29th November, 1997
I need you to have listened to the song before you read this. Not that there's a huge spoiler or anything, but if you just click play and start reading, you won't hear what I'm talking about until two minutes in. Honor system here.
All set? Okay. Honestly, it's as if the U.S. Latin-listening public had not only anticipated my objections to the previous song (recap: sensitive ballad cover of a funky salsa original is a change for the worse), but agreed. What starts off sounding like another ultra-sensitive ballad (but classy! that string arrangement!) eventually turns into a roaring salsa barnstormer, complete with competing horn charts, popping bass, and a lengthy dénouement in which he shouts improvisatorily over the chants of his backing orchestra. The first salsa #1, Wikipedia says, and if my tags disagree I may have misidentified merengue or simply dance music with horns; certainly it's the first #1 by a performer dedicated to the genre.
Salsa, like disco, is essentially a longform medium, structurally flexible but enslaved to the rhythm, highly orchestrated, passionately performed and danced, and an implicit expression of joy regardless of the sentiments in the actual lyrics. (Disco both partly descended from salsa and developed alongside it; but where disco went electro in the 80s salsa has stayed largely true to its big-band roots, and remains a live performer's music rather than a DJ's.)
Those lyrics are where the dramatic ballad-dance structure comes in: it's programmatic music, telling a story even though the change is in mood rather than time. "Y Hubo Alguien" means "and there was someone," and the story Marc Anthony tells is that he was left broken-hearted by the song's addressee -- but it's all right, because there was someone else, someone who took care of him, sacrificed to please him, spoke kindly to him (like a woman should a man, runs the unspoken assumption). And the music and rhythm swell up in response to this joy. The second verse downshifts into a ballad gear again, as he addresses the ex with pity -- and then the chorus whirls back up dramatically, and the long salsa workout that finishes out the song is rubbing it in her face: "I cried over you, now it's your turn to cry a while." Both the sentiment and the music are traditional (well, dating to the 70s), but details of the production (the funky slap bass) and especially Anthony's rich, flexible voice make it thoroughly modern.
For here is another brick in the edifice that is the Latin music world as we know it today: Marc Anthony's first #1, the first single off his third album, carefully dramatized and orchestrated to be a massive hit -- he is of the generation of Enrique Iglesias and Alejandro Fernández, and together they represent the tripartite coalition of Latin music within the United States: Iglesias the international playboy and pop star, Fernández the Mexican craftsman and ranchero, and Anthony the Nuyorican soulman and salsero. The album, Contra la Corriente (against the current), with its starkly miminalist cover, posits Anthony as a Real Musician, modern but also out of time, a salsa belter dressed like Paul Simon in 1969. Of the three, he intrigues the most, and I know least what to expect from him as we barrel into the future.