9th April, 2005
It's been a while since we last encountered a song that, if I gave each of these songs scores out of ten, I would have given a ten. (The last one would have been "Que Me Quedes Tú".) I'm not even entirely sure I would give "La Camisa Negra" a ten (it's no "Que Me Quedes Tú," for one thing), but the impulse is there, and that counts for a lot with me.
Like many people who didn't pay much attention to Latin pop in the 2000s, I first heard Juanes via this song -- and if you think you haven't heard it, try listening to it first, because you well may have without noticing. It was not only one of the biggest hits of 2005 (eclipsed only by the next stop on our travelogue), but a generational hit: it was still being spun regularly when I started listening to the Phoenix-area Latin pop stations in 2009, and I've heard it fairly frequently in Mexican restaurants and at cookouts in Chicago for the past five years.
It's a bit curious that it's become such a pan-Latin touchstone, because it was written as a very Colombian song, Juanes' tribute to the elder statesman of Colombian guasca (rural) music Octavio Mesa, whose cumbias and parrandas were as earthy and salty as any blues or roots reggae. Because Juanes is a polished pop composer, "La Camisa Negra" (the black shirt) is not actually filthy -- but his patter lyrics keep setting up potential filth before veering off to an innocent meaning, in the age-old tradition of double-entendre. It was still suggestive enough for its airplay to be banned in the Dominican Republic. Meanwhile, Italian leftists protested it for a different reason: the black shirt of mourning in Juanes' lyrics was reinterpreted by neo-Fascists as an approving reference to Mussolini.
None of the controversy hurt its popularity, of course, and the crisp, slick production, which blends blues smoke, reggae lilt, and parranda scrape with masterful skill, makes it one of the highlights of 2000s pop. Juanes' performance, the entire song sung on the edge of lascivious rasp, is also superb: with this song, so indebted to specifically Colombian traditions, he perfectly inhabits the global rocker persona he's been playacting all along. Still, it's the Big Pop Key Change into the soft-lens refrain "Por beber del veneno malevo de tu amor" (due to drinking the malevolent poison of your love), where his voice goes from rasping to yearning, that pushes this song out of rurally-bound tradition whether Colombian, North American or Jamaican, and into the sphere of glorious internationalist pop.
2005 was the beginning of the nadir for pop-music videos in the United States; cable TV had by and large gotten out of the music-video business, and the Internet had by and large not yet gotten into it. But the different broadcasting cultures of Latin pop, especially big-budget Latin pop, were still producing inventive and original videos: and this one, like the song that soundtracks it, is a minor classic.