Hooray, he's back!

As we've seen twice now, Carlos Vives had been a journeyman pop star since the mid-80s (the release of his first album coincides with the beginning of this travelogue), but it was only in the millennial era that he began to top the chart regularly. "Luna Nueva" (new moon) unveils no new facet to the beachy singalong persona which has given him these hits, but its agreeable uptempo rattle and uncomplicated love-song lyrics make it one of the most enjoyable songs we've encountered all year.

Its categorization, as I'm coming to expect with Vives, is more perplexing. It uses the rock-based instrumentation of his pop-vallenato band, but the shuffling rhythm and squawking, not swinging, accordion is closer to Mexican corrido. As always, he's a synthesist, and his pan-Latinism is one reason he's here at the top of the Hot Latin chart rather than merely famous in South America or the Caribbean.

In the video, he plays an inmate of a psychiatric hospital that functions more like a prison, literalizing the title line in the chorus, where he wants to love "con desespero, como loco en luna nueva" (with wild despair, like a madman in the full moon). It's a cartoonish and offensive depiction of mental illness, which is probably why it's not on his official channel. But the internet doesn't forget.

30.10.17

CHARLIE ZAA, “FLOR SIN RETOÑO”

23rd February, 2002

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Two years into the new millennium, Latin music is less regionally-oriented than ever. Charlie Zaa, born Carlos Alberto Sánchez, is Colombian, and grew up singing in his father's local orchestra, which played cosmopolitan Latin dance music for hotel crowds: which meant, in the 70s and 80s, salsa and merengue and big-band cumbia. When Zaa began his own career in 1990, it was with a series of salsa bands: he went solo in 1996, with a smash album covering midcentury Mexican (and pan-Latin) boleros and waltzes. Following the money, he continued the formula for the next half-decade, hitching his wagon to the Estefans in 2001, and scored his first (and to date only) number one hit with the standard "Flor Sin Retoño" (Flower Without Bloom), written by the great Mexican composer Rubén Fuentes and made famous by legendary crooner Pedro Infante in 1954.

It's one of the classic boleros, an extended floral metaphor for the damage men do to women (legible as either the traditional concern over "deflowering" or a more modern understanding of abuse), which sticks so tightly to the metaphor that it becomes a fable. One that (of course) prioritizes the man's feelings; but in the closed systems of patriarchy, truth often has to be smuggled in through metaphor.

In 2002, Zaa was not yet thirty, and his youthful good looks are made much of in the video, which does its best to corrupt the song's central metaphor by turning the woman/flower a sorceress who has bewitched him -- but the lame CGI visuals are nothing compared to the sexy, detailed shake and sway of the music. Infante's production in '54 was no slouch, but Zaa's transcontinental production adds Cuban montuno punchiness to the bolero rhythm, as well as muted mariachi horns, romantic strings, and his own honeyed, close-miked voice to create a bigger-than-life sound, not unlike Gloria Estefan's excursions in to Cuban musical history, that I want to call nostalgic immediacy.

Like Luis Miguel, he's plowing a limited furrow; but unlike him (and like Alejandro Fernández or Carlos Vives), he lets the dynamism and attitude of the postmodern present inhabit the spirit of the classicist past. If we're not to see him again, I'm glad to have met him here.

23.10.17

LUIS MIGUEL, “CÓMO DUELE”

2nd February, 2002

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Luis Miguel's fourth album of bolero and other romantic Latin standards in a decade, especially considering everything else that has changed since 1991, suggests an exhaustion of ideas, of ambition, even of desire. He produced it by himself, apparently unwilling to wait for his usual collaborators Armando Manzanero and Bebu Silvetti, and reviews at the time were unkind, accusing him of prioritizing his bank account over any artistic growth or integrity.

They have a point. "Cómo Duele" was one of two originals on the album, co-written by Manzanero for Miguel, but its pompous strings from the Royal Philharmonic and light disco guitars never approach the painstakingly gorgeous production from the early-90s albums Romance and Segundo Romance. And Miguel, though his voice remains a burnished instrument, sounds as though he's sleepwalking through the song, gesturing towards drama but never embodying it.

He was still on top of the world: the tour broke box-office records, even while the album itself only sold middling (for a Luis Miguel album). He won a Latin Grammy for it, the usual reward for making a lot of people a lot of money. But he is more definitely than ever a relic, left in a nostalgic, going-through-the-motions past while the Latin pop produced by his peers and his juniors rapidly transforms and evolves around him.

16.10.17

ALEJANDRO FERNÁNDEZ, “TANTITA PENA”

10th November, 2001

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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

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"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

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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.