27th June, 2009

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The difference in my affection between last week's entry and this one is no doubt entirely due to my once and future identification as a music nerd: dudely pile-up power ballads are terminally uncool, while sexy sassy glitter-schaffel power pop was always cool, and even more so in the 2000s, when the internet's breaking open of pop history gave muso identification with revivalist microscenes more fashionable cachet than ever before (or, as history has continued to evolve past retromania, since).

"Causa y Efecto" (cause and effect) is a straight-up glam-rock song, something that T. Rex or Suzi Quatro might have sung in the 70s, only with shinier post-millennial production and Rubio's practiced pop-idol charisma in place of anything too alarmingly fey or aggressive. Her 2009 album Gran City Pop was one of my favorite pop albums of the year, in part because it was the year I went all-in on listening to current pop after a decade spent immersing myself in music history, and Rubio was engaging with both current pop and pop history in a charming, totally confident way.

In the video, she intentionally evokes the Blondie of Parallel Lines, posing with her band in suits and skinny ties, and a general 1970s nostalgia suffuses it (roller skating! Eames chairs! hippie dress), a nostalgia that Rubio herself is just old enough to experience. But it's a 2000s song too, which means that it's a song about a woman kicking a man who thinks he controls her to the curb: the lyrics taunt a former abusive lover with her independence from his emotional manipulation and her own new-found power to hurt him instead.

My affection for this song is certainly nostalgic, and was even when I first heard it in 2009, as a music nerd who loved glam rock, 70s pop, and 2000s pop with the schaffel beat. (Goldfrapp's "Ooh La La"! Kylie Minogue's "2 Hearts!" Pink's "So What"!) I have no idea how it would strike a listener with no history with or affection for any of that background; possibly as catchy but slight, or as raucous in an old-fashioned way, without any of the slinky smoothness of contemporary urbano. However it struck the Latin audience as a whole, it was #1 for five solid weeks: enough people loved it as much as I did to earn Paulina another notch on her belt. We'll see her again, just before the streaming era buries everything quirky. These remaining years of heterogeneity are precious.



13th June, 2009

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I try very hard to give every song that ever reached #1 on the Billboard Hot Latin chart a fair hearing. For most of its existence, I was not listening closely to Latin music, and so I come to most of it new; learning to listen past my immediate preconceptions and to consider each song within its immediate cultural, musical, national, and historical context, in addition to any it may have accumulated later, has meant ignoring the inevitable personal associations which any adult will have formed with various musical styles or production qualities. But I've met my breaking point.

The 1993 Bryan Adams/Sting/Rod Stewart hit "All for Love," from the soundtrack to a godawful Three Musketeers movie, has been my least favorite song of all time for the past three decades, for reasons that have almost nothing whatever to do with the song itself (although my critical assessment is that a schlocky piece of crap bellowed gracelessly by three aging buffoons), but rest entirely on my own personal emotional history. (Without going into details I once, in febrile adolescence, meant every word of it, which is reason enough to despise both it and myself till the end of time.) And so this gets caught in the conflagration.

Fonsi, Syntek, Schajris and Bisbal are no Adams/Sting/Stewart: they're still relatively young, for one thing, and their prettily-orchestrated power ballad doesn't have all the air sucked out of it à la Mutt Lang's signature production style in 1993. They also have prettier, stronger voices less overwhelmed by rock-god personality, and so they sound just as good harmonizing as on lead. But when I've said that, I've run out of compliments. Famous men trading off bellowed lines of a self-indulgent, self-regarding love song is my least favorite genre of music, and no amount of careful listening, sympathetic immersion in the individual histories of these four gentlemen, or imagining myself in the place of a listener to whom this song might once have meant the world, can budge me.

This is Puerto Rican Fonsi's sixth appearance here, a victory lap after "No Me Doy Por Vencido." He wrote the song for four male voices, and considered giving it to a boy band before asking his celebrity friends to record it during a fishing trip. Spaniard Bisbal has been here before, as has Argentine Noel Schajris, as one of the two masterminds of Sin Bandera; but this is Mexican pop-industry mainstay and commercial composer Syntek's debut. He, like everyone else here, displays no personality beyond being game and rather full of himself. The capacity of the Hot Latin chart in 2009 to absorb a wide variety of music from all over the Spanish-speaking world is still admirable; the fact that a song like this could get nowhere near #1 a decade later is, as a matter of cultural pluralism, a shame. But selfishly, I don't mind a bit.



23rd May, 2009

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The channel that Flex opened for Panamanian reggaetón to get a hearing in the wider pop marketplace seems to have only let one more song escape before it was closed off again by the shifting musical tides. Makano, whose name derives from a childhood singing group who called themselves Los Makanos after the macano tree, a symbol of Panama, didn't have the reggaetón roots that Flex did, and leaned even more into the romantic, pinup side of the music. I'm not usually very interested in talking about imitation rather than spheres of influence, but it's noteworthy that Flex's breakout single was "Te Quiero," (literally I want you, but generally used as a way to say I love you without being too intense) and Makano's second single was called "Te Amo" (I love you, directly stated).

