18th August, 2012

I genuinely adored Chino y Nacho's "Mi Niña Bonita", both at the time and in retrospect when I wrote about it here; but although this entry gets them out of being one-hit wonders, it has similar faults to many other attempted follow-ups to one-hit wonders: a lyric that reminds listeners of the previous song, a big-name (or as big as the budget allows) guest, an attempt to revamp a sound to keep up with musical fads. They've stripped out the reggaetón riddim, replacing it with a generic dance rhythm, invited British-Punjabi pop idol Jay Sean to croon some generic English-language sentiments, and infantilized the object of their affection even further, from niña bonita (pretty girl) to bebé bonia (pretty baby).

The result is a tune that slips off the mind as soon as it's been heard. Listeners seemed to agree; unlike the previous entry, which stuck around for three weeks, it's another of 2012's string of one-week #1s. Name recognition, quite possibly, was the only reason it charted this high in the first place, and the name that seems to bear the most weight is Jay Sean's: the musical bed powerfully recalls his three-year-old international smash "Down" -- which itself had been boosted by Lil Wayne's guest spot in a pop moment when Weezy F. Baby could do no wrong. 

But perhaps the most contributing factor to the rote anonymity of the song is that great Dominican producer Richy Peña, who gave "Mi Niña" its charming gloss, has been traded out for Reggi El Auténtico, a Venezuelan newcomer just starting out on a vaguely notable career of producing and contributing songwriting for a host of Latin artists.

There's nothing actively wrong with "Bebé Bonita," and it fulfills its functions as a pleasant way to soundtrack dancefloor flirtation, as an eminently licensable piece of agreeable music for a youth-oriented advertising campaign, and as a career extender for the above-the-title names. They won't trouble us again; although Chino y Nacho have continued to have a hitmaking career, airwave-dominating success has been largely confined to Venezuela. But we'll always have "Mi Niña Bonita."



4th August, 2012

The fourth and final #1 off of Formula, Vol. 1 reached the top fifteen months after the first, a feat which would seem to cement Romeo Santos as one of the major voices of contemporary Latin pop, a reliable hitmaker for years to come. But while his subsequent albums will regularly spin off singles that do well in the charts, this particular feat remains unmatched; only two more #1s will (as of this writing) fight their way through the incorporation of streaming data later in 2012, and one of them will be goosed by a more famous Anglophone feature.

But that's for the future to worry about: "La Diabla" (the she-devil) is a remarkable piece of work even in this year of vivid and unusual one-week wonders. Paired with "Mi Santa" in video form (a juxtaposition which evokes, but hardly rises to the level of commenting on, the misogynistic madonna/whore binary), the song recounts, in abstracted poetic imagery, a love affair with a heartless woman who takes the singer for all he's worth, leaving him with nothing but a broken heart. Which is of course an ancient theme: Jezebel, Salome, Nimue, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Mata Hari: sexually available but cruel women who lead to men's destruction are so common in poetry and litererature as to be almost unremarkable. But they're not a very frequent theme in pop music, in part because pop tends towards the Dionysian and so generally celebrates sexuality rather than otherwise, and in maybe greater part because ordinary women have significant purchasing power within pop and aren't generally interested in that kind of narrative.

So Romeo embracing the trope despite so clearly marketing himself for the female gaze is another sign that his solo career is about establishing himself as an auteur in line with traditional markers of masculine artistic prowess: casual misogyny masked by flowery metaphor is part of staking a claim to literary respectability. As if to underscore the gesture, there are 70s rock elements in the mix beneath the bachata flourishes. A burbling synth here, a snappy electric guitar solo there: nobody does salable misogyny like a rock star publicized as a poet.



21st July, 2012

Don Omar's history in these pages has been checkered: other than his initial 2006 appearance with a rare reggaetón tearjerker, he has primarily been the face of glib international megahits based on already-familiar tunes and propelled by rather generic tropical party rhythms. "Danza Kuduro" was more soca than kuduro, "Taboo" was a trance-pop update of the "Lambada" tune, and "Dutty Love" was a midtempo love horny song that borrowed Jamaican vocabulary. This is his final appearance on this travelogue (as of this writing), and is entirely in keeping with the latter-day bombastic-but-hollow party anthems that he is known for.

"Hasta Que Salga el Sol" (until the sun comes up) has left perhaps the smallest footprint of any of his 2010s #1s, but it might be the best of them. Or maybe just hearing a batucada in a pop song is an effective way to bypass my critical faculties. Lyrically it's extremely simple, just a celebration of partying all night delivered in Omar's signature half-growl, half-holler, cycling through the same few stanza patterns again and again. Musically, though, it's fascinating, a hard dance song with drums borrowed from Brazilian Carnaval sambas, an extremely funky bassline, and chiming guitar accents that make me think of contemporary indie rock. Credit to Ray "El Ingeniero" Casillas, a New York-based producer who seems to specialize in big-tent Zumba-friendly productions for the boldface names in Latin music.

The only official video is a lyric video, about which the only interesting observation I can make is that the ecstatic, oh-ee-oh-oh choruses are spelled in a way that follows English conventions, not Spanish ones, giving away the market to which the song was meant for. And indeed, unlike the vast majority of the other songs covered here, it only appeared on three non-US charts. In the US, its most notable appearances have been as the theme song for Miss America 2012 and in a dance event at Disney World; corporate cuddliness may well be Don Omar's most salient legacy. 



7th July, 2012

The rolling timeline of this blog's updates means that the cultural meanings of the songs I'm writing about, even filtered through as limited a lens as my generally out-of-touch sensibility, have drastically shifted by the time I get to them. In 2012, I thought this song was great: it was exactly what I wanted out of modern pop, blending English and Spanish without making a big deal out of it or trying hard to cater to one market or the other, merely confident in its ability to appeal to both. Jennifer López's authoritative diva choruses gave Yandel's burly raps and Wisin's AutoTuned wheedling something to focus around; and they lent her a structural range that some of her solo work lacked.

