19th June, 2004

Wiki | Video

The song that replaced Jennifer Peña's "Vivo y Muero en Tu Piel" (and indeed danced a duet with it, as the two songs passed the #1 spot back and forth for eight weeks in the summer of 2004) is a perfect illustrative example of the way the Latin pop industry, and even the Latin pop listenership, treat men and women unequally. "Piel," you may remember, was released in both a pop and a cumbia version, with a glossy video for both (more or less the same video, but her lip-syncing is different to go with the different styles) -- and "Ahora Quién" was released in both a pop and a salsa version, with the same glossy video for both; only slightly more frantic editing in the salsa version distinguished them.

But where for Peña (at least going by current YouTube counts, which is the only data I have) the pop ballad version was more popular by an order of magnitude, Marc Anthony enjoys the privilege of having the regional, tropical, "ethnic" version be the more popular one, again by an order of magnitude. For both of them, the swelling, bombastic pop renditions of the songs are full of florid emotion and a certain amount of stately narcissism; the ones with the Caribbean rhythms and punchy arrangements make the same emotional point, but also invite the listener to participate in a living tradition of dance and movement rather than just wallowing in lugubrious emotional identification.

It's indisputably true that throughout the history of pop music women have been used as a point of lugubrious emotional identification more frequently than men, who are more often awarded the guardianship of ethnic traditions and the authority of inscribing their personality (rather than just their emotional reactions) onto whatever they perform. This is sexism at its most basic and primal, and few listeners in even the most progressive circles are wholly free from its logic (I certainly would not claim to be). But it's also true that Marc Anthony was, and is, just a bigger star -- both his videos are several orders of magnitude more popular than Peña's -- and his career both preceded hers and has continued since her withdrawal from the market. There's no one-to-one correspondence here.

With its neurotic, motormouthed expression of jealousy, "Ahora Quién" is a pretty good song qua song -- songwriter and producer Estéfano plays the role here that Rudy Pérez did for Jennifer Peña -- but it's neither Marc Anthony at his best nor entirely free from awkwardness: it's pretty obvious that it was composed as a power ballad and had to be retrofitted into a tropical dance number. And even in the salsa version, the first verse still contains a fragment of the pop ballad; but once the montuno gets the upper hand, the funky rhythm never leaves it.

It's the second salsa #1 of 2004, which given how little salsa has appeared here since 2000 might mean the music was experiencing a bit of a renaissance -- but it's only too obvious how unrepresentative the #1 spot is of the entirety of musical activity. It's the mid-oughts already; other island rhythms are coming up from behind.

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