Even so, once the song was released internationally in October 2008, it only got as far as #11 on the Hot Latin chart before starting to fall again in March 2009. What really got it to #1 was the remix with Puerto Rican duo R.K.M. y Ken-Y (who I said would not trouble us again, but I was wrong), and perhaps the banda remix with Sinaloan star Germán Montero helped on Regional Mexican radio too.

The latter is perhaps the most interesting of the three official releases, Makano and Montero singing over a banda version of the reggaetón production by Panamanian DJ Fasther; the drummer tries hard to evoke the one-and-three rhythms of banda's polka roots, but because reggaetón is Black in origin, the downbeat is actually on the two and four, and so there's a fascinating tension to the recording that the smooth, undistinguished original lacks.

Makano had only a sliver of Flex's global success before returning to merely local stardom, but he seems to have maintained his stature in Panama better since; he's whiter, so that's unsurprising. We won't see him again from this vantage point, but his contribution toward the domestication of reggaetón will bear fruit.



16th May, 2009

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Héctor y Tito had flourished as a reggaetón duo before reggaetón came anywhere near disturbing the placidity of the Hot Latin #1s; they split in 2004, two years before Daddy Yankee broke through. And since Héctor El Father belatedly appeared in these pages with "Sola", it's only fair that his one-time partner gets his own showcase. But where Héctor had applied the dembow riddim to vaguely socially-conscious portent, Tito El Bambino abandons reggaetón entirely for a cumbia/merengue hybrid that would otherwise be choking in sentimentality.

"El Amor" was named Billboard's Hot Latin Song of the Year for 2009, as well as being nominated for numerous Latin Grammy, Lo Nuestro, and Juventud awards. It's exactly the kind of well-formed, classily-produced, tradition-respectful (and of course high-selling) song that industry awards exist to celebrate, its lyrics a string of platitudes about love that nobody but a dialectical materialist would disagree with, the slight digital-processing sheen on Tito's voice the only concession to the technofuturism that reggaetón and the broader dance-oriented landscape were imposing on the pop charts.

With string charts, horn charts, and complex Caribbean percussion giving the song a merengue bounce and a cumbia shuffle, it satisfied every aging tropical-airplay DJ annoyed by the urban hip-hop derived music driving out the merengue and salsa that had been their bread and butter for three decades. As if to shore up that support, Tito released three duet versions of the song: a salsa version with La India, and two remixes of the original with Mexican-American ranchera singer Jenni Rivera and Puerto Rican ballad singer Yolandita Monge. (I believe this is, sadly, as close as Jenni will ever come to making this travelogue, an indicator of the chart's limitations at capturing true greatness.)

But despite the institutional support, "El Amor" was only on top of the chart for two non-consectuive weeks, separated by a two-week reign from the next entry. We'll see Tito again, but it won't be for a while; the next several years are among the most crowded in chart history.



25th April, 2009

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When Fanny Lu first appeared here a little under two years ago, I talked about how her debut, "No Te Pido Flores," was the stronger and more iconic song than the song with which she first went to #1 on the Hot Latin chart. But this one leaves "No Te Pido Flores" in the dust.

In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of the last time we had such a hard-hitting, compressed, machine-tooled POP song at #1. "Ni Una Sola Palabra"? "Suerte"? "Livin' La Vida Loca"? And it's still fully tropipop, that faintly embarrassing middle-class Colombian combination of vallenatio, cumbia, merengue, and pure pop; but taken at such a driving pace that it's practically pop-punk. There's even a pop-punk guitar solo rising up out of the accordion/drums/guacharaca stew late in the song.

And like a good pop-punk song, it's focused with sneering intensity on a cutting dismissal of a would-be lover. "Tú No Eres Para Mí" means "you are not for me," and the verses' detailing of it's object's fantasies of himself as a romantic lover are gleefully smacked upside the head by the chanted, headlong chorus in which she wants him to understand that he isn't for her, she isn't for him, and she won't stand any more failures. The contrast between the verses' adherence to romantic Spanish poetic conventions and the choruses' modern, self-respecting feminist rejection of all those tropes is a brilliant lyrical device that in some ways feels like a culmination of so many of the foregoing #1 hits in which men offered their hearts at lugubrious length to unreal, fantastic women who had no existence except in their imagination.

Fanny Lu is very much her own woman here: despite the Shakira-esque vocal phrasing, which can be understood as Colombian rockera convention by now, she's pushing tropipop into new realms of emotional certainty and musical intensity. The middle eight even introduces the unnaturally flanged vocals of AutoTune to this travelogue for the first time, a sound which will dominate much of the decade to come. Of course, its use marks this song indelibly as belonging to 2009, and the fact that i'm writing this in 2020 means that it's just reached the sweet spot where changes in musical fashion have made it sound embarrassing, but the period hasn't been historicized enough for it to sound nostalgic yet. Let me say, to the future, that I'm betting this will sound even more amazing then.