Eleven years on, however, "Follow the Leader" no longer sounds modern, but very much a product of its time. Latin pop production (at least of the kind that interests me most) has shifted in the past decade toward grittier, more syncopated rhythms and away from the Eurodance maximalism provided by the Swedish production house Cave Music. In hindsight it's a late, and not a particularly distinguished, example of post-subprime pop, the gleefully vulgar, party-centric but apocalyptically-minded genre embodied by Ke$ha and occasionally referenced in these pages: but López's steely self-assuredness doesn't let the apocalypse creep in.

Wisin y Yandel are credited as the principal performers, with López as a guest, because its parent album was the duo's 2012 Líderes; but as a single, it acts much more like a Jennifer López song with the boys along for the ride. Notably, it was performed during the finale of the eleventh season of American Idol, where López had been a judge for two years (and would be for another three) -- and it has the generic feel-good sentiments of a singing-competition reality-show number. Wisin and Yandel's horndog personas are sanded down, and Jennifer López as "the leader" sounds more like a Zumba instructor than anyone who wields a more complicated or interesting form of power. The video, in which the three of them engage in parkour chases across the rooftops of Acapulco, is sufficiently high-energy but even less narratively coherent.

In another few years I could reverse on it and fall in love again; right now, it falls between the stools of being too far away to still feel keyed to the energy of the moment, but not yet far enough away to have gained a nostalgic glow. It's just faintly embarrassing, where some of its contemporaries have aged into either hardy perennials or underrated gems.



30th June, 2012

The "post"-reggaetón era continues: producer turned would-be heartthrob singer Gocho, who netted his first Puerto Rican hit when he made the beat for Don Omar's "Dale Don Dale" as far back as 2003, earns an unlikely week-long #1 by applying urbano slickness to a straightforward merengue. Although as Billboard acknowledged, a remix with Wisin was probably the key element in getting it all the way to the top, another indication that the personnel of reggaetón's first imperial era, if not the sound, is still a key ingredient in urban tropical Latin success.

And that shallow industry analysis is about all that there is of interest to say about the song. It's nice to hear some genuine merengue this late in the game instead of a more commercial merenhouse adaptation, and Gocho acquits himself fine as a singer, although he's devastatingly free of personality. But the lyrics are the generic (if romantically heightened in classic Spanish love-song fashion) lamentations of a man wanting to be taken back by a lost lover; on the remix, Wisin's guest verse only lards on more evocative imagery.

The law by which urbano singers don't hit #1 until the single after their breakthrough hit applies here: "Dándole", a livelier, hornier, and more party-forward merenhouse track where rapper Jowell of reggaetón duo Jowell y Randy is incorporated from the start rather than tacked onto a remix, was the first single from Gocho's 2011 album Mi Música, but it peaked at #22, a full year before "Si Te Digo La Verdad" was given a last-ditch marketing push. But like Daddy Yankee's "Gasolina" before it, "Dándole" will have to be contented with greater lifetime streaming numbers than the #1 followup. 



5th May, 2012

The reign of "Ai Se Eu Te Pego" at the top of the chart in the spring and early summer of 2012 was interrupted for only a week by a familiar face in a new context.

The old 1990s MTV Unplugged series, which had run its course in the US by the turn of the millennium, was kept alive mostly in international markets, where live music still had some youth-culture cachet; Juanes' edition, recorded February 1st 2012 in Miami Beach, isn't even listed on the series' English-language Wikipedia entry. The resulting album was his third live album overall, and the catalog of hits he played that night was deep, and frequently documented here. But "La Señal" was new, and as a single it struck enough of a chord with the Spanish-language radio audience that it nudged past Michel Teló's bland come-ons with its own bland platitudes.

We've seen a lot of men with guitars ruminating on life over the years here, and Juanes is no Alejandro Sanz, Ricardo Arjona, or Juan Luis Guerra (he's closer to Maná's Fher or Luis Fonsi). "La Señal" (the sign or the signal, but it could also mean the omen, portent, or signpost) attempts to reach for Greater Meaning, but all it has to do it with is the stripped-down language of rock, and ultimately Juanes' rhythnic capabilities are greater than his poetic ones.

But those rhythmic capabilities shouldn't be counted out. "La Señal" is clearly the product of a post-Jason Mraz world, and the unusual arrangement (a violin takes a solo as though this were the Dave Matthews Band) makes the song more sprightly and energetic than the bathetic lyrics would suggest. It's still ultimately a confused, inarticulate song stringing together longstanding rock tropes (freedom, desire, love, the road) into a mishmash of wants and demands, but it sounds great while it lasts.

Apparently Juan Luis Guerra was the producer for the live set and album, which may be part of why it sounds so great; but I'm petty enough to wish he'd taken a pass at the lyrics, too.



14th April, 2012

I have partly been looking forward to and partly dreading this song as it came nearer in the timeline. Looking forward because I so rarely get to discuss Brazilian music in these pages, dreading because I had very little to say about this song in particular. And it's barely a song, just a horny chant, an accordion riff, and a couple dozen words of putative context, all repeated over a bed of delighted cheering because it was recorded live, like about 90% of Brazil's most populist music genre in the 21st century, sertanejo. Like many sertanejo stars, Teló is a handsome cipher; and that's about all I had off the top of my head.

But then I did my due diligence and looked into the background of the song, and the story is fascinating. According to not just internet gossip but the Brazilian courts, the song's hook was composed in 2006 by a group of five Brazilian teenage girls in their shared hotel room on a vacation to Disney World in Orlando, in reference to their shared crush on the tour guide. In an evening of youthful high spirits, they developed a little dance along with the chant of "Nossa, nossa, assim você me mata, ai se eu te pego" (rough translation: omg, omg, you're killing me, oh if I get you). Two years later, after returning home -- which was the northeastern Brazilian state of Paraíba -- two of them went with another friend to Porto Seguro in nearby Bahía to celebrate graduation, where local singer Sharon Acioly saw them doing the dance and chant in the crowd and invited them on stage to teach it to the audience.

