27.6.22

RICKY MARTIN FT. NATALIA JIMÉNEZ, “LO MEJOR DE MI VIDA ERES TÚ”

12th February, 2011


I didn't mean to wait to write about this song until June, but it's an appropriate way to mark Pride: Ricky Martin's first (and to date only) #1 Hot Latin song since coming out as gay in 2010. a shot of feel-good pop-reggae that Martin suggested to producer Desmond Child as his own version of "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

Which as a symbol for how gay liberation was codified and marketed in the early 2010s could hardly be bettered: a wealthy white hunk singing a domestic love song generic enough to be pitched as much to one's child (Martin's interviews at the time were filled with happiness over his twin sons, then three years old) as to a lover of any gender. The excision of his featured guest in the video version of the track (Martin takes her verse instead, and she's relegated to background hums and harmonies) might be read as ambiguating the song's referent, since otherwise it would be too easy to read as a man and woman singing heterosexually to each other, but instead it ends up seeming a touch narcissistic, something which not all the United Colors of Benetton imagery in the video can assuage.

The English-language version of the song, "The Best Thing About Me Is You", featured British blue-eyed soul yowler Joss Stone, and her replacement in the Spanish-language version by Natalia Jiménez, who had recently gone solo from Madrid (soon relocated to Mexico) pop-rock band La Quinta Estación, was part of a push by Sony to make Jiménez a global star which never really happened. As this is Jiménez' only appearance here, it's worth remarking a bit on her career: an expressive, powerful singer in a very Spanish tradition of full-bore dramatics, she's struggled to find material that matches her instrument since the breakup of 5a. Estación. Their 2009 dramatic rock single "Que Te Quería" (Who loved you) was my introduction to her singing on Phoenix-area Spanish-language radio, and it was the highest they ever charted in the U.S., although they had been regular hitmakers in Spain and Mexico for the past half-decade. Since then, however the most notable highlights of her career have been a tribute album to ranchera singer Jenni River and a stint as a judge on Mexico's version of The Voice. 

This is our farewell to Ricky Martin as well, as he aged out of the pop market (in addition to, perhaps, taking himself off the board for the projected dreams of heterosexual teenage girls) and into a role as a senior statesman and conscience of pop; he will spend the next decade exterting his influence to advocate for gay rights and for justice for Puerto Ricans. It's nice to leave him sounding so relaxed and happy after an imperial decade performing hetero horniness and emotional tribulation; even if "Lo Mejor de Mi Vida Eres Tú" isn't any great shakes as a song, it remains a considerable vibe. At its worst, it's an instance of pop as Live Laugh Love wall art, a cliché that can nevertheless resonate, because people are not as complicated as we like to pretend we are.

13.6.22

DON OMAR & LUCENZO, “DANZA KUDURO”

13th November, 2010


The biggest, splashiest, most omnipresent international dance hit of the early 2010s following directly on the heels of "Loca" only underlines the point I was making in my last paragraph. There's a thrilling urgency to this song, a fast-paced recklessness imparted not just by the (sort of) Angolan kuduro beat but by the electronic accordion patterns borrowed from Cape Verdean funaná; but there's also a dead-eyed hollowness to it, a desperate, muleheaded sense of dancing while the ship sinks, of fiddling while the city burns. The unimaginative displays of opulence in the video are in line with global hip-hop-derived culture, an ostentation designed to showcase the heights to which making the music has delivered the artist, but there's no hint of struggle or come-up in Don Omar's glib carnival barker shouting and Lucenzo's AutoTuned wheedling: this is music from the mountaintop, purely aspirational, as fantastical, escapist, and irrelevant as superhero movies or big-budget pornography.

Which isn't to say there's not still a lot to love here. Don Omar's ear for a hook has never served him better, and the velocity, tunefulness and rhythmic insistence on display here is world-class. At that, it's still essentially a Spanish-language remake of Lucenzo's own "Vem Dançar Kuduro" with American rapper Big Ali, released in January of 2010. Omar's cheerfully growled dance instructions are patterned directly on Big Ali's -- among other things this is a rare appearance in 21st century pop of that staple of 1960s pop, the dance record that tells you how to dance it -- and the original video, filmed on the streets of Havana with a multiracial crowd of dancers, is much more of a democratic invitation to party than the exclusive, champagne-and-bikini-babes-on-a-boat production of the song's final form.

As this is likely to be the only place where Angolan kuduro is likely to intersect with this travelogue, a brief discussion of what it is, and why this isn't really kuduro, is in order. Kuduro begins in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as techno and house from the US and Europe made their way into civil-war-torn Angola at the same time that French Antillean zouk and Trinidadian soca did; young producers in Luanda began sampling Caribbean rhythms and layering them over the 4/4 structures of post-disco electronic music, developing a very fast, hard-hitting, herky-jerky sound, to which stiff-limbed dances developed that reflected the high numbers of disabled people in a country strewn with landmines. (Angola was a late proxy in the Cold War, as a US-backed apartheid South Africa funded a protracted campaign against the Cuba-backed Communists who had won power after independence from Portugal.) By the early 2000s, Angolan diasporic populations in Portugal were producing "progressive kuduro" that played well with the global dance fusions of the European market, with Lisbon-based Buraka Som Sistema as the breakout act; meanwhile, Luandan kuduro was drifting ever more favelawards, as it became the hard-edged street music of the sometimes violent shanty towns that were the direct result of Angola's oil-driven spike in wealth inequality. By the 2010s, Angolan kuduro was almost exclusively an aggressive, frequently shouted barebones rap form, closer in some ways to drill or crunk than to the rave-friendly kuduro of Europe.

