4th June, 2005
Although I love it, I ended my summary of "La Camisa Negra" last week by admitting that it is, after all, only a minor classic. That is the limit to which guitar-led rock music can ever aspire in the twenty-first century: major classics require more of an electronic kick.
And so we arrive here, to the single that set the pattern which so much of the Hot Latin chart would live up to over the next decade and more. It is the first reggaetón #1 proper -- which is to say, the first song to hit #1 which uses the beat universally recognized in its moment as belonging to reggaetón -- which also makes it one in a long list of colonial trend-jackers to be more commercially successful, and earlier, than the originators of the music. Like the Original Dixieland Jass Band, Pat Boone, and Vanilla Ice before them, Shakira and Alejandro Sanz are coded white (Sanz isn't even Latin American, but straight-up Spanish) and so able to break barriers that the musicians of color -- usually descended from African slaves -- who created their various genres could not.
So it's a testament to Shakira's (and to a lesser extent Sanz's) ability to synthesize a wide range of musical material in order to articulate a genuine artistic vision that the song is actually good -- much better, indeed, than "Tiger Rag," Boone's version of "Ain't That a Shame," or "Ice Ice Baby."
The narrative impetus of the song is one we've heard hundreds of times over the course of this travelogue: Sanz plays a man who comes crawling back to his former lover, begging her to take him back; "Yo sé que no he sido un santo/Pero lo puedo arreglar amor" (I know I haven't been a saint/But I can make it right, love), while she acknowledges the pain he has caused in the classicist ranchera-inflected chorus: "Ay, amor me duele tanto" (Oh, love hurts me so). But if it the song were a ranchera ballad being buoyed by swooping strings or an oompah rhythm, it would end in a reconciliation: his self-description as a bird who must fly (consciously evoking classic Southern Rock imagery) returning to its nest would be the final word. But it's not a ranchera, it's a reggaetón, and the democratic bump and grind of the music allows her to give as good as she gets: "Not by bread alone does man live/And I can't live on excuses." The song closes with a striking reversal, as she acknowledges that yes, it was torture to lose him, but he can go on crying for pardon, she will cry for him no more.
This is a turning point in more than one way, not only for this blog, but for all of Latin pop. I've repeatedly expressed, sometimes at wearying length, how gross and artificial I find so much of the romantic machismo that has has recurred in the lyrics of song after song over the twenty years since the chart began in 1986. Exceptions to stifling gender conventions have not necessarily been hard to find -- Juan Gabriel, Ana Gabriel, Juan Luis Guerra, Ricky Martin, and Shakira's early work stand out -- but they have been just that, exceptions to a pervasive cultural narrative that it is the man's prerogative to act, and then beg forgiveness, while it is the woman's lot to feel pain, but ultimately to believe in love and forgive. I don't want to suggest that this is a narrative unique to Latin music. Of course you can find a lot of the same attitudes throughout rock, soul, country, and hip-hop; but Latin machismo, perhaps because it has been so thoroughly analyzed by Latin feminists, is particularly easy to identify. Shakira is thoroughly aware of that analysis -- the titles of her 2005 and 2006 albums, Fijación Oral and Oral Fixation, are even a pun on male sexual inadequacy -- and as a declared feminist herself, her refusal to let the man off the hook draws a line in the sand.
Of course it would be too much to claim that from here on out there will be no more machismo in Hot Latin #1s -- the coming wave of reggaetón will certainly have its regressive elements, and there will be rock and banda and more besides -- but the sheer scale of "La Tortura"'s success means that it had an inevitably outsized influence on the culture, and that it will be harder for any male singer to play the regretful cheater without Sanz's deliciously weaselly performance ringing in his head. Because the twenty-five weeks it spent at the top of the chart accounts for nearly half of 2005, and even with its sales split between physical and digital it still ranks as one of the top-selling singles of all time. It was the first-ever entirely Spanish-language video to be aired by the flagship MTV channel (and I haven't even mentioned the video, which goes into greater detail about the narrative between Shakira and Sanz, including a remarkable choreography which draws parallels between the convulsions of sobbing and of orgasm), and it still sounds thoroughly modern when much else that hit #1 in 2005 sounds increasingly trapped in the amber of the past.
There will be much more space to discuss reggaetón in the future, including the first authentic Puerto Rican reggaetón #1 coming up soon; but for now the fact that it is the soundtrack to even a qualified example of feminist liberation should be noted. Reggaetón, like all other genres, will have generations; and it will be useful, once enough time has passed, to remember its popular roots.