4th April, 2009

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The largely forgotten follow-up to a fluke hit that prevents a marginal artist from being immortalized as a one-hit wonder is a common enough pop phenomenon that we've already seen several examples in this travelogue -- perhaps most notably Barrio Boyzz and Son by Four. But few have been as delightful as this working-class reggaetón that leans harder into its author's Panamanian roots than "Te Quiero" did.

Because it's as much a vallenato song as it is a reggaetón song, and although vallenato is usually described as a Colombian music, it's easy for Anglos to forget that Panama retains close cultural ties with Colombia, only having been separated from the larger country in 1903 at the behest of U.S. shipping interests for whom an independent Panama was easier to strongarm into conceding their canal than resource-richer Colombia would have been. The combination of the reggaetón riddim and vallenato accordion and guitar figures gives Predikador's production an oddly rustic feeling, with synthesized panpipe sounds further evoking South American rather than Caribbean musical textures.

In Panama, Flex was still using (and still does today) the rap name Nigga, and one of his mentors, Mr. Saik (an adaptation of his original MC name, Psycho), appears on the song, usually bellowing in unison with Flex. Because as aw-shucks vulnerable as the song is -- and lyrically it's a cuckold's plea for his beloved to admit that she's seeing another man -- it's still a macho bellow-along, because first-generation reggaetón. The glorious bounce of the music also keeps it from being very self-pitying; it's practically impossible for vallenato to not sound cheerful.

But like the previous entry, this song too only interrupted Banda El Recodo's #1 reign for a week. The several competing Latin audiences (regional Mexican, tropical, urbano, Latin rock, and more) were in productive tension with each other, a tension which will only increase as the next few years unfold.



21st March, 2009

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Reggaetón's evolution out of underground dancehall versioning and hip-hop mixtapes in the 1990s has meant that even as it became the most dominant commercial force in the Latin world, its discographies remained untidy, sprawling across all kinds of release formats on a variety of label-sanctioned (or not) modes.

So this song, which is only found under Wisin y Yandel on today's streaming services (the video link above has it hosted on their official YouTube account), was initially released as the first single from DJ Nesty's 2008 compilation album Wisin y Yandel Presentan: La Mente Maestra (Wisin y Yandel present: the mastermind), a mixtape of previously unreleased tracks featuring a host of more underground Puerto Rican reggaetoneros and producers. The song was later included on the deluxe edition of Wisin y Yandel's 2009 album La Revolución as a bonus track, but Billboard listing it as DJ Nesty ft. Wisin y Yandel at the time (they now list it as "Wisin & Yandel Featuring Nesty") was only following the original parent album.

And to an extent putting the producer first makes sense, because while this is definitely a Wisin y Yandel song, it's not technically a reggaetón song: the dembow riddim never appears, only a stuttering loop during Wisin's verses. Wikipedia lists it as EDM, which whether accurate or not would be the first appearance of that particular tag on the Hot Latin #1s. There's definitely a sawtoothed synth rather reminiscent of the "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These)" riff that cycles throughout, and the percussion is more or less disco: the detailed production by Nesty, Víctor "El Nasi" and Marioso could slot this directly into a turn-of-the-decade synthpop mix, no questions asked.

But Wisin and Yandel are still Wisin and Yandel: you can take the boys out of the reggaetón riddim, but you can't take the reggaetón out of the boys. Yandel's electro croon, Wisin's punchy rapping, and their constant shouted interruptions make even this moodily sparkling track as rowdy and cheerful as the rest of their #1 hits. The lyrics are their usual declarations of horniness and machismo: "Me Estás Tentando" means "you're tempting me" and Yandel's portrait of a dancing woman getting him excited is punctured by Wisin's more free-associative hype, calling himself "el tiburón a comerse la sirena" (the shark to eat up the mermaid). The video is all late-00s electro classiness (I swear I've seen dozens of rap, R&B, and dance acts on that set or ones very like it), the boys and some models striking poses against austere black-and-white light grids.

Wisin y Yandel (and their management) could be excused for believing that pure reggaetón would not be sustainable for a long-term pop career, some three years after it broke into #1 here, and so moving in a broader pop direction would only be canny. And this song was only #1 for a week in between Banda El Recodo reigns -- maybe the market was shifting away from urban tropical music entirely. Maybe. Stay tuned.



28th February, 2009

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And another genre that defined the Hot Lain chart when I first encountered it at last breaks through to #1. This is banda, specifically banda sinaloense (i.e. from the Mexican state of Sinaloa), the brass-heavy music that has been a strain in Mexican regional music since the late nineteenth century as a result of heavy German immigration, but as a formal genre really exploded in popularity in the 2000s as conjunto (smaller combos, often playing the same styles) music declined. Banda El Recodo is considered "la madre de las bandas" (the mother of the bands), as it was founded in 1938 by Cruz Lizárraga and cut its first record in 1951. A lot of water has flowed under the Recodo bridge -- imagine a version of the Count Basie Orchestra, or even a Sousa-descended marching band, hitting #1 in 2009  to get some understanding of just how differently Mexican (and Mexican-American) audiences relate to pop history than Anglophone ones do.