Lucenzo, born in France to Portuguese parents, was exactly the kind of unthreatening white face to make (European) kuduro a globally popular phenomenon. Still, a Portuguese-forward song, even with Big Ali's English-language interjections, would never blanket the world the way a Spanish-language song could. Enter reggaetón legend Don Omar, whose sole previous appearance here has been the bathetic AIDS ballad "Angelito", but who knows his way around tropical riddims and big-budget marketing. "Danza Kuduro" was released in August 2010; almost exactly three months later, it was the #1 Hot Latin song, a position it would hold for 15 weeks. The rhythms that drive it are not kuduro rhythms as understood in Angola (compare the contemporary "Kuduro" by Agre G), but they're not quite reggaetón either: if anything, they're closest to soca, a crowdpleasing cross-Caribbean fusion that functions as much as a Carnival march as a northern-hemisphere dancefloor filler.

29.11.21

SHAKIRA FT. El CATA, “LOCA”

6th November, 2010


A year ago, she was on top with "Loba" -- and with the change of a single letter, she is back. But as always with Shakira, there's more going on underneath the surface.

The song is a faithful rewrite of Dominican rapper El Cata's slangy merenguetón "Loca con Su Tiguere" (crazy with her streetwise man), from 2008, with a beefed-up, slicker, and quicker production as befits Shakira's international pop-star profile. She changes the refrain to "soy loca con mi tigre," (i'm crazy with my tiger), a rewrite for global Spanish, since "tiguere" is specifically urban Dominican slang. But the third name in the songwriting credits, after hers and El Cata's, is the real key to understanding not just this song but an entire era of Latin pop: Armando Pérez, a Miami-born Cuban-American songwriter, producer and hook scavenger better known by his stage name, Pitbull. It's the second time he's made a sideways appearance on this travelogue, but his knack for repurposing big crowd-pleasing hooks for even more omnipresent international hits gets its first real showcase here.

Although reggaetón riddims can be detected underneath the merengue horns, the early 2010s were the low point between reggaetón's tentpoles of dominance over Latin pop: it's characteristic of the period that good old-fashioned merengue, rather than urbano, got the credit for the splashy, bouncy joy of "Loca," which was a sizeable hit across all kinds of international markets, thanks to canny marketing pairing Shakira with a different rapper in different languages.

The English-language version trading out El Cata for UK grime emcee Dizzee Rascal is also an extremely 2010 move: he sounds pleased to be there but needs the rhythms rearranged to fit his chewy, off-kilter flow. Shakira's lyrics are roughly the same, generalizing the sentiments even more for the bigger audience while still keeping it subcultural enough to spark curiosity. (I.e. the Dominican slang "yo ni un kiki" (I don't even have a dime) becomes "I got my kiki" (I'm laughing).)

But her introductory line in both versions, the breathy English "Dance... or die" is the most 2010 sentiment of all: the apocalyptic mood in post-subprime pop, from Ke$ha's nothing-to-lose class warfare to Britney's doompartying "Till the World Ends," is enough of a truism among pop-watchers that Shakira adding to the cacophony in praise of madness was hardly even noticed at the time. But the extended hangover from that reckless party mood has outlasted the Obama era: not even dance can palliate the eternal bummer these days.

22.11.21

LA ARROLLADORA BANDA EL LIMÓN DE RENÉ CAMACHO, “NIÑA DE MI CORAZÓN”

16th October, 2010


Pretty much every one of the most popular banda sinaloense groups has a Lizárraga in its history, because they all hail from Mazatlán, but the Salvador Lizárraga who took the reins of Banda El Limón in the 70s does not appear to have been a close relative of the Cruz Lizárraga who founded El Recodo some forty years earlier. When Salvador suffered a stroke in the 90s, clarinetist René Camacho took the reins, and had enough success that once his former boss recovered enough to reclaim his position, Camacho no longer wanted to take his orders. And so the group split: Camacho's band, La Arrolladora (the overwhelming), has continued to have pop success, while Lizárraga's Original Banda El Limón has retained its audience, occasionally coming close to La Arrolladora's heights but staying a little more traditional.

Not that "Niña de Mi Corazón" is paricularly iconoclastic: lyrically, it's an extremely old-fashioned love song in which Jorge Medina's male lover sees his female beloved as an innocent young girl in need of protection. It could read as extremely paternalistic, not to say creepy, something the video ameliorates by having the love story be an old man's memory of childhood love in an orphanage; and the girl is adopted, leaving the boy behind. But the lightness and complexity of the rhythm, a modified bolero, keeps the big-band arrangement from feeling too stodgy. Camacho's wind-forward arrangements are among the most gorgeous in banda, and Medina's tender singing is unrivaled in the banda I've covered to date.

But this is the last banda #1 we will encounter before Billboard's metholodology for calculating the Hot Latin chart changes to incorporate streaming. I haven't decided yet whether, when I reach that milestone, I'll switch over to the Airplay chart, which uses the same methodology that has served this chart since 1986, or stick to the Hot Latin chart for continuity's sake. If you have a strong opinion one way or the other, consider leaving a comment or atting me on Twitter about it.

15.11.21

JUANES, “YERBATERO”

 4th September, 2010



We haven't heard from Juanes in two years, and given the blandified, soothingly jangly direction that so many rock-inflected male singers have had success with since his last rock romántica #1, it would be easy to assume he would fall in line. But from the opening notes, with a crisply distorted blues guitar riff, sharp handclaps, and cumbia scrape, it's apparent that Juanes is here to actually rock.

He's still in love with 70s rock signifiers, but the tropical percussion keeps him light on his feet, and his choice of lyric -- "Yerbatero" literally means "Herbalist," and the song is sung in the voice of a traditional plant-based healer from Latin American indigenous traditions, whose "medicines" soothe the heartache of romantic disappointment by inducing euphoria and altering consciousness -- breaks more sharply with the traditional love-song lyric than he ever has before.

It's easy enough to read "Yerbatero" as being exclusively about marijuana, and the Spanish-speaking stoner audience alone was probably enough to send it to #1, but the byproducts of other indigenously-cultivated plants, from agave to psilocybin to coca to ayahuasca, fit the lyrics just as well, and the lightly psychedelic music video, as well as the guitar tone's imitation of psych-era UK rock, suggest a more generalized valorization of expanded consciousness. But even for the non-indulgers, the sharpness of the rhythm, melody, and song structure are enough to make this the best rock 'n' roll song to have hit #1 in years, probably since Juanes' own "La Camisa Negra", possibly since "Ciega, Sordomuda", and maybe even, depending on the strictness of your definition, ever. 