After which Sharon began incorporating the verses into her performances: this 2009 video shows her dropping the chant into a funk set as a means of hyping up the crowd. She eventually set it to a rudimentary melody, and another Bahían music promoter, Antônio Dyggs, saw her performing that, and worked it up (while drunk, he would later claim) into a song for the forró (rural northeastern Brazilian music) market, calling it "Ai Se Eu Te Pego," crediting Acioly and himself as the songwriters. Dyggs managed a forró group called Os Meninos de Seu Zeh, and they were the first to record his worked-out version. It became something of a local hit, and other nordestino groups jumped on the tune, the biggest of which was Cangaia de Jegue in 2010, whose slowly-paced forró version might have been meant to evoke reverie but just sounds dragging now. Electronic forró band Garota Safada (featuring future solo star Wesley Safadão) brought up the tempo significantly, but apparently Michel Teló, on tour in the northeast, heard Cangaia de Jegue's version first.

Teló is from the southern (and whitest) region of Brazil, and was involved in the music scene from an early age, first performing as an elementary school child and getting his first accordion at the age of ten. He was sixteen when he joined the gaucha band Grupo Tradição, and sang with them for 11 years, finally quitting in 2008 to go solo. (Gaucha music is a more traditional kind of country than sertanejo has become, possibly analogous to western in country-and-western.) He had already been very successful with Grupo Tradição, and that success only continued in his solo career, with a gold record and a number-one song before recording "Ai Se Eu Te Pego" in 2011.

The immediate cause of "Ai Se Eu Te Pego" becoming an international hit was a viral YouTube video of the twenty-year-old soccar star Neymar dancing to it in the locker room to the bemusement of his teammates, which sparked a trend of soccer players dancing to the song on the field throughout Latin America and the European League, boosting digital sales of the song on all continents. The United States was late to taking notice of the song, but its attention was still significant enough that Teló felt it necessary to record a reduntant English-language version; compare its impressive 46 million views to the 1.1 billion of the original.

Ultimately the song came and went, an evanescent summer hit even more evanescent than most, since it had very little meaning beyond the dance and an innocently horny sentiment, a "Macarena" for the 2010s but without the staying power of the original because there's nothing confounding about it: it's exactly what it appears to be, and nothing more.

The three girls who originally taught the chant and dance to Sharon Acioly have apparently been compensated from her portion of the song's earnings, but the other three who were involved in the Disney World trip were still tied up in a legal authorship dispute as of the last reporting on the case in 2013; I haven't been able to find anything on the case since.

As if to make up for the variety of one-week hits we've had, "Ai Se Eu Te Pego" was at the top of the Hot Latin charts for ten weeks in the summer of 2012, interrupted only by one week of another live song. I've resented it for years for taking up so much real estate that could have been devoted to even more variety; and although learning the song's backstory has reconciled me to it a little, it's still barely a song, and I still have very little to say about it.



7th April, 2012

Reggaetón proper is still bubbling just under the surface of urban tropical pop. Although this is formally mostly just Latin dancehall, gesturing towards Jamaica with the title (which never appears in the lyrics) and towards Trinidad with occasional steel-drum accents, the dembow riddim is audible almost in negative, a clipped pulse embedded beneath a sugary haze of pleasant beachy instrumentation that could, quite intentionally, come from anywhere.

Don Omar, who we've heard from several times before, is Puerto Rican, and Natti Natasha, who we will hear from again, is Dominican, but they met and collaborated in New York, and the polish proveded by producers A&X, Link-On, and DJ Robin ends up neither Puerto Rican nor Dominican, but a generic "island sound" calculated to please the widest possible audience by sanding off any cultural specificity that hasn't already been assimilated into the global pop consensus.

Which makes it sound as if I despise this song, and I don't: but there's very little to latch onto. It excels at capturing a vibe, but no more than that: Omar and Natti Nat are, despite the repetition of their names, virtually anonymous chroniclers of a generic romantic encounter in which he initiates, she's unsure because of bad past experiences, and ultimately they lose themselves in a dance which functions as a perfect synechdoche for other physical pleasures.

It's another 2012 number one that only lasted a week at the top (although the year's 400-pound gorilla, which will take up residency at #1 and refuse to leave for months on end, draws near), but for once it feels like it. No video was filmed to prolong the hype cycle, and although it won a Billboard award in the Latin Airplay category, it has not particularly become a classic. Don Omar's biggest hits all came before and Natti Natasha's biggest hits will all come after: "Dutty Love" is our introduction to one of the handful of women who are ever allowed to be massive urbano stars at a time, and little else.



31st March, 2012

"Inténtalo" was the first new #1 of 2012 to get a second week at the top, although they weren't consecutive. The one-week wonder that followed its second reign was this, an echo of the airwave-blanketing #1s of 2011, when party anthems by Pitbull and Don Omar sprawled over months. But the post-subprime blip is already shifting into other gears: this cheery club-ready celebration of women going out and partying will be replaced by another one-week wonder with a stronger dancehall orientation.

Like "Hips Don't Lie""Loca", and Don Omar's 2010s appearances here, "Bailando por el Mundo" is a reworking of a less successful version of the song. Barcelonan DJ Juan Magán had released "Bailando por Ahí" early in 2011, and it was a local hit, and something of a culmination of a decade-long career. Magán had been making the specfically Spanish genre of hardcore techno known as "mákina" since 1999 with a series of collaborators, and was part of the first Spansih reggaetón act, Guajiros del Puerto, in 2004. (They drop the n-word like it's generic rap slang in the first seconds of their biggest hit, "Veo Veo", in case you wondered how appropriative they were.) He moved on to club music with the act Magán & Rodríguez in 2007, where he started calling his music "electro latino," which primarily seems to have meant raiding Latin American music for sounds and ryhthms to give texture to otherwise very generic house and trance beats: their biggest hit "Bora Bora" borrowed vallenato accordion as a signature sound. When he went solo in 2009, Magán aimed even more squarely at broad pop success.

