16th May, 1998

Just as Marc Anthony was our first real taste of salsa, Elvis Crespo is our first real introduction to merengue. (The only other song to carry the tag so far is a bachata song, and I was hedging my uninformed bets.) Like salsa, merengue has a long and storied history that has remained mostly submerged throughout this travelogue, although if Billboard had started the chart earlier in the 80s, or even in the 70s, it would probably have made an impact earlier. But merengue's much older than salsa; it was first recognized as a distinctly Dominican style of music in the 1850s, and while its journey from a rural folk music of (probably) African and Taino origin to a mass-popular dance music in the late 20th century was long, involved and achieved through political revolution, generational immigration patterns, and outright class warfare, the basic güiro rhythm is immediately recognizable and irresistable.

"Suavemente" (smoothly) is a song you know even if you think you don't, with a chorus so immediate and recognizable that Pitbull (of course) tried to hop on it for a failed hit last year; while it didn't actually cross over to Anglophone radio, it's so streamlined and punchy that I can't help thinking of it as a precursor to the "Vida Loca"/"Bailamos" mini-Latin Invasion that was more hyped than actual in 1999. (But we'll get to that.)

The lyrics, as is fit and proper to an uptempo dance song peaking just as summer begins to peer around the the corner, are mostly standard fluff about wanting to feel your lips kissing him again — but if the words are empty-headed, the music's turbo-hipped, and there's more genuine eroticism in the complications of the rhythm, the horn charts punctuating the conversation in swing patterns, and the delicious call and response in the second half, than in most of the dramatically "romantic" lyrics we've seen so far.

In 1998, there is no way of knowing that Elvis Crespo would not be another Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, or Enrique Iglesias; on a purely pop basis, "Suavemente" is at least as accomplished as anything any of them have sent to the #1 spot so far. But we'll only be hearing from him once more before we catch up to the present (at least up through 2012; for the future, anything's possible). Which is probably unfair, but that's the case for most few-hit-wonders. Pop is decidedly unfair.

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