It reigned for only a week before ceding the floor to "Cuando Me Enamoro" again. Which is appropriate: in the broader scope of Latin Pop history, it's a footnote, a glib, self-indulgent appropriation of indigenous culture by a white singer in a very rock tradition; but as rock fades from not just playlists but memory itself, an old white rock-bred listener like myself can't help appreciating its energy and sheer joyful noise.

8.11.21

ENRIQUE IGLESIAS FT. JUAN LUIS GUERRA, “CUANDO ME ENAMORO”

12th June, 2010



I've been writing -- one might even say complaining -- about Enrique Iglesias on this blog since his first appearance at the end of 1995. It's been fifteen years, and no one has been a more consistent presence here, to my general chagrin and occasional grudging approbation. In great part, this is because I've been comparing the Enrique Iglesias I've been hearing in those trawls through the past with the Enrique Iglesias I remember first clearly paying attention to in 2010, the Enrique Iglesias who chose this as the lead single from his ninth album, perhaps to shore up good faith with his core Latin audience before hitting the Top 40 with songs in English featuring the likes of Pitbull and Ludacris, perhaps to ride the bachata wave that Aventura's farewell was cresting, perhaps because it was just as consonant with the jangly rock en español that Diego Torres, Alejandro Fernández and David Bisbal were having hits with as it was with bachata.

But the poorly-aged video, a montage of narcissistic schoolboys playing dirty to win the attention of their female classmates, and the fact that the song had appeared, a week before the single hit #1, as the theme song to the Mexican telenovela of the same name, are perhaps stronger reasons for "Cuando Me Enamoro" leading off one of Iglesias' most globally successful string of singles. Iglesias has always been a kind of avatar of louche male privilege, and the narrative embedded in the video, of boys as pursuers and girls as the passive rewards of pursuit, is perfectly suited to both Iglesias' persona and to the Latin machismo that he, as rich as he undoubtedly is and as sensitive as he performs being, still perfectly represents.

Juan Luis Guerra's genial artistry co-signing this crass commercialism is the outlier; but as well and casaully as he outsings Enrique on this duet, he is merely a hired gun: the song was written by Iglesias and Cuban former jazzman turned pop songwriter Descemer Bueno, and the form of the song is strictly pop, without any of Guerra's prankish genre-bending. A bachata rhythm section supports a lilting rock sway, and the two men trade nostrums about the grand acts they would perform for love, describe the depths of emotion to which love sends them, and ultimately impute a Christological meaning to secular love ("me viene el alma al cuerpo" -- my soul enters my body, a pop detournement of the doctrine of the Incarnation). It's all perfectly in line with the romantic tradition of Spanish love poetry, and the semi-tropical rhythm and irregular bursts of melody serve the lyric well.

Make no mistake: I adored it at the time. If it ultimately rings hollow a decade later, perhaps especially by comparison with what Guerra had served up on his own only a week prior, put it down to my fuller experience with Enrique Iglesias, and my vastly decreased patience with boys-will-be-boys messaging throughout media.

1.11.21

JUAN LUIS GUERRA, “BACHATA EN FUKUOKA”

5th June, 2010



In retrospect the week-long reign of this song was merely a prelude to the summer-shattering hit that followed it, a companion piece in many ways. But I remember this week, because I was checking the Hot Latin chart every week in order to write this blog, and the cosmopolitanism and wide-eyed optimism this song, and especially its reign at #1, represented gave me wings. (It's only somewhat an accident that the slowdown of the chart, once streaming data started showing just how geologically-slowly actual listening habits changed, coincided with my own lack of will to continue updating.) My delight in it was probably at least somewhat responsible for my thrilled reception of Juan Luis Guerra himself when he made his first appearance here, way back in 1993.

I've rated all his appearances here pretty highly, but "Bachata en Fukuoka" might be my favorite JLG #1, as much due to my own nostalgia for the vanished world of a decade ago as to anything intrinsic to the record. But the record itself is great too: a romantic bachata about Juan Luis Guerra's own pleased discovery on tour that East Asian audiences were already familiar with the bachata, mambo, and merengue he was playing for them. The port city of Fukuoka as representative of Asia could have been chosen for the meter, but also its relative unfamiliarity to Western ears, as the sixth-largest city in Japan, shifts the focus away from busy cosmopolitan uban centers like Tokyo or Kyoto and into the humdrum Japanese everyday. Beaches are beaches everywhere in the world, from Japan to the Dominican Republic.

The recording's arrangement, with brief keyboard parts meant to evoke the sound of a koto, is elegant and dreamy without forsaking the danceability of bachata (or the Cuban mambo that the middle eight breaks into, hauntingly, eye-wateringly). The video is one of the best of the modern-era videos in this travelogue, a magical-realist short film that takes the Japanese urban landscape seriously, without exoticization or condescension. As he always has, Juan Luis Guerra feels like an adult making art who occasionally appears in between adolescents making money, regardless of the actual ages of the people involved.

The lyrics are well-crafted enough that the song's inspiration -- the after all relatively banal observation that globalization flows in all directions -- is submerged in more specific imagery, from seagulls wheeling on the beach to wearing your lover's skin as an overcoat. The repetition of Japanese 101 vocabulary can feel, with distance and age, a bit cringey (especially as younger Westerners are often more casually otaku than their elders), but within the context of the US Hot Latin chart in 2010 it felt almost radically expansive, an acknowledgement that Latin pop was, and deserved to be, as globally dominant as its Anglo counterpart.

18.10.21

DIEGO TORRES, “GUAPA”

  29th May, 2010



The more things evolve and expand on the Hot Latin chart, the more the white male rockers on it remain entirely unchanged. Although Sin Bandera only had one #1 hit, their influence remains omnipresent: Noel Schajris co-wrote this song, perhaps the most uptempo thing he's been involved with that we've encountered.