"Bailando por Ahí" went to #1 on the Spanish charts in October 2011, the same month that "Bailando por el Mundo" was released, with Cuban-American rapper and empresario Pitbull and Dominican rapper El Cata taking Magán's verses and making them both more vivid and more generic: the original song gestures towards wistfulness (preserved in the chorus-ending line "fueron los días más felices para mí" (they were the happiest days for me)), but Pitbull and El Cata are more interested in boasting about their own importance and success than in Magán's loose character study about a woman going out with her friends to party in Madrid. Not that the original is some great achievement in aesthetic sensitivity: the thumping merengue-house and zig-zagging accordion are winningly schlocky but little else.

My memory of this song in 2012 is primarily of ignoring it. I was exhausted by Pitbull at this point (although it's worth noting that this is by far his best showing as a rapper on this travelogue), and Magán's party-happy music wasn't interesting enough to overcome my generic contempt for Spanish DJs compared to the far more more fascinating electronic pop coming from Latin America itself, particularly the amazing Santiago scene that I was deep into at this time. But Javiera Mena, Alex Anwandter, and the rest are in no danger of showing up here; so the limited pleasures of "Bailando por el Mundo" sound better in retrospect.



17th March, 2012

I've catalogued a number of firsts in the thirteen years (!) I've been writing this blog, but here's another: the first time I (along with everyone else who blurbed it at the Singles Jukebox) am quoted in the "Critical Reception" section of the song's Wikipedia page. My blurb, in its totality, and with links added for context, reads:

It’s deeply unfortunate that this boring lullaby is the Jukebox’s introduction to Royce. Not that he’s ever really been a cause for pulse-rate-raising (unless his duet with Daddy Yankee counts), but his early singles had more sparkle and snap to them — he even made “Stand by Me” interesting, and in the twenty-first century! — and with the exception of the obligatory steel-guitar solo (it is bachata, after all) this one just kind of sits there. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except the “na na na na na na” hook sounds almost exactly like Mike Birbiglia’s Kenny G impression.

Which at this distance feels a little like kicking a puppy. Is "Las Cosas Pequeñas" twee sentimental gloop? It absolutely is. But twee sentimental gloop has its place in the pop ecosystem, and in 2023 I'm kind of entranced by how all-in the production goes in on its tremulous bathos: celeste twinkles, vibrating string sections, dramatic piano ripples. The steel-stringed guitar solo and Royce's sense of rhythm are about all that make it bachata: otherwise it's a straight down the middle r&b song that could have been produced ten, twenty, or thirty years earlier.

Which may feel like a betrayal of bachata authenticity, but Royce was never marketed as authentic (as noted, his first single was a Spanglish cover of the Ben E. King standard), and if teen-idol pop isn't allowed to be bathetic it's fighting with one hand tied behind its back. It's still a little painfully generic, but I don't have it in me to despise it anymore. Maybe I'm just in a mellow mood, happy to luxuriate in another one-week wonder before the chart takes on streaming and everything flattens out much more. "Las Cosas Pequeñas" is itself a cosa pequeña (little thing), and contra the message of the song, it's not worth getting too worked up about.



10th March, 2012

Anything could happen.

That was how I felt in the spring of 2012, shocked and delighted that this underground tribal (pronounced the Spanish way, tree-BALL, hence the artist name) anthem had broken through to the masses and hit #1 on the national Latin chart. A year earlier, I had been deep in music Tumblr (R.I.P.) and my Google Reader (R.I.P.) feed was full of young music tastemakers from all over; I don't remember from which one of them I first heard about the Monterrey rave scene -- probably Club Fonograma (R.I.P.) -- but 3Ball was always at the center of it; I shot off a lazy blurb at the Singles Jukebox (R.I.P.) and ranked it #57 on my year-end 100 best songs list, in between a British indie band and a horrorcore rapper. And then I kept hearing it on the radio, and the album debuted at #2 on the Latin Albums chart, and it had (from my perspective) an unexpected second life as a mainstream Latin hit.

I'm not sure it's easy to explain, at this distance, why it felt so unlikely. (Apart from the fact that it was a season of unlikely hits: I had also included Australian quirk-ballad "Somebody That I Used to Know" in my 2011 list, and then it blanketed the US airwaves in early 2012.) Part of why it's hard to explain is that the aesthetics that 3Ball MTY (and their mentor Toy Selectah) were drawing from have only become more mainstream in the years since: enormous Latin stars are confidently blending tropical rhythms, squelchy synths, sing-song lyrics, and rock simplicity all the time now: global pop stars like J. Balvin and Rosalía owe as much to the Mexican underground as they do to the Puerto Rican 2000s-era reggaetón wave, whether they know it or not.

But everything sounds much more polished nowadays. América Sierra and El Bebeto are clearly jobbing talent collaborating with some teenage DJs, not slick, media-trained professionals. They're both from Sinaloa and had only recorded tiny-label regional music before this; in some ways they remind me of the great Eurohouse glut of the 90s, where an anonymous woman always sang the memorable hook and a dude always rapped awkwardly, but the real star was the zooming beats.

The three DJs, Erick Rincón, Alberto Presenda, and Sergio Zavala, had met online in 2009, when they were all betwen sixteen and seventeen, and started making beats together and putting them the internet; by the end of 2010, they were playing international music festivals and getting attention from labels. They signed with Latin Power Music, a division of Universal (so of course by the time I'd heard of them they were no longer strictly speaking indie), but their music, born of the internet, was both aware of global trends and defiantly local, combining the "tribal guarachero" that had been a lynchpin of Monterrey's underground rave scene since the mid-2000s with international-friendly sounds: once again, you can hear the ghost of reggaetón in the negative space of the triplet patterns, even if the dembow riddim itself never appears.

Structurally the song is more like baile funk or other dancefloor-centric music, made up of repeating patterns, than like a traditional pop song with its contrasting sections of verse-chorus-middle eight: El Bebeto sing-raps two verses, then América Sierra sincs two verses, then they do the same thing over again. It hardly matters: the chicken-scratch rhythms, cumbia mixed with Afro-Cuban percussion, Sly & Robbie drum fills, and nagging, buzzy synths, are the important thing about the song. The adults are singing something about coming together, trying it out, taking one another. The kids don't care. The kids are dancing.