Then again, some things are constant: perhaps the biggest reason that this song went to #1 when no banda record ever had before was that Luis Antonio Partida, a.k.a. "El Yaki," had signed on as a vocalist in 2008. Formerly of the Banda Estrellas de Sinaloa de Germán Lizárraga (the band founded by Cruz Lizárraga's son once he left El Recodo in 2002), El Yaki was that universal draw in pop, a cute boy with a sweet voice.

It helps that "Te Presumo" is a good song, a swooning waltz with an appealingly vernacular lyric. The refrain "te presumo" is sheer bad grammar in most Spanish-speaking countries, the same way its literal translation, "I presume you," is in English, but in the Mexican vernacular it means something like "I aspire to you" -- it's the language of courtship, even of country courtship. And to the degree that banda is the country music (really, a country music) of Mexico -- rural, working-class, and hewing to conservative musical tradition -- it achieves emotional authenticity by being earnestly true to what a sophisticated urbanite might consider a corny, outdated sound.

But I love the textures of banda, from the flatulent tuba keeping the bass anchored to the silvery tang of the brass and the sharp flutters of the woodwinds. These are all orchestral instruments, but (as in hot jazz) they're being used to pop ends, each section playing as one instrument (the way Duke Ellington or Brian Wilson used pop orchestras) to create novel timbres and support El Yaki's romantic yearning with propulsive immediacy. These precious few years before streaming crowds nearly all variation out of the top of the chart need to be savored: as much as I love reggaetón, the Hot Latin calculus that rewarded many different kinds of music was way more interesting and fun than one that just presents the most frequent common denominator.



21st February, 2009

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At 68 years old, El Rey de la Música Ranchera instantly became the oldest person to ever top the Hot Latin chart (and one of the oldest people to top a pop chart of any kind). My immediate suspicion was that this was a result of digital downloads being factored into the chart, but Billboard says that the Hot Latin chart was still airplay audience impressions-only at this point. As someone who was occasionally listening to Latin pop stations in Arizona who doesn't remember ever hearing it at the time, I have to wonder if that means that regional-format stations were just playing it around the clock, or if maybe it was a crossover in bigger markets (say in California and Texas). In any case, one of the legends of Mexican music appearing on this blog is reason to celebrate regardless of the metrics that got him here.

Twelve years after his son Alejandro first appeared here, only a few months after his music was first covered here, El Rey at last assumes his proper place at the head of the caravan. The song "El Último Beso" was first released on the 1997 album Para Siempre: in its video, Fernández sings astride a show-prancing horse, only occasionally flashing his million-watt smile. But the live album Primera Fila was released in December 2008, and its first single was a slower, more exquisite rendition of "El Último Beso" (the last kiss), and it was the popularity of that rendition on radio that pushed it to #1.

It was consciously designed to be a capstone on his career: Primera Fila was his 80th album (his first was issued in 1968), it was recorded as an intimate concert at the Vicente Fernández Gómez Arena in Guadalajara (which he owns), and it functioned as a greatest-hits compilation, including Mexican and other Latin classics he had never recorded before.

"El Último Beso" fits right in with that sense of classicism. Written by the legendary songwriter Joan Sebastian in a classic ranchera idiom, its opening lines are as brilliant in their evocation of an entire romantic history in a few words as any twentieth century country or r&b song's. "Si me hubieras dicho que era aquel nuestro ultimo beso/Todavía estaría besándote" (if you had told me that was our last kiss/I would still be kissing you). Fernández wrings all the pathos out of the song of regret that he can, and his voice, weathered as it is, is still strong and precise enough to shade it with the delicate lines of emotions he wants to. As the Hot Latin chart has moved away from traditional expressions of regional music into a more electronic, pan-Latin futurism, we've been hearing such stunning vocal technique less and less. (Q.E.P.D. Jośe José.) This one last wave of the charro sombrero before Vicente Fernández disappears over the horizon should be savored.



31st January, 2009

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The first new #1 of 2009 is a generational marker. Bachata has appeared here before -- as one element of Juan Luis Guerra's postmodern mélange, as another flavor of nostalgia for Gloria Estefan to swim around in, as a tropical accent for Maná to wear and shrug off as casually as U2 had the blues -- but it has always been handled with the reverence of tradition or nostalgia. Now, as the widescreen r&b-infused bachata of Aventura crashes into the top spot, bachata has become thoroughly pop, vivid and urgent and capable of containing multitudes. But the title of this single's parent album, The Last, signals what stage Aventura has reached in the lifespan of a pop band, and it's only been our misfortune that they haven't appeared on this travelogue sooner.

Aventura formed in the Bronx in the 1990s, where brothers Lenny (guitar) and Max (bass) Santos  developed a unique and innovative style, borrowing from rock and funk to beef up the traditional bachata sound for the hip-hop generation. Singers and songwriters Anthony "Romeo" Santos and his cousin Henry (despite the common last name, they aren't related to Lenny and Max) developed melodic lines more like contemporary r&b than traditional bachata, and Romeo's fluid, angelic singing style and pinup good looks made it easy to market Aventura as a bachata boy band within the Dominican diaspora.

