One of the effects of glancing through all the old entries in this blog while getting ready for this return was becoming very embarrassed about how dismissive I was of the many ballads that have made up the bulk of Hot Latin #1s in the twentieth century. Perhaps I'm growing mushy and sentimental in middle age, perhaps I understand Spanish lyricism better than I used to, or perhaps I'm belatedly getting the critical distance which allows me to hear past flimsy or generic production to the emotion, the performance, the song itself. (Particular apologies to Marco Antonio Solís, probably the most undeserved target of my splenetic boredom over the years.)
All this dawned on me while I was listening to "Bella" again and realized that I'm predisposed to rate it highly not because of Ricky Martin's sensitive performance, or because the soaring melody or elegant lyrics are anything out of the ordinary, but just because the production is modern and full-bodied and full of interesting textural accents. The sitar and tabla atmospherics that open it, the falsetto soars leading into the chorus, the fretless bass murmuring throughout, the gated drums, the swirling strings: this is the second most expensive-sounding song we've heard yet. The first, of course, is "Livin' la Vida Loca."
And it's really only within the shadow of that enormous cross-platform hit that "Bella" makes any sense, both as a chart hit at the time and as a pop memory today. As "She's All I Ever Had," it apparently went as high as #2 on the Hot 100, but I have no memory of it, and listening to it now I'm much less impressed with it in English, where the lyrics (and the rhymes) are more generic and the focus is more on the man singing the song than the woman he's singing about.
Not that it's a deathless love song in either language: Ricky Martin was never particularly convincing as a man tortured by love for a woman even before he left the closet, and his performance here is more remarkable for his burnished soulfulness (the song was co-written by Jon Secada, and you can hear hints of his R&B-derived melodicism, even while the tempo lumbers unfunkily) than for any emotional nakedness. Fair enough; lots of straight men have sung unconvincing love songs too. But there's a reason that "Livin' la Vida Loca" and another song still to come are the ones he's remembered for from the millennial era, rather than this.