Although nobody here will trouble us again in this travelogue, that doesn't necessarily mean the same oblivion that other one-hit wonders have faced. Rave culture means never having to say goodbye; there's always another festival or DJ gig around the corner. 3Ball, Sierra, and Bebeto have all continued to make music away from the glare of the spotlight that 2012 lent them for a crazy, glorious year. And while tribal guarachero itself is unlikely to appear at #1 again, its eclectic, tropical dance sensibilities will recur again and again in the years to come.



3rd March, 2012

Romeo's solo conquest of the Hot Latin chart, and his (temporary) expansion of the language of bachata to a broader pop metier, continue apace. "Mi Santa" was, once more, only #1 for a week, but its lush romanticism, hard on the heels of Daddy Yankee's hyper socatón, Víctor Manuelle's genial salsa, Paulina Rubio's cooing dance-pop, and Gloria Estefan's brash electroswing, point to a chart moment that could be considered either vibrantly, capaciously pluralistic or bored, easily distracted and indecisive, depending on how you wanted to characterize it. I am always on the side of musical diversity, so Romeo inviting a flamenco master to share the spotlight in the same way he had R&B mogul Usher works for me: what a purist might see as a cynical appeal to exogenous markets I prefer to see as a big-tent approach to music-making in which nothing is off the table as long as it works.

And it does work: Romeo, at least in this first album, is a master of synthesis, and his bachata harmonizes as well with Tomatito's fluid fingerpicking dramatics as it had with Usher's fluid vocal dramatics. José Fernández Torres, the third member of an Andalusian Roma musical dynasty to be called by some variation of the "El Tomate" nickname (his son is the fourth), first came to fame backing the brilliant and eccentric cantaor Camarón de la Isla in the 1970s; filling the shoes of the equally brilliant and eccentric Paco de Lucía was no easy feat, but Tomatito's jazz and Afro-Cuban influences did just as much to expand the palette of modern flamenco towards the end of the 20th century. His playing here hardly brings that whole history to bear, of course: some basic runs underneath Romeo's verses, and a passionate, harmonics-leaping solo between choruses are about the limit that a contemporary pop-bachata song can take, and he provides it.

It's Romeo's lyrics that give this song its most potent frisson: "My Saint" is a simple translation of the title, but the cultural connotations would require a whole graduate seminar on Latin Catholic thought. Its deeply considered heresy, referring constantly to the lover as an object of religious veneration and his own devotion to her as a specifically Catholic practice, is in line with the conventions of nineteenth-century French (and Spanish and Italian, etc.) Romanticism, and even, in inverse, with older traditions like Teresa of Ávila; by contrast, the earthy, sensual, and deeply human guitar of Tomatito prevents it all from sounding too saccharine or even ascetic.

The video for "Mi Santa," released in January of 2012, mashed two songs from Formula, Vol. 1 together, so for younger listeners "Mi Santa" is perhaps nowadays thought of as the second half of "La Diabla." But I'll have to wait to discuss that; Romeo isn't done with his album cycle.



25th February, 2012

The fact that this is only Daddy Yankee's second appearance at the top of the Hot Latin chart really underlines the ways in which the reggaetón to which he remained steadfastly devoted had slipped out of the zeitgeist. Three whole album cycles have gone by since his previous #1, all of which topped the Latin Albums chart, but unlike his compatriots Wisin y Yandel he has not shifted towards a more generic urbano sound, sticking closely to the dancehall origins of reggaetón and maintaining a Caribbean-forward sound rather than chasing the hip-hop currents of the mainland US.

Even this, his crowning return to the top, was only for a week (2012's fleeting attention strikes again), and while the reggaetón riddim is gestured to, in strict generic terms the beat is soca, the dancehall-derived music of Trinidad and Tobago. In the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, tempos this rapid are usually associated with Dominican merengue, itself a twist on Cuban mambo, which has its roots in the son music marketed as rumba in English. The song's title, a portmanteau of "love" and "rumba," is meant to be big, generic, and crowdpleasing; to that same end, witness the remix of the song featuring Don Omar, which appeared on both the parent album and the single in both physical and digital formats.

But even if the song isn't strictly reggaetón -- which tends to flourish at midtempo -- it's a welcome reminder of the cacophonous energy, bragadocious attitude, and overt sexuality which reggaetón brought to Latin pop. Even though the lyrics are relatively mild for Daddy Yankee -- a clue as to why might be in the middle eight, where he shouts out the Zumba fitness program, which was starting to commission high-energy Latin music around this time -- the ambient horniness of the premise (Daddy Yankee is using dance to seduce you) keeps the song vivid and dynamic despite the chintzy synthesized merengue horns.

Ultimately "Lovumba" may belong more in the line of Don Omar's big-tent party songs than in Daddy Yankee's own canon of self-assured reggaetón statements. The Billboard entry doesn't include the Don Omar remix, but I don't doubt that it helped get the song to #1; Daddy Yankee's return to the top spot in a more characteristic vein is still yet to come.



18th February, 2012

Víctor Manuelle's second and final appearance in these pages comes eight years after his first, which I called overdue at the time; his one-time rival, Marc Anthony, has been and will continue to be a much more regular presence. But Manuelle seems content to settle into an early middle age here, with a lively song about the delights of kissing; in the video he plays a smiling, slightly stocky Cupid to a young, spectacularly beautiful interracial couple in the streets of San Juan, and despite the modern, hustling urgency of the salsa music, with a buried reggaeton pulse deep in the mix, it reminds me of nothing so much as one of Maurice Chevalier's midcentury Hayes-compliant odes to love and romance in which he merely plays the role of avuncular observer.

The real delight of the song is in the soaring melody, which Manuelle's longtime band swerves into with gusto, and the engaged musicianship of his own performance. Once more, his legendary ability as a sonero is given short shrift here, as the ecstatic son which closes the song is only really a couple more choruses that he improvises slightly over, more in an r&b tradition than a salsa one. And the lyrcial promises of devotion, safety, and sexual gratification that will be the beloved's if she kisses him are all fairly generic and rote, more focused on the singer's desire than hers.