Their first big single, "Obsesión" featuring Judy Santos (also no relation), was an unlikely European smash in 2002, though it didn't make the Hot Latin chart at all, only scraping the bottom of Tropical Airplay. But by 2005, they were collaborating with Don Omar on "Ella y Yo", a bachata/reggaetón hybrid that hit #2 on the Hot Latin chart during the epic reign of "La Tortura". Two years later, the adorable "Mi Corazoncito" got stuck at the same spot behind "Me Enamora". Aventura had broken out of the bachata ghetto and were Latin hitmakers whose audience was only growing: The Last was eagerly anticipated by a ravenous fanbase, and its debut single, "Por Un Segundo" hitting the top of the Latin charts in its third week of release as a digital download was something of a coronation: "the kings," as Romeo murmurs while Lenny arpeggiates into eternity.

Because "Por Un Segundo" is that rare phenomenon, the overdue #1 that actually deserves to be there just as much as any of its (wildly popular and beloved) predecessors that fell short. Giselle Moya's wordless vocal counterpoints to Romeo's chorus add an evocative, pseudo-Eastern quality to the track, and the detailed richness of the production sounds as expensive and polished as any Usher or Ne-Yo song from the same year.

And Romeo's songwriting lives up to it: the story told by "Por Un Segundo" (for a second) is that of a man realizing with a start that the fairy-tale love he's been deluding himself exists between him and his object of affection was a mirage; in fact, she's marrying someone else. With its intricate rhymes (influenced by hip-hop) and richness of imagery ("por un segundo me ahogo en los mares de la realidad" / for a second I am drowning in the seas of reality), it's one of the best lyrics in recent memory, and when he playfully builds the last verse almost entirely out of previous Aventura song titles, it's the sort of assured flex you only get from a performer operating at the top of his craft, entirely aware of the historic nature of the moment.

Stunningly, this isn't even the best single from The Last; but that will have to wait. For now... the kings, yes sir!



8th November, 2008

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If the first new single from Enrique Iglesias' retrospective 95/08 collection harkened back to his early pseudo-rock roots, the second embraces contemporary pop, an indication of where his career was heading, as the future would only get more contemporary; even though the original version is more or less a ballad, it has a beat derived from hip-hop.

But the original version isn't the one that has stuck in the popular consciousness, and arguably wasn't the one that was a big hit in 2008. The remix with Wisin y Yandel, released only a few months later, has more than three times the amount of views on YouTube, and is the version on his Greatest Hits released in October 2019. But even with the premier reggaetón duo of the era on it, the remix isn't actually reggaetón either: the hip-hop beat only gets beefed up, with additional synths to support the Puerto Ricans' stronger voices. Ultimately the meaning of this song isn't really about Enrique Iglesias celebrating his dominance over the Latin Pop market with another sentimental heartbreak song; it's about Doble-U y Yandel proving themselves as pop artists outside the strictures of the reggaetón market.

Because the remix is just a better production. Even the gear-shift key change toward the end feels less jarring when Enrique's coming out of a Yandel verse than when it's just his own mopey middle eight. And that, it turns out, is the actual future of Latin pop, like all the rest of pop: collaborations, team-ups, even crossover events (to borrow the language of superhero comics) are going to make for huger hits than a single pseudo-auteur singer ever did.



13th September, 2008

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At last, Flex's reign at the top of the Hot Latin Chart in 2008 has come to an end: and it's replaced by a power ballad that will carry us through the rest of the year. "No Me Doy Por Vencido" was going to be the song Luis Fonsi was remembered for, at least until 2017 happened and all calculations changed.

Because it's a giant of a song, purpose-built to be all things to all people. Before being included on Fonsi's album Palabras del Silencio, it first appeared on an album entitled AT&T Team USA Soundtrack, a compilation of vaguely inspirational songs for the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing underwritten by a telecoms giant, on which Fonsi appears last, the sole Spanish-language singer in an album full of all-Americans like 3 Doors Down, Taylor Swift, Chris Brown, Sheryl Crow, Nelly, and (remember, it's 2008) something called Clique Girlz. And the song very much belongs to the sporting-championship genre: "No Me Doy Por Vencido" translates as "I do not give up," and Fonsi's throat-straining choruses are perfectly shaped for soundtracking underdog-victory montages.

The problem is that the song is not actually about the triumph of the human spirit against impossible odds: the lyrics are plainly and unequivocally the self-assertive moaning of a guy who is continuing to bother a woman after she has politely declined. And although as a piece of Western media it is certainly not alone in its conception of romance as a man chest-beatingly refusing to surrender to the decisions of the woman he has determined will be his mate, it's hard for me to take it as being genuinely romantic. As, I should note, millions of women the world over have done; pop, because it is pop, can never be limited to a single reading.

In any case, Fonsi's label knew a hit when they heard one, and it was rushed out in banda, ranchera, bachata and urbano versions; but the slight mariachi horns on the original are all the regional accents it needs. It's a hell of a chorus, but like so many other power ballads, it doesn't do enough to earn those soaring notes.