We haven't encountered Diego Torres before, even though it feels like we have: Luis Fonsi, David Bisbal, Cristian Castro, and even the last few songs from Alejandro Fernández all sound pretty much like this, which is to say they sound like every generic post-R.E.M. rock act to get radio play since 1990. True, the opening notes suggest a groovier, bluesier track than it ends up being, and Torres plays the trad rocker game at least as well as Maná: the Motown stomp on the chorus is particularly attractive. But ultimately it still feels disconnected from and irrelevant to the more current sounds on the chart, even the centtury-old banda formations. The generic love-song sentiments, in which he compares his lover to a guardian angel who gives him wings, don't have anything to do with the bouncy music, and both have equally little to do with the broody video, in which Torres plays his own guardian angel who helps him undergo a generic Hollywood emotional catharsis.

Torres is a second-generation pop star in Argentina: his mother, Lolita Torres, was a popular film actress and singer during the Perón years, specializing in the Spanish and Argentine folk repertoire. His first band was formed in 1989, but he's been widely popular in Argentina since 1992, and had solidified his international reputation by 2000. This will be his only visit to the #1 spot unless the future is less youth-oriented than the present: his 2021 album presents him as an elder hippieish statesman of Latin pop, lending rockstar credibility to his younger urbano guests and getting world-music cred from the guests his own age.

11.10.21

CHINO Y NACHO, “MI NIÑA BONITA”

 20th March, 2010



Theoretically, pop music from a decade ago is the uncanny valley in pop nostalgia: far enough away to sound uncool and irrelevant compared to current work, but not far enough away to have accrued the patina of age, to sound enough unlike contemporary trends that it has its own, entirely separate charm.

And indeed the version of reggaetón that Chino y Nacho, former boy-band members from Venezuela, perpetrate here is very unlike any kind of reggaetón currently keeping pace on the global pop charts: the bright, cheery merengue horns and piano, the uncomplicated puppy-love sentiments supported by charming doo-wop vocalisms, Nacho's motormouthed rapping, are all relics of a more manic, less depressive pop scene.

But they also point toward the current landscape in less obvious ways: the way non-Black South Americans have come to dominate the reggaetón landscape at the levels of highest popularity, the remove of reggaetón from the concrete urban concerns of Puerto Ricans (and before that Panamanians) into a generalized pop language. If it's too simplistic to say that Chino y Nacho ran so that the likes of J Balvin and Karol G could fly, it's also not entirely wrong. A few years ago I drew an invidious comparison between Wisin y Yandel and Andy & Lucas, praising the Puerto Rican reggaetoneros for being more forthright and grown-up than the Spanish prettyboys; part of the story of reggaetón since 2006 is the way in which the Andy & Lucases of the pop world have been assimilated into the tropical riddim.

It's worth pointing out that the first words shouted in the song are the name of its producer Richy Peña, a Dominican-American who had been put onto the international reggaetón radar by Nely "El Arma Secreta" and Don Omar. Peña won a Latin Grammy for "Mi Niña Bonita" -- well-deserved, according to my ears, for the sheer ebullience of the tune -- and a good half of what I love about the song is his work rather than that of Chino y Nacho.

Because I really do love it: I am old enough that a decade ago is no longer distant enough to have fallen into the uncanny valley of pop nostalgia, and the glee and joy I still clearly remember experiencing when hearing it on the radio during my commute in 2010 and 2011 are undimmed by any concerns about coolness or relevance. Merengue and doo-wop were just as uncool in 2010 as they are in 2021, but their deployment here remains as heart-stirring as it was then. If the doofy, lovestruck lyrics were even the slightest bit more cynical or knowing they would ruin the song: its virginal naïveté is part of what makes it great.

A minor classic, compared to the long history of this chart, but a classic nevertheless.

27.9.21

BANDA LOS RECODITOS, “ANDO BIEN PEDO”

20th March, 2010



This is only the fourth banda sinaloense record at #1, but it's the third to be managed by the superemely successful Lizárraga family, whose Banda El Recodo was the first to have a pop following. Los Recoditos was formed in 1989 when patriarch Cruz Lizárraga put together an ad-hoc group of young musicians (including his eldest son, Alfonso Lizárraga) to perform for a visiting eminence gris, and they had an abbreviated career until Alfonso told them they could no longer use the name in 1998, having graduated to the leader of El Recodo since his father's passing. The remaining members changed their name to Banda Vuelta del Río, but a year later, Los Recoditos was reformed as the junior wing of El Recodo, with oversight by Alfonso, and some but not all of the band members returned. (There are still people who refuse to accept it as the real Recoditos, as is their right.)

In 2008, singer Carlos Sarabia, who had quit El Recodo in 2003 after butting heads with Alfonso, joined Los Recoditos in order to fulfill the terms of his contract with the family, and based on commercial performance he seems to have been exactly the breath of fresh air the outfit needed. Although this song is primarily sung by Luis Ángel "El Flaco" Franco, who had been singing for Los Recoditos since 2003, Sarabia's shit-eating grin in the video's opening shot and whooping backup on the choruses gives the song its raffish charm: especially compared to the main outfit's politely romantic "Me Gusta Todo de Tí," which alternated with it at #1 for a while, the freewheeling swagger of "Ando Bien Pedo" (I'm very drunk) is joyous in its careening recklessness, the brass bright even to harshness and the tempo a clattering lurch. Marco "Zapata" Figueroa's songwriting is vernacular without being very slangy beyond the title line, making use of repeating trisyllabic words to evoke the punchy circularity of drunken thought.