But then it's just nice to be able to hear some genuine salsa at this late stage in the Hot Latin chart; Marc Anthony was last heard bellowing the chorus to a Pitbull party track, the kind of sellout move that Víctor Manuelle would never consider (or, perhaps, be invited to at this point in his career). Like every other new song so far in 2012, "Si Tú Me Besas" was only at #1 for a week, a pattern that will carry throughout much of the year until the shift to streaming happens. The last gasp of musical diversity at #1 will be glorious while it lasts.



11th February, 2012

Back-to-back singles by women were always a rarity in this travelogue, but their arrival now means that 2012 is already doing better than the previous couple of years: Natalia Jiménez guesting on a Ricky Martin song and Giselle Moya uncredited on Romeo Santos singles were the only female voices heard at #1 in 2011, and a single week of Shakira had been the only respite from male dominance in 2010. The chart had started with a woman singing at #1, and for its first fifteen years male and female voices were about equally distributed; but the influence of hip-hop derived musics (including dancehall) concurrent with a rise in regional music that was if anything worse in terms of gender parity than than its country equivalent north of the border meant that masculine voices, perspectives, and posturing had overshadowed feminine ones since the mid-2000s.

In some ways the first half of 2012 is the last gasp of the old chart before streaming data condemns it to an endless yawn of whatever guy or group of guys makes the biggest party song of the financial quarter, with very occasional interruptions from memes, also dude-heavy. So I'm determined to enjoy it while I can.

Paulina Rubio had toiled in the pop trenches for over a decade before I noticed her here, and her occasional appearances since have been lively, pop-forward visitations to a chart often mired in sentimentality and cliché. This is her fifth (and, as of this writing, final) Hot Latin #1, and the title is a sweetly carefree echo of her first: 2004's "Te Quise Tanto" (I loved you so much" vs. 2011's "Me Gustas Tanto" (I like you so much). Where the former was a kitchen-sink production from Emilio Estefan half-lamenting and half-celebrating a dead passion, this is a much sleeker, even perhaps naïve RedOne production simply and uncomplicatedly celebrating a current infatuation. Almost forty when she recorded it, she is consciously painting with the palette of a younger generation of pop stars, particularly Lady Gaga, whose collaborations with RedOne had transformed the sound of Anglophone pop only a few years earlier, and Belinda, a Spanish-born Mexican pop princess almost half her age whose 2012 was remarkable (if invisible here).

Pulsing heat-blast synths, programmed handclaps, AutoTuned accents, and Rubio singing largely in her sugary upper register rather than her rocker growl: it's like it was engineered to be a hit. And it was, if only for one week. At the time I preferred the follow-up single "Boys Will Be Boys," in which she embraced a fully grown-up, even a cougarish, sexuality, but it didn't make the Hot Latin chart. Later in 2012, Rubio would accept a role as a judge on the Mexican version of singing competition reality show The Voice, and settled into an elder-stateswoman role, only releasing one album and a handful of scattered singles since.

Of her five singles here, my favorite is still "Causa y Efecto," mostly because I'm a sucker for the schaffel beat, but none of them were bad or uninteresting; if I were scoring these records à la my colleague Tom, she might have the highest average hit rate of any performer with multiple entries.



14th January, 2012

We couldn't escape the early 2010s without hearing from the kitschy throwback that was electroswing, and although I'm biased this might be the best electroswing hit of the era, most especially because it wasn't particularly trying to be one.

Gloria Estefan's Little Miss Havana, released on the 25th anniversary of her 1986 dance hit "Conga," was an eclectic dance album taking inspiration from the dancefloor-centric diva music of the late 2000s and early 2010s, inaugurated by Lady Gaga and complicated by Ke$ha, Katy Perry and Britney Spears in comeback mode, but filtered through the Estefans' cheerful Latin branding. The first single I heard from Hotel Nacional, and the one I really fell in love with, was "Wepa", a hard-jacking merengue-house number producd by Pharrell Williams, like most of Little Miss Havana. "Hotel Nacional," on the other hand, was produced by a young Venezuelan DJ who went by the name Motiff, an Estefan family protegé who would go on to have some success behind the scenes in Latin pop over the next decade.

The combination of swing instrumentation and electronic rhythms had been established as a winning, if terminally uncool, formula by Australian novelty band Yolanda Be Cool and producer DCUP with "We No Speak Americano" in 2010, a light house number that heavily sampled and interpolated Renato Carosone's 1956 Neapolitan hit "Tu Vuò Fà l'Americano", itself something of a novelty hit in postwar Italy, imitating American (and international) big-band music but shouting out rock & roll: its mandolin solo is in imitation of rockabilly electric guitar solos, but in a southern Italian idiom. Other entrants in the nascent electroswing genre that I noticed at the time (not being particularly attunted to it) included Caro Emerald, Sam and the Womp, Dominika Mirgova, WTF!, and of course Alexandra Stan. Most of which leaned more heavily on the electro-novelty end of the genre than to the swing end; but if there's one thing Gloria Estefan has proved herself capable of in these pages, it's careful attention to musical history and bringing a vanished past to campy life for a modern audience.

Not that "Hotel Nacional" is in any way as soulfully resonant an achievement as "Mi Tierra" or "No Me Dejes de Querer," to name two songs covered here before -- the opening trancey synth blasts make it very clear what decade this is -- but Estefan money can conjure a for-real wind section, not just samples, and Ed Calle's ecstatic clarinet solo over accelerating toms at the end is, intentionally or not, a uniting of prewar jazz, klezmer, calypso, and Cuban son traditions.

The song itself, as is appropriate for the dumb-dancefloor genre, is very little, a collection of dancefloor nostrums and old-fashioned cultural references, sung-spoken mostly in English until breaking into the kind of French that is more cultural signifier than direct communication. Even the refrain "it's time for hoochie-coochie" is slang more than a century old: the term "hoochie coochie dance" was coined to describe Egyptian bellydance (or imitations of it), first popularized in the Americas at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, and soon by extension any salacious dance, although the athletic jitterbugging in the video is, like everything else about it, pretty asexual. (By the end of 2012, Gloria would be a grandmother.)

