16th September, 1989

Notable firsts watch: this is the first song we've encountered that simultaneously went to #1 on the Hot 100 (the main Billboard pop chart). Niggling caveats watch: "Si Voy A Perderte" isn't quite the same song as "Don't Wanna Lose You," despite having the same backing melody, the same backing track, and even the same competent-but-bland performance from Estefan. Also, "Don't Wanna Lose You" spent only a week at #1, her fifth top-ten entry since 1987, while as if to make up for her previous absence from this travelogue, she spends a solid month at the top of the Hot Latin tree.

For this is also our first encounter with the woman who most readily comes to mind if you say the words "80s Latin" to an American pop fan. We're almost done with the 80s, of course; but in a lot of ways this song sounds like the first of the 90s to me.

You see, my memory of the 90s is as much Adult Contemporary ballads as it is grunge, g-funk, or garage. (In order: quite a lot, a bit, not at all.) And only people who have never seriously listened to a ballad — instead of just hearing them and seething, or whatever — could imagine that the conventions of the form haven't changed, sometimes quite dramatically, over the years. The hushed verse/soaring chorus Estefan employs here isn't precisely a new idea, but the miles of space within the production, everything polished to a carefully tasteful sheen, is, at least in the Latin provinces. In other realms of the pop universe earlier in the decade, it was called sophisti-pop; as the 80s wheeled gracefully into the 90s, it became simply The Way Pop Gets Done.

But I started to talk about the difference between this and "Don't Wanna Lose You Now." I'm assuming you've heard "Don't Wanna Lose You Now" — in waiting rooms, if nowhere else — and it is, as I'm sure you know, a fine-to-middling example of the Dance-Pop Diva Sings A Ballad of the era. (See also: Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, even on occasion Madonna.) The title says it all: she don't wanna lose you now, you're gonna get through somehow, she don't wanna lose you now (or ever), baby she's finally found the courage to stand her ground, etc., etc. As a vaguely empowering "we can make this work" anthem, it's fairly rote; as an sample of the Inspirational Pop of the period, it's Why Grunge Had To Happen. (That's, um, a joke. No letters, please.)

But the Spanish-language version (written, as was the "original," by Estefan herself) is something else. The differences in the title reflect the differences in the song: "Si Voy A Perderte" translates as "If I'm going to lose you," and rather than trying to rescue the relationship, she's making an ultimatum. The empowerment remains, but it's no longer vague: "If I'm going to lose you, it will be for the last time. This is forever, understand? I'd rather let you go and learn to live without you, because if I'm going to leave you, don't come back."

(Admittedly, this is a somewhat biased reading; the jut-jawed "understand?" could be a sympathetic "you understand me," and "don't come back" could also be a fatalistic "you won't come back." But it's worth noting that that sort of — or any — ambiguity is not available in the English-language version.)

This is far from our last encounter with La Gloria, and it doesn't necessarily show her off to her best advantage (I'll rep for the Miami Sound Machine any day), but it's indisputably the arrival of a major figure in Latin Pop. Nothing yet has sounded quite so clinically lovely, so (for lack of a better phrase) professional, which is no slur on the previous three years' worth of pop. This isn't the first song we've seen that was produced in the US, but it's the first that sounds like it.

It won't be the last.

1 comment:

  1. Gloria Estefan has always been in one ear and out the other for me (not that I don't quite like e.g. "Rhythm Is Going To Get You" when I hear it, but right now I couldn't hum a second of it other than the title refrain), with one astonishing exception: Miami Sound Machine's "Can't Stay Away From You," heart throbbing and heart stopping, almost deadly still, but not at all placid. At the time, I would put it on a mixtape next to the Carpenters' "Superstar," either before "Superstar" (in which case "Superstar" is a murmur that turns into a wail, letting loose all the arrested pain of the previous number) or after (in which case "Can't Stay Away From You" is the sad aftermath, unfolding into infinity).

    I haven't learned to listen to "smooth"; by my definition, "Can't Stay Away From You" is too slow and stark to be smooth, even if there are no jagged features. I'd say the same about Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams," though I'm sure both could make it onto smooth radio. Whereas "Si Voy A Perderte," which is far more eventful than "Can't Stay Away From You," has glisten on its surface, so a feeling of less friction. If my ears ever do learn to penetrate the Smooth, some of what I've overlooked will hit me powerfully, emotions in a shiny skyscraper, but this hasn't happened yet.