19th July, 2008

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I haven't kept faithful track of the beats per minute of every song on this travelogue, but I'd be surprised if this wasn't the slowest one we've had in a very long time. And while I'm generally an uptempo maniac, paradoxically, low bpms past a certain point stop being dull and start being fascinating again: there's a tension and drama to the pulse when you're forced to wait for it.

Which is to say that this, the swan song of Los Temerarios at the #1 spot (barring unexpected comebacks), is maybe the most arresting of the four songs we've heard from them. Twice we heard them covering Vicente Fernández, and twice singing their own songs, and while they're slightly better at their own work (or maybe they're just not as great as Vicente Fernández at recording Vicente Fernández songs), here they drop the pretense of being even remotely a regional band. the orchestra-plus-guitar production is thoroughly universal, and thoroughly anodyne: so all the focus is on Gustavo Ángel Alba's voice. It's a fine voice, better than Marco Antonio Solís' but not as good as Luis Miguel's.

They had stopped pretending to be a band by this point too; as the A and G in their logo on the album cover indicate, Los Temerarios were Adolfo and Gustavo. The song itself, written by Adolfo Ángel Alba, is rather lame, a sparse introduction followed by three choruses whining about how the singer's world would come crashing down if his lover were to leave: the glacial pace, the trumpet solo, and the gear-grinding key change before the final chorus, invest it with what little structural drama it has. The expensive-looking video, with its elegant desaturation and highly physical models, is a signpost as to the audience Los Temerarios were pitching themselves to now: the music-from-nowhere internationalism of glossy bourgeois pop, among the Eros Ramazzottis, Céline Dions, and (remember, it's 2008) Leona Lewises of the world.

It was only #1 for a week before Flex's bouncier, scrappier, and younger romanticism took back over. Romántica music isn't dead, but it will take different forms in the future.



26th April, 2008

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One of two songs that briefly interrupted Flex's twenty-week reign in the back half of 2008 was this midtempo chug through nostalgic Mexican pop.

Maná formed in 1986, two years after singer Marisela had a big hit with "Si No Te Hubieras Ido" (if you hadn't left), a soft-rock ballad written and produced by Los Bukis frontman Marco Antonio Solís, who is also the second voice on the choruses. By the time that Solís included his own recording of the song on his album of re-recordings Trozos de mi Alma (pieces of my soul), Maná was a globally successful band who had changed the sound of Mexican pop: Solís' version, though still a syrupy ballad, has a muscular rock arrangement, and went to #4 on the Hot Latin chart in 1999. A year later, there was an awkward salsa version by Puerto Rican singer Charlie Cruz, but it only reached #40.

So when Maná included it on their 2008 live album Arde El Cielo (the sky is burning) as one of two covers (the other is José Alfred Jiménez' classic ranchera "El Rey"), it was as an acknowledgement of Mexican pop history and a desire to place themselves within that lineage. I've quarreled with the Mexicanness of Maná before (which I should again stress that I am in no capacity to judge, being only an outside observer), but whether or not their audience considers them an internationalist improvement on Mexican regionalism, Maná certainly wants to be seen as operating within a Mexican (and broader Latin) tradition at least as much as in the international rock tradition that Fher's throaty vocals and their chugging guitars point to.

It's those relentless, uninflected chugging guitars which make this a more or less failed rewrite of the song. The swooping emotional drama that Marisela and Marco Antonio Solís communicated in their readings of the lyrics' emotional devastation, a drama that was no doubt goosed up by glossy strings, dissipates into friendly sway-along karaoke in Maná's hands, which comes off like a third-hand story rather than a portrayal of heartbreak.



5th April, 2008

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Oh. This is where I came in.

In the spring of 2008, I accidentally dropped the iPod which had been my constant companion for several years into a bathtub at almost exactly the same time I started a job which meant a two-hour commute each way. For the first time since the late 90s, I started listening to the radio in my car, and not just sticking to the classic rock, oldies, or public-radio stations that had been my comfort food and music education as a young ignoramus. I forced myself to listen to contemporary pop past the kneejerk revulsion that a certain rockcrit-bred devotion to 1960s models of rock, soul and pop had inculcated, and discovered that the chrome electronic textures and hyperhuman vocal melismas could communicate real emotion, different certainly than the man-with-a-guitar model I had trained myself to expect, but true nonetheless. Even after the job allowed me to get a new mp3 player, I kept listening to pop radio, entranced by the churn of sameness and novelty.

And late in 2008, looking for more stations to add to my regular rotation that I could switch over to during ad breaks (never subject yourself to advertising if it's possible to avoid it has been perhaps the most consistently followed principle of my entire life), I started listening to the local Latin Pop station. That was the year of "Te Quiero" that, flipping between pop, hip-hop, and Latin stations on Phoenix highways, I heard as consonant with "Love in This Club" by Usher and Young Jeezy, "Can't Believe It" by T-Pain and Lil Wayne, and "Sexy Can I" by Ray Jay and Yung Berg; a thumping beat with twinkly accents over which a smooth-voiced singer pitched uncomplicated woo, with rap verses offering rhythmic but not emotional variation.