The official video's YouTube description notes that it was inspired by The Rocky Horror Picture Show, La Cage aux Follies, and Some Like It Hot among others (of which the postmodern cacophony of Moulin Rouge is the most obvious ommission) -- the faint narrative thread of a young straitlaced couple whose car breaks down so they take refuge in a building that turns out to be a deliriously campy rave-up (with extremely limited gender play as compared to any of those movies) is enough to carry it.

I can't pretend I don't love it: my deep love of music history and affection for wide ranges of genre mean that electroswing was always exactly my kind of kitsch even though it never became central to my listening; that would defeat the purpose of it for me. Variety is my highest good, and 2012 is the most varied year this travelogue has seen (or will ever see again, it seems). Buckle in for a ride.



10th December, 2011

Over the years that I've been conducting this travelogue I have occasionally run into cases where it's not clear which version of a song is supposed to be represented on the chart, since multiple versions are in circulation at once. Billboard lists this chart entry as "Maná Featuring Prince Royce," but from my memories of Latin radio in Phoenix in late 2011 and 2012, Maná's original plodding dirge was played far more frequently; I only vaguely recognized the bachata-con-Royce version when listening to it to write this.

Of course, other markets presumably had different experiences: New York radio, for example, would surely have promoted the Dominican element over the Mexican. And one of the charms of the old airplay-only method of chart calculation was that the multiple versions and remixes playing on various slightly different radio formats could be collapsed into sharing a single chart entry. Which became part of the strategy for releasing multiple versions to multiple formats at once: get enough traction on each, and your song would do all the better on the overall chart. But I don't know that I've heard a more awkward combination of genres  than this power ballad-meets-airy bachata that Billboard considered the primary version in 2011.

Ten years later, the YouTube video for Maná's original has more than three times the views than the version with Prince Royce interpolating half the lines in his lovely, emotionally vacant falsetto does. It's easy to read this collaboration as a cynical move: "El Verdadero Amor Perdona" (True love forgives) was the third single from Drama y Luz, but didn't look likely to replicate the success of its two predecessors, both of which appeared here, so goosing its chances by adding a flavor-of-the-year prettyboy singer and a generic bachata bed (the hoary rock en español band played much better bachata when Juan Luis Guerra was their guest) for a conveniently-timed "deluxe edition" of the album worked to keep Maná's streak of Hot Latin #1s alive.

As you may have gathered, I'm not a big fan of either the original or its bachatification. The chorus' rewrite of 1 Corinthians 13 to beg a betrayed lover to take the singer back is emotionally manipulative in both the good sense (pop artisans know how to use chord changes and tension-and-release dynamics to engineer feelings), and the bad ("if you don't forgive me, you never loved me"-ass argumentation). It's easier to take the song less seriously when Prince Royce sings half the lines in his glib, cherubic manner, which might make it even more insidious.

Not that demanding perfect moral rectitude from pop is a meaningful, much less achiveable, goal: pop exists to embody emotions, and the emotion embodied here is a widely experienced and expressed one. My complaint is that it fails to make that emotion irresistible to me: it sounds just as stunted and navel-gazing as it is.



29th October, 2011

I think I've mentioned here before that in the early 2010s I was so enamored by bachata and convinced of the truth of the thirty-year cycle of popular music that I believed quite seriously that the future of R&B and romantic music in general was bachata.

(That thirty-year cycle, in brief: jazz had risen in the 1920s, displaced parlor song by the 1940s, then become the establishment; rock & roll had risen in the 1950s, displaced dancefloor orchestras by the 1970s, then become the establishment; hip-hop and electronic dance had risen in the 1980s, displaced rock bands by the 2000s, and so in the 2010s we were due for another shakeup. With perhaps terminal optimism, I thought it would be interestingly unexpected if the future of popular music was Afro-Latin as well as African-American.)

I even made a confident prediction at one point that the first Anglophone R&B singer to make a bachata record would signal a shift in Anglophone tastes. That Usher was the first big R&B star to sing on a bachata song did not disappoint me; but its failure to cross over did. "Promise" only rose to #83 on the Hot 100, shut out of pop radio play as a matter of course, although apparently it was in heavy rotation on MTV (to the degree that any music videos were; the channel had been in an all-reality format for years). But it was a massive hit on Latin radio, spending a total of ten weeks at #1 on the Hot Latin chart over the winter of 2011/2012.

Compare it to the last English/Spanish duet that went to #1 in the winter, "Looking for Paradise". As a collaboration, it's far more successful: Romeo's and Usher's voices are well-matched, Romeo taking the higher falsetto and Usher maintaining his usual liquid tonality without showboating; he's a guest here, and behaves like one. But the skittering rhythm, fluid guitar picking, and fluttering melodies are, as ever, the most memorable element of a bachata song. Although the lyrics suffer slightly from the usual dual-language pop problem of the Spanish lyrics being more poetically expressive than the English, Romeo is not engaging in the extended metaphors and ornate similes that he did with Aventura or on his own: it's consciously an attempt at a big-tent crossover hit, and so circles around the single idea of a man feeling himself trapped by love, and submitting to it gladly, if only he can be assured that his beloved will be faithful to him.

The video takes pains to make clear that Romeo and Usher are both romancing different women, perhaps because the danger of the song being read as two men singing to each other was too high, something that the frequent reiteration of "mami" and "girl" in the chorus already safeguards against. Given R&B history, the meathead association of falsetto singing with suspect heterosexuality is as racist as it is homophobic; but we are still squarely in the "no homo" era, and male sex symbols aimed at a female audience can't be too careful.

Of course bachata did not take over R&B; eventually it even ebbed from mass popularity in the pan-Latin circles represented by the chart, retreating to its Dominican-diasporic roots. But I was not entirely wrong about the thirty-year cycle: although the completeness of earlier displacements has always been overstated, which means that living through another is harder to recognize, because there's always more continuity visible in the present than the tidy periodizations of history suggest. But I would suggest that the most influential (if not necessarily the most profitable) currents of modern pop are now generally Afro-Latin in origin. I'll have more to say about this as we get to it; but while this song may be understood as something of a dead end, it's better constructed and more elegant than many such.