Raucousness, working-class rowdiness, male bonding through alcohol: all of these are longtime drivers of pop energy throughout so many different kinds of cultures. It's tempting to call "Ando Bien Pedo" the most rock & roll song we've seen on this travelogue in a long time, almost certainly more rock & roll than anything that's under the "rock en español" tag. And if we remember 2010 in Anglophone pop, it was very much part of the zeitgest: this was the era of Ke$ha, 3OH!3, and "Like a G6" -- partying while we can, because there might not be a tomorrow. Although "Ando Bien Pedo" is textually about drinking due to romantic disappointment rather than due to more existential concerns, sonically and visually it's very much about recklessness and having no regrets.

20.9.21

ALEJANDRO FERNÁNDEZ, “SE ME VA LA VOZ”

6th February, 2010



We haven't heard from Alejandro Fernández since 2004, and so much has changed since then. Maybe the most obvious change is signalled by the fact the single for "Se Me Va la Voz" (losing my voice) was supported by two remixes: a bachata one featuring Héctor Acosta, and an urbano one featuring Tito El Bambino. What we're missing, maybe more obviously from Alejandro Fernández than from anyone else, is a Mexican regional version. But that's because "Se Me Va la Voz" was the second single from Dos Mundos, which was a double album released as Dos Mundos: Tradición (a ranchera record) and Dos Mundos: Evolución (a modern pop/rock record). The first single, "Estuve", was from the Tradición side, and covers much the same themes, athough in a classicist black-and-white video compared to the hypercontemporary, moody pop/rock of "Voz."

"Se Me Va la Voz" was written by Roy Tavaré, a Dominican-born journeyman singer, songwriter, and arranger based in Miami, and produced by Áureo Baqueiro, a long-serving Mexican producer who was responsible for Sin Bandera's signature sound from nowhere. Comparing it to the sound of "Estuve" is instructive: Fernández sounds painfully generic and buried beneath the rock-band swell of the production here, where in the ranchera song his voice is given the sonic space to resonate with the superb technique I first admired him for way back in the late 90s.

Insofar as the song means anything more than "here's Alejandro Fernández singing a rock-inflected song" (complete with fourth-generation Beatlesesque na-na-nas), it's a song of romantic longing, the singer losing his voice because of desire for an unattainable woman. The fact that it ports over so easily to bachata and reggaetón is itself a cautionary sign: nothing about it is intrinsic to its form, and it just as easily slips out of the mind as it slipped into the ears, a one-week wonder at #1.

As of this writing, it's the last we'll hear from Alejandro Fernández: his one-time rivalry with the other second-generation pop pinup has been definitively won by Enrique Iglesias, whose comfort with the limited range and aggressive egotism of contemporary production far outstrips Fernández's. He remains an enormous star, but the contortions necessary to remain relevant in an ever-increasingly pop-focused market are beyond him. Ave, Alejandro.

13.9.21

AVENTURA, “DILE AL AMOR”

    23rd January, 2010



"Tu grupo favorito, mami."

Romeo Santos wasn't wrong. While this song was at #1, Aventura sold out Madison Square Garden four nights in a row, outselling acts like Lady Gaga and Madonna in terms of total tickets sold. By any metric but Anglophone radio play, they were one of the biggest bands in the United States. Imperial periods have not been frequently represented in this blog, because nothing is more arbitrary than a well-timed #1, but it's undeniable that Aventura split up at their peak, and despite reuniting to tour several times over the past decade, have released only the occasional single and collaboration: Romeo's hugely lucrative solo career takes precedence.

"¿Le gusta mi bachata, mijita?"

I noted in Aventura's previous appearance here that their liquid, R&B-inflected version of bachata was tailor-made to give them a boy-band quality very different from the historicized, reverent incorporation of bachata we'd seen hitherto. Bachata, first termed "amargue" (bitter) was originally Dominican blues music, the music of rural or at least lower-class Black Dominicans expressing pain and loneliness, consonant with Cuban bolero and Puerto Rican plena; it was first recorded in 1962, after the death of repressive dictator Rafael Trujillo. Over the years (especially in the 70s and 80s), it gained a reputation for salaciousness (not unlike certain R&B performers in the same years), but by the historicizing 90s, the options were either to modernize, with steel rather than nylon guitar strings, and adopt merengue-style percussion, or to fossilize and become a legacy music. Aventura's role in creating a newly urban bachata for the hip-hop generation can be overstated (Monchy y Alexandra had earlier hits), but they certainly capitalized on it better than anyone else, and Lenny Santos' instrumental break here might be one of the greatest guitar solos of the twenty-first century, taut and compelling, casting a more complex light on Romeo's romantic complaints.

"So nasty!"

Those romantic complaints are, again, extremely smartly written, if you can get over the initial concept of the entire song being addressed to Cupid. (The video literalizes this in a rather meaningless way, with Cupid as an urban-fantasy archer who keeps missing her shots at Romeo's romantic targets, possibly because she wants him for herself.) Romeo, disillusioned with love because it never ends up being reciprocated, renounces it entirely:

Pues dile al amor que no toque mi puerta
Que yo no estoy en casa, que no vuelva mañana
A mi corazón ya le ha fallado en ocasiones
Me fui de vacaciones lejos de los amores
Dile al amor que no es grato en mi vida
Dale mi despedida, cuéntale las razones

("So tell love not to knock on my door,
That I'm not at home, not to come back tomorrow
It has failed my heart on many occasions
I have gone on vacation far away from loves
Tell love it's not welcome in my life
Give it my goodbye, tell it the reasons why.")

I believe I have occasionally grumbled in these pages about over-the-top, extravagant, or hyperbolic expressions of sentiment in Latin pop over the years. Which may be hypocritical, because I adore this, and freely acknowledge that it's hyperbolic to the point of absurdity. But then I've had more use for songs of romantic disappointment than songs of romantic aspiration or romantic fulfillment over the course of my life; and given how prevalent pro-love propanganda is in pop, the salutary effect of the final lines of this song are as counter-culturally thrilling as Huck Finn's "all right then, I'll go to hell" was at an earlier time in my life.

"I don't need no love in my life."

