28th September, 2002

Wiki | Video

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.



24th August, 2002

Wiki | Video

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.



20th July, 2002

Wiki | Video

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.



15th June, 2002

Wiki | Video

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.



30th March, 2002

Wiki | Video

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.



23rd March, 2002

Wiki | Video

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.



23rd February, 2002

Wiki | Video

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.



2nd February, 2002

Wiki | Video

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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.