22nd October, 2011

After a couple of entries talking about the lowbrow influence of hip-hop and more particularly the English language, it's something to turn to one of Latin Pop's Very Self-Serious Singer-Songwriters and get what is essentially a literary prank in pop-song clothing.

"El Amor" is probably one of the most common titles in Spanish-language pop, just like its English-language equivalent "Love" would be. The ballad tempo and swelling instrumentation encourages the listener to expect that it will be just one more oblation placed on the altar of popular music's most revered ideal and patron, romantic love. Even Arjona's vocal phrasing gives nothing of the game away: if you don't know much Spanish or don't pay attention to lyrics, he could just be singing earnestly in praise of love. Even the first few lines could go either way:

"El amor tiene firma de autor en las causas perdidas / El amor siempre empieza soñando y termina en insomnio" (Love has an author's signature in lost causes / Love always begins by dreaming and ends in insomnia")

So far, so conventional; this is the Renaissance-era "love is madness, but oh how sweet" sentiment. Which is a bit more old-fashioned than the ususal Romantic-era oaths of heroic devotion which is where most contemporary pop language ultimately derives from, but still fits comfortably within the pop canon. But it's the next lines that makes Arjona's intentions clear:

"Es un acto profundo de fe que huele a mentira / El amor baila al son que le toquen, sea Dios o el demonio" (It is a profound act of faith that smells of lies / Love dances to the tune of the one who plays, whether God or the devil")

Now this is bracing cynicism, of a kind which is not unknown in Spanish (or any other European) literature, but extremely rare in pop. My metaphor earlier of the devotional altar which pop has erected to romantic love is only somewhat hyperbolic; despite the strenuous efforts of many songwriters, it could easily be argued that the bulk of pop musicians are really just an adjunct of the falling-in-love industry, like diamond miners, florists, and interior decorators.

It's tempting to quote and translate the rest of the lyrics here, but I'll limit myself to the chorus:

"El amor es un ingrato que te eleva por un rato
Y te desploma porque si
El amor es dos en uno que al final no son ninguno
Y se acostumbran a mentir
El amor es la belleza que se nutre de tristeza
Y al final siempre se va"

(Love is a churl that raises you up for a short time
And lets you down just because
Love is the two-in-one that in the end add up to nothing
And accustom themselves to lying
Love is the beauty that nurtures itself on sorrow
And in the end always goes away)

The video matches the cynical tone of the lyrics perfectly: a black-and-white film of a wedding taking place in a venerable cathedral in Mexico City, with Arjona singing at the organ, in the pulpit, and in a pew: while the bride and groom kneel before the officiating priest, the couples in the audience glance, squirm, bicker and finally break out into an enormous brawl while the music crashes around them, while the bride flees down the aisle. But then Arjona stops singing, and everything is back to normal: it was all in the bride's head, and she looks nervously around while the rice is thrown as they descend the church steps.

In an interview, Arjona even claimed that the song was meant as a corrective to the general trend of pop: "So many good things about love have been shown, that somebody had to turn it around and tell the bad ones." It was also the lead single off of his new album after going independent, and the song's rejection of typical sentiment is very much in line with an artist's rejection of label pressures and demands. But it was also a return to his classic rock-ballad style after a politically-engaged, stripped-down tropical album, the singles from which (about Cuba, autobiographical, and about sex) had failed to catch fire commercially; a certain amout of cynicism on Arjona's part no doubt felt earned.

The cynicism worked, of course, and shot him to #1, even if only for a week. It's by far my favorite Arjona song I've met on this travelogue, although since learning about the Poquita Ropa singles I can only mourn not getting to write about them too. The chart won't have time for Very Self-Serious Singer-Songwriters much longer, though, and it's nice to appreciate them while I still can.



15th October, 2011

On Mr. Worldwide's last visit to these shores, I noted that the meatheaded dumbness of the English-language lyrics stood in contrast to the many floridly poetic Spanish lyrics that preceded his over the past quarter century. Well, he raps half a verse in Spanish here, and it's just as dumb. I recall reading an Argentinean blogger around this time who sniffed at the Latin rappers and Mexican regional musicians who were having such great success in the United States, suggesting that the low education level of immigrant populations meant that even when Spanish was their native language it was still a rudimentary, ignorant peasant Spanish untouched by the language's centuries-old literary tradition. Which may well be true; but to quote Mark Sinker it's good not bad. People making the same arguments about English-language rappers would be self-evidently classist and racist; but a lot of intra-Hispanic prejudice is invisible to English speakers because of their automatic association of "Hispanic" with "subaltern."

Against which this song flails mightily. Pitbull and Marc Anthony are two immensely wealthy white-coded men singing and rapping about generic love using liquid imagery (which also happens to plug the vodka brand one of them owns) over a very expensive trance-pop production, itself courtesy of white-coded immigrants. The list of writers and producers on "Rain Over Me" is extensive, but Swedish producer and co-writer RedOne, whose signature heat-blast synth sound is all over early-2010s pop, was born in Morocco, and his collaborators Bilal "The Chef" Hajji, Rachid "Rush" Aziz, and Achraf "AJ" Janussi have similar SWANA backgrounds. We're very far from the Dirty South rap and Nuyorican salsa scenes where the headliners first made their names: the carefully generic adrenaline fuel behind their voices is very intentionally crafted to sound from nowhere in particular, a global (or worldwide) noise that flattens genre as much as nationality or race.

But this is also a victory lap for Pitbull; after the studied genericism of his lyrics for "Give Me Everything," he lets his triumphalist instincts take over in the second verse here, crowing about Latins being on track to be the "new majority" in the US and giving a chat-up line in working-class Spanish. Marc Anthony's chorus, which could have been sung by anyone and makes little use of his gifts, ends up being primarily another flex, a highly expensive guest appearance singing the kind of English-as-a-second-language pabulum that is Swedish pop's specialty. (Let what rain over him? There is no idiom in English that this line gestures toward; but it was too obviously anodyne a song for there to even have been a notable rumor that it was really about golden showers.