With distance I understand "Te Quiero" as a reggaetón romántica, a combination of modes it certainly did not pioneer, but the success of which was undoubtedly influential on the trajectory of reggaetón over the following decade. It was number one for twenty weeks all told, and was tied with "A Puro Dolor" and "Me Enamora" for second-longest #1 reign (after "La Tortura") until the streaming era changed all chart calculations. That rarified company holds a clue to its success: like "La Tortura," it's a reggaetón song; like "A Puro Dolor" it's by a cute, sweet-voiced young man; like "Me Enamora" it's an uncomplicated love song. Virtually all of the streaming-era songs which will surpass their records will be all three.

Félix Danilo Gómez Bosquez was born in Panama City, where, like many young Afro-Panamanians, he grew up in love with the reggaetón sound that had first been developed by Panamanian dancehall toasters in the late 80s and early 90s before being adopted and consolidated in urban Puerto Rico. His imitations of Jamaican dancehall toasters starting in the late 90s earned him the questionable MC name of Nigga among Panamanian reggaetoneros, but when he was signed by EMI, he was advised to use a shortened version of his first name, Flex, for international releases.

He wasn't quite a one-trick pony: he'll appear here again. But compared to the Puerto Rican reggaetoneros who are his contemporaries, people like Wisin y Yandel, Don Omar, or Daddy Yankee, he didn't change with the times: all of his first three records included the English words Romantic Style. "Te Quiero" is certainly romantic, in a puppy-love kind of way that there will always be a market for as long as there are young people who need pop to express their feelings. I can't tell whether it's really great, or whether just hearing "baby te quiero-wo-wo" and "na-na-na-nai-nai-nai" again after more than a decade is nice.



1st March, 2008

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It's appropriate that this song was the new radio single from the greatest-hits comp 95/08 Exitos, since it calls back to Iglesias' earliest 1995 hits in rock instrumentation and moody angst, but he's grown so much as a singer and performer since then -- by which I mean that he's figured out how to make his vocal limitations work for rather than against the emotion of the track -- that it could only have been made in 2008.

He takes the whole song in a low-energy croon, never attempting to reach for notes that he will strain to hit. (Again, he co-wrote it, which seems to help.) There's a laziness (in formal terms) to the singing which from a decade's distance seems to predict the rise of mumble rap and deadpan darlings like Billie Eilish. And while most of Iglesias' material from here on out will be much higher energy, he will never again attempt to be as passionate as he did in the 90s.

"Dónde Están Corazón" is a melancholic song about a universal experience that Spanish calls "desamor," and can be translated "lack of love" or "heartbreak" but more frequently means "falling out of love," the converse of the more frequently celebrated "enamoración" (falling in love). The lyrics are vague as to details -- or generously universal -- but suffused with an appreciation of the closeness and mutual satisfaction that the singer once shared but is now gone forever. I couldn't help comparing it to Juanes' more cheerful song the week before: the lyrics are much less poetic and more straightforward, which is partly the difference between Juanes' vaguely aristocratic rock and Iglesias' more demotic pop.

Not that Enrique is anything but a child of privilege. At this point, he has stopped pretending to be anything else, and it suits him.



23rd February, 2008

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Perhaps the most notable thing about this song is that it ushered Juanes into the exclusive club of those who have replaced themselves at #1 in any chart. He is actually the first to achieve that milestone on the Hot Latin chart (or the second if Alejandro Fernández replacing his own duet with Gloria Estefan counts with a sixth week of "Si Tu Supieras" in 1997 counts) -- and of course he wouldn't have done it if the Hot Latin chart, determined as much by airplay as by digital sales at this point, wasn't so friendly to bringing songs back to the #1 spot: although on this travelogue Wisin & Yandel's "Sexy Movimiento" has come between "Me Enamora" and "Gotas de Agua Dulce," on the chart it was a week sandwiched between month-long reigns of "Me Enamora."

But the first clause of the above paragraph isn't necessarily fair: it's a fine pop song regardless of stats-nerd chartspotting. Juanes' reggae-inflected rock and roll is slightly modified by more local Colombian rhythms (I think I hear cumbia, or maybe champeta, within the skank), and the falsetto crowing with which he introduces the song is delightfully high-spirited, a Peter Pan ebullience which is perfectly matched to the Never-Never Land of cheery bluff his music increasingly occupies.

The parent album is titled La Vida... Es un Ratico (Life...is a moment), which sounds like it might contain existentialist drama, but instead is full of cheerful tropical rock, comfortable as old shoes, taking the "eat, drink and be merry" view rather than the "memento mori" one. (Not that they're mutually exclusive.) "Gotas de Agua Dulce" means "drops of fresh water," one of a series of images he uses in the chorus to describe his love for the indispensable "you" of every love-song lyric: wishes that feed the heart, drugs that immunize him to pain, drops of fresh water, ray of sunlight. As ever, Latin Pop tends to be more poetic, even archaically so, than Anglophone pop with similar commercial ambitions: few North American lyricists this side of Leonard Cohen would care to pile up metaphor so recklessly. Maybe that's why "Hallelujah" is so overplayed, to make up for the poetry deficiency in English-language pop.



