7th December, 2002

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Ricardo Arjona's relatively complex and poetic singer-songwriter rock has been a necessary counterweight to the more demotic and direct millennial-era pop which had largely enveloped the top of the Hot Latin chart over the past few years; but this, his biggest-ever hit, is as direct and pounding as any dance song, even if the lyrics' simple structural conceit is still a highly poetic one.

The bulk of the song is made up of couplets whose lines begin "El problema no es que..." and "El problema es que..." (The problem is not that... / The problem is that...), in which the first line describes a difficulty about the beloved, and the second details how it impacts the lover. From the first, relatively benign line "The problem wasn't not finding you / The problem is forgetting you," it grows increasingly obsessive and even masochistic, until lines like "The problem isn't that you hurt me / The problem is that I like it" and "The problem isn't the wounds / The problem is the scars" signal, if the repetitive pounding rock of the music and Arjona's grainy shouting hadn't already, that we're in darker territory than usual.

The music, though, is more varied and even uplifting than just "pounding rock" -- a gospel choir gives its usual unearned gravitas to Arjona's distorted self-pity, and crisply funky piano and guitar runs recall the Rolling Stones at their decadent peak in the early 70s. Arjona's classic-rock instincts work for him on "El Problema," as his first-person character edges into the same kind of psychological unpleasantness that Jagger's protagonists plumbed regularly. None of which really explains why it was such a huge hit in 2002 and 2003: even Arjona, who made it the lead single off Santo Pecado (Holy Sin) was befuddled by the song's success, claiming he never expected it to be played on radio. Maybe it's as simple as that there's a greater hunger for emotional masochism in the pop audience than is generally assumed: I know I relate, strongly.

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