Ending the song singing in vernacular English, repeating the same line four times, with sparkling boy-band harmonies, cemented "Dile al Amor" definitively as not just my favorite Aventura song, but one of my favorite songs period, perhaps ever. It would have been simple enough not to include those final lines, or to keep them in Spanish: "No requiero (el) amor en mi vida" could fit the meter. But Romeo Santos was perfectly aware that he was outgrowing not just the Dominican market, the bachata market, and the Latin pop market, but even the Spanish-language market generally. And besides, he and all the others had grown up in the Bronx; English was as natural to them as Spanish. The juxtaposition of the poetic, elegant (even perhaps too-elegant) Spanish of the main lyrics and the straightforward, working-class, double-negative-as-emphasis English of the coda also has something to say about class in the US, about the intersections of Latine identity with class, not to mention the further intersection of Afro-Latin identity. It remains the common assumption that people who speak Spanish are (like Black people) working-class or lower in the US, and the anti-immigration furor reaching a fever pitch in the Obama years (not to mention afterward) has long been as much a class war as it is a racist desire to keep the working class white. Against which Aventura's demonstration of Spanish as the classy language and English as the basic one does precisely nothing, but the gesture at least brought me to tears more than once on those long Phoenix drives of the early 2010s.

As did the sentiment: the relief of admitting, even to yourself, that you don't need romantic love in a world that demands you perform it is sometimes overwhelming. I would not categorize myself as either asexual or aromantic, perhaps for much the same reasons that another type of guy my age refuses to disbelieve he could still compete at a pro level in his chosen sport if he applied himself, but a dispassionate survey of my behavior over time would draw its own conclusions. More time for nerdy projects like this one, anyway.

6.9.21

BANDA EL RECODO DE CRUZ LIZÁRRAGA, “ME GUSTA TODO DE TÍ”

   26th December, 2009



Banda El Recodo's second number-one of 2009, and their last: the moment in which banda crossed over so thoroughly to the larger pop audience did not last long. Although they continued to consistently make the charts well into the 2010s (as indeed they had since the late 90s), and retain their devoted regional audience.

Luis Antonio "El Yaki" Partido's vocals again take center stage here, as they did in "Te Presumo", but the aw-shucks sentiment of that song is replaced by mere bland desire here. "Me Gusta Todo de Tí" means "I like all of you," and the lyrics are a dull recitation of everything the singer likes about his object of affection. The banda orchestration feels much more pro forma here too, with few grace accents or flourishing solos. That's on purpose, of course: the point is to highlight the very trite, very sincere lyrics. It's very much the kind of song that gets played at weddings, that a groom sings to a bride, traditional in the deepest sense.

In fact, it was #1 for a month in the winter of 2010 before the spot moved on to other, more exciting songs; but after a gap of twelve weeks it returned to #1 for a week in the middle of April, which does seem to suggest that weddings really did have something to do with its popularity.

It also happens to be the song that was at #1 when I started writing this blog in January of 2010. I don't remember specifically hearing it then, because I was still in an "all banda sounds the same" headspace (and indeed I'm not sure I would have known enough to even call it banda then), although the title melody stirs a vague memory. But I can't help but appreciate it anyway, because I wanted to like it (from looking at the #1s list on Wikipedia) and was daunted by how much lay between the first #1 in 1986 and it. Eleven and a half years later, there are a lot of Hot Latin #1st to get through still, but it seems unlikely we'll ever hear anything this intentionally naïve ever again.

30.8.21

WISIN Y YANDEL FT. ENRIQUE IGLESIAS, “GRACIAS A TÍ”

  19th December, 2009



A year ago, Wisin y Yandel had appeared on a remix of an Enrique Iglesias song, giving it a sales and radio boost by endowing a mopey ballad with some stiff-upper-lip machismo. Now the favor is returned, as Enrique guests on a remix of a Wisin y Yandel ballad, enlivening their emotionally constipated shout-out to female fans (coded as a sentimental love song) with his patented straining tenderness

The reggaetón interregnum sounds odder and odder in hindsight: the soft-rock plod of the drums here, in a song handled by reggaetón superproducers Nesty and El Nasi, feels even more like a concession to the broader pop market than W&Y's previous three appearances here (the last time we heard them over the dembow riddim was on "Sexy Movimiento," in January 2008). It doesn't slow them down any; their machine-tooled voices are still propulsive and authoritative as ever. Charmingly, Wisin even attempts to croon for a bit before returning to his comfort zone of ratatat toasting.

The video, shot in concert in Buenos Aires (where Iglesias recorded his remix and surprised the audience by appearing on stage with the boys to perform it), is even more an homage to the fans who have consistently been propelling Wisin y Yandel to the top of the charts. But for sympathetic non-fans, the song is a lesser rewrite of "Lloro Por Tí," and showcases none of the men involved at their best. 

23.8.21

ALEJANDRO SANZ FT. ALICIA KEYS, “LOOKING FOR PARADISE”

 21st November, 2009



First Shakira, then Nelly Furtado, now Alicia Keys popping up at the top spot on the Hot Latin chart -- I was not, in 2009, aware enough of trends or discourse to realize that this was not representative of a new flourishing in Latin pop, but rather the end of an era in mainstream US pop. All three women had broken through into Anglophone stardom in 2001, with "Whenever, Wherever," "I'm Like a Bird," and "Fallin'," respectively; but eight years later, none of them remained at the top of the Anglophone heap, and the more forgiving Latin charts provided a graceful descent from their 2000s-era peaks.

That's one way to look at it, anyway, and probably the one that the Anglocentric readership of this blog (such as it has), with their knowledge that Furtado and Keys have been irrelevant chartwise for the last decade, plus Shakira having mostly disappeared from Anglo airwaves, would probably naturally assume. The way I looked at it at the time was no doubt idealistic, and probably also condescending to the already rich history of Latin pop: I thought maybe it presaged more interconnection between the English- and Spanish-language sides of the industry, a world in which songs largely in Spanish could have as much chance with English-speaking audiences as songs with the amount of English as this one had had with Spanish-speaking ones.