19th January, 2008

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Reggaetón enters its decadent phase. The banging rhythm is buried below layers of whooshing electronics, the wordplay and intertextuality of its hip-hop and dancehall origins is streamlined into bone-simple repetition, each of Wisin's verses choosing a single rhyme and hitting it over and over again without regard for sounding cool or making sense. The economic bubble of the mid 2000s was in full effect: it was the era of "My Humps," of Soulja Boy Tell 'Em, of Two and a Half Men -- the week before "Sexy Movimiento," another superb single that closely resembles its ethos of stupidly horny excess was released: "Low" by Flo Rida featuring T-Pain.

The heist-driven music video closely apes the style of the Fast and Furious movies, and it's not a coincidence that the stylized W and Y on the single cover resemble a high-end automobile logo. The aesthetics of the automobile industry, especially the testosterone-marketed muscle-car sector, are those adopted by the trio of name producers -- Nesty, Victor "El Nasi" and Marioso -- necessary to give the song its gleaming finish: a powerful engine, velvety shock absorbers, chrome detailing, the sense that it could run forever without getting tired. Even Yandel's voice, not yet treated with the flanged AutoTune that will overrun the genre within a year, is filtered and doubled as if in imitation of thrumming pistons.

It's extremely macho music, but like the aforementioned film franchise its hypermasculinity is not overtly toxic: to the extent that there's a coherent thought in the lyrics, it's appreciation of feminine beauty, fascination, and self-possession. Although even the video spends as little time as possible on the curves of the female models, preferring to showcase Wisin and Yandel's exquisitely-tailored good looks: they are firmly aware of their audience, and at least in their big pop singles are not above catering to it.



29th September, 2007

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We haven't heard from Juanes since the triumph of "La Camisa Negra", and in the two years since he's beefed up his sound and gotten a haircut: the success of that application of guasca flavor to his tropical rock demands replication. So this taut boogie, with verses that sound like new wave-era stadium rock and a chorus with a cumbia shuffle buried beneath reggae bop, is an attempt to be even more crowdpleasing.

The lyrics are just as much full of dopey I'm-in-love cheer as the title "Me Enamora" (I'm in love with) would suggest: the clipped, staggered tension in the music on the verses is nowhere in the words. But the easy lope of the chorus, and particularly the ecstatic cock-crow of the guitar solo, is fully in line with the breezy sentiment.

He has found the furrow he will plow for years to come: cheerful, mostly uncomplicated music that provides a not-too-intrusive soundtrack to the listener's experience: the moodiness and ambition of some of his earlier appearances here are gone. It's a synechdoche for how rock has been assimilated into the larger pop world since the 1990s: acts like Maroon 5 or Imagine Dragons don't participate in the tradition of rock as carrier of musical or emotional authenticity, and just provide rock textures to the more easily-generalized emotions of pop.



1st September, 2007

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Gloria Estefan's first album in four years means Gloria Estefan's first #1 in four years, which is roughly an illustration of her fortunes since 1989 -- she is easily the woman with the most #1 singles on the Hot Latin chart, and if she's dominated the 2000s less than she dominated the 1990s, it's because she has more of an empire to maintain; music is only one of her revenue streams, and possibly the least lucrative.

But she's still a brilliant musical mind, and a masterful synthesist; so the big single from 90 Millas, a reference to the distance between Miami and Havana, brings three (four, if legendary Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval is counted) of the most iconic Latin musicians of the later twentieth century onto her celebratory, very Cuban rave-up. Mexican-American fusion guitarist Santana, Puerto Rican Latin jazz guitarist and singer Feliciano, and Mexican-American/Creole R&B percussionist and singer Sheila E(scovedo) are among the only Latin artists to have come close to matching Gloria Estefan's success in the broader US pop market, and Santana's and Feliciano's dueling guitars, one smokily electric and the other tautly acoustic, and Escovedo's erupting timbales bring life and color to what is already a pretty fantastic circular danzón encouraging the listener not to weep, to embrace life and reject fear or regret.

Formally, this is yet another of Estefan's nostalgic tours of pre-Castro Cuban music, but thanks the fire brought by her guests it's closer to everything-and-the-kitchen-sink salsa -- born in hustling immigrant New York -- than to the classicist Havana forms she's often defaulted to.

And that engagement with something like the present tense doesn't stop with her similarly middle-aged peers -- the song was issued with two official remixes, one a celebratory reggaetón featuring the all-conquering duo Wisin y Yandel, and the other a Miami hip-hop jam featuring a still little-known Cuban-American Dirty South rapper calling himself Pitbull. Both the remixes cut out Santana's guitar, which is a bit too bluesy to play nice with contemporary hip-hop, but Gloria and her "no llores, no llores, no llores" chanting singers are intact.

Pitbull even thanks her for the opportunity at the end of his remix -- in two years, "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)" would make him a household name, though he won't appear on this travelogue for several years more. He and Gloria share a reverential attitude toward Cuba (and an all-American loathing of Castro), along with a canny pop ear and willingness to raid from anywhere to sustain their global pop empires.