I wasn't wrong, necessarily -- but it took longer than I expected, with a heavy swing towards masculine voices in both Spanish-language and English-language chart pop, to happen. A kind of masculinity that Alejandro Sanz, gruff and limited as his voice is compared to Keys' professionally liquid tones, could not represent. His name is before the "Ft.," and the single was taken from his album Paraíso Express, but Keys' is the first voice you hear in the duet and arguably makes the most impact in the song. Which fits in fine with Sanz' past performance here: he's a great collaborator who knows how to make his duet partner stand out. The jangly backing track was supposed to evoke the British Invasion of the Sixties, but it sounds to my ears more like the commercial jangle of post-R.E.M. Nineties bands like Gin Blossoms. Which is fine (I loved the Gin Blossoms when I was fifteen and they were all over the radio), but by belonging to neither world it only emphasizes the difference in tonality and tradition between Sanz, with his flamenco-derived rasp, and Keys, with her polite R&B dramatics.

Of course I've been excited in these pages before about songs that mash global musical traditions together, and there's a spark of that here, but it never fully catches into a full conflagration. Maybe Alicia Keys is too limited a singer, maybe Alejandro Sanz is too polite to push her, maybe they're both simply taking the easy route: but even the straightforward, literal English lyrics and the cerebal, conceptual Spanish-language ones seem like both of them are singing past each other rather than to each other, much less together. Whatever the future of Latin pop is, it's not this.

16.8.21

DAVID BISBAL, “ESCLAVO DE SUS BESOS”

31st October, 2009



The continued popularity of David Bisbal continues to confound me. I guess if I think really hard about it I can find similar music that meant something to me around roughly the same time: the production isn't a million miles away from Kelly Clarkson's epochal "Since U Been Gone," a good five years earlier, and there was a Hollywood Records wave of rockish teenpop around this time, from which Selena Gomez and the Scene and the Jonas Brothers have aged the best. But Bisbal was a full-grown adult; he turned 30 in 2009, and his larynx-shredding sincerity remains ungainly to Anglophone ears.

I had an ear glued to Latin radio at this point, but if I ever heard this song there it slipped out of my brain just as quickly as it entered. I'm tempted to attribute this unfamiliarity to the solid good sense of the Phoenix-area Latin market, too Mexican and working-class to give much shrift to a Spanish prettyboy; but my own anti-rockism by now was probably even more salient. I've never had any compunction about switching stations on the thinnest pretext.

"Esclavo de Sus Besos" means "slave of her kisses," and it's a typical Bisbal song in that it presents him as unable to fully commit to his current love because he's still hung up on the previous one. Of course the literate, sensitive lyrics put it more sympathetically than that: the title metaphor is a hyperbolic one, but entirely in line with poetic usage. And relistening I can see how the ebb and rush of the music, a slick combination of jangle-pop and hair metal, could propel the listener deeper into their emotions if they were feeling themselves in a similar situation: it's expertly crafted by people who know their business. But it doesn't move me.

9.8.21

NELLY FURTADO, “MANOS AL AIRE”

12th September, 2009



If "Loba" made me excited about the Hot Latin charts, "Manos al Aire" (hands in the air) made me intrigued. If the charts were this wide open for being crashed, what else might not appear? It's one of the most unusual crossovers we've seen throughout this travelogue: a Canadian singer of Portuguese descent had a Latin #1 without an equivalent English-language version. Wikipedia says, incorrectly, that she "was the first North American act to have an originally written Spanish song reach #1," and despite the error (even if you don't count Mexico as North America, Selena was Texan born and bred), it's a notable achievement for someone who only learned Spanish as an adult to have a hit with a Spanish-language song.

A lot of that is due to her co-writer, Afro-Cuban singer and instrumentalist Alex Cuba, who grew up in the Havana area but emigrated to British Columbia as an adult and was a regular winner of Juno awards for "world music" in the 2000s. But Furtado was smart enough to refuse to translate the song to English, because the poetic idioms of Spanish and English are different enough that a lovely Spanish-language song about surrendering to love could sound bathetic or self-loathing in English.

The plastic sound of the song, all crisp electronic drums, repetitive palm-muted acoustic guitar chords, and soaring ersatz string sections, was extremely in vogue in the late 2000s, and in its moment sounded a bit like Anglophone pop crashing Hispanophone pop, productively. Furtado's previous record, Loose, had been a smash on the strength of the Timbaland collaborations "Promiscuous" and "Maneater," which were so rhythmically slippery that her limited voice could just be another texture within the soundscape, but it had also contained Spanish-language collaborations with Calle Ocho and Juanes (again). neither of which troubled the Hot Latin chart; for her 2009 Mi Plan, an all-Spanish-language album (and her first after going independent), she gathered collaborators like Cuba, Lester Mendez, and Julieta Venegas to try to solidify her presence in the Latin market.

It worked, insofar as "Manos al Aire" was #1 for four weeks in the fall of 2009, the album went platinum within a month of release, and Furtado won a Latin Grammy for her pains. But her attempts to return to the English-language market in 2012 and 2017 were met with a stony reception, and she has made no further gestures in Spanish since. Perhaps she's wisely sitting out the streaming era, which as one of the surprise winners of the CD era, she can presumably afford to do.

Twelve years later, "Manos al Aire" no longer sounds as revelatory or heart-gripping as it did back when it was my only companion hurtling through the freeway around Piestewa Peak on my way to work. It sounds thin and clipped, all sharp angles and unconvincing sentiment. A surrender to its joys would be a surrender to nostalgia, and I'm wary enough of the people I used to be that I'm suspicious of that. I still love that it happened; three years later, it could not. And I want to squeeze every last drop out of my affection for these years while I can.

5.7.21

SHAKIRA, “LOBA”

8th August, 2009



For eleven years, Shakira's #1 songs have served as a bellwether for Latin pop: rock auteurism in the late 90s, big-tent pop universalism in the early 2000s, collaborative reggaetón formalism in the mid-2000s. Now she once more has her eyes on the future, and if her rubbery disco doesn't exactly predict the trance-heavy sounds of the next few years, that's because it took Anglophone pop until "Get Lucky," "Blurred Lines" and "Happy" to catch up to it. But perhaps the most important relative of "She-Wolf"/"Loba" in the Anglosphere was "Call Me Maybe," another fizzy throwback pop song sung and written by a woman but produced by a pop-rock veteran, in this case Jim Hill of Apples in Stereo, who gives the song modern rock dynamics without neglecting the groove.

But the echoes in English are of less import to this blog than the song's effect on Latin pop, which was immediate and in some ways profound. Not that there was an explosion of disco necessarily, but that Shakira's formal eccentricity, as always, gave implicit permission to those who considered her a peer or a model to move in unexpected and unintuitive directions. Although her musical models are fairly obvious (Daft Punk and Kylie Minogue had had recent electro hits with similar patterns, not to mention the Chic sample that gives the song its transcendent moment), her lyrical embrace of a grown woman's sexuality, unable to be confined to a single marital bed, was as bold an intervention in the habitual language around feminine desire in Latin pop as there has ever been. To dip into unworthy gossip-rag territory, it's perhaps unsurprising that her unmarried but committed relationship with her Argentine lawyer-manager ended the following year, after ten years together.

On a personal level, this song was probably the clearest impetus for beginning this blog that I heard in 2009. I've talked before about what Shakira had meant to me earlier in the decade, but being startled by "Loba"'s beautiful, horny weirdness while driving in the purple twilight of a Phoenix evening (the southbound Camelback exit of SR 51, forever) was the kind of aesthetic experience that this blog, as shallow and intermittent as it has been over the years, was built to chase.

Shakira's commitment to following her own muse, and making her pop audience follow her, rather than chasing the most current sound, has never been stronger than it was in this moment, and the fact that that commitment will end, or at least diminish, in years to come is one of the greatest shames this blog will chart. But more about that when it happens. For now, the softest, demurest "a-wooo."

28.6.21

ESPINOZA PAZ, “LO INTENTAMOS”

8th August, 2009

Wiki | Video

Only the second banda sinaloense song ever to hit #1, and the second within the same year: 2009 is as diverse a year for Hot Latin #1s as there has been on record to date. Which says as much about the changing formats of Latin radio airplay within the US in the late 2000s as it does about audiences (or even the specific virtues of the individual performers, which we'll get to). For decades, Billboard had divided its Latin charts between Hot Latin, Tropical, and Regional Mexican, because that was more or less the divide in radio formats: Hot Latin (across the country) played pop music in Spanish, generally whatever was popular throughout continental Latin America and Spain, Tropical (keyed to the New York and Miami markets) played what was popular among the Caribbean diaspora within the US, and Regional Mexican (keyed to the Southern California and Texas markets) played what was was popular among blue-collar Mexican immigrants and their children.

There had always been plenty of overlap between the Hot Latin and the Tropical formats, as we've seen, and Regional Mexican had also made plenty of inroads into the Hot Latin chart as well, depending on the year and the region. But several trends over the past decade -- including the massive growth of native Spanish speakers within the US (between 1990 and 2010, their percentage of the population almost doubled), the consolidation of commercial radio in the hands of a few major corporations, and the rise of truly national Spanish-language media (Telemundo and Univision did not segregate their music programming by region) -- meant that Regional Mexican music began to have a stronger presence than ever in the Hot Latin charts just at the moment when the strongest threads in that chart had become Puerto Rican reggaetón and Dominican bachata, both Tropical genres.

And "Lo Intentamos" (we tried it) actually begins with traditionally Cuban percussion, sounding almost like a bolero, before the full banda comes in and the foursquare stomp of the drums solidifies the rhythm. But it's never quite as oompah as so much banda is: this is a highly contemporary pop song written by a man whose long apprenticeship took place in the United States, where he'd been a seasonal migrant laborer, as well as in Mexico. Structurally, it has R&B and rock in its DNA as well as banda, and it's easy to mentally recast the swaying tempo as a rock & roll ballad.

Espinoza Paz was born in Sinaloa in 1981, where he began writing songs as a childhood hobby, and first crossed the border at the age of fifteen, following the footsteps of his father, who had also been a migrant worker in the US. After a decade of work and struggle, he finally managed to sell a brace of songs to an established banda singer in 2004, gaining a foothold in the industry; his first major-label album, which marketed him as a singer/songwriter of the people, was released in 2008, giving him the minor hit "El Próximo Viernes." The follow-up Yo No Canto, Pero Lo Intentamos (I don't sing, but let's try it) gave him this, his sole Hot Latin #1.

It's a superb song, romantic and sad and vernacular -- the language is very plain and unadorned in a kind of way that many Spanish speakers sneer at, dismissing it as simpleminded underclass music aimed at uneducated first- or second-generation immigrants who are losing touch with, or never knew much, Spanish. Maybe so; but they deserve popular music that speaks to and for them just as much as, and maybe more than, university graduates and Europeanized Latin Americans do. Paz expresses his regret at not doing enough to keep his lost love, and the pain that her new love gives him, in basic, universal language, and his untrained voice struggles to keep up with the melody as it pushes into a higher register.

Within three years, he will announce a short-lived retirement from music in a bid to regain control of his career; he will never again be as popular as he was around the turn of the 2010s, as the genre of banda moves away from his slightly callow, aw-shucks persona. But we only have a few more years left in which banda can break through to the top of the chart at all; the streaming era is coming up quickly.

7.6.21

WISIN Y YANDEL, “ABUSADORA”

1st August, 2009

Wiki | Video

The third Wisin y Yandel #1 in a row without the distinctive reggaetón riddim, although the hip-house beat keeps the same staggered rhythm: the market seemed to be pushing away from puro reggaetón in the usual way that Black music gets coopted and watered down by white practitioners. Still, "Abusadora" was produced by Tainy with W&Y's usual collaborator Víctor El Nasi, so it's not like they were trying to abandon the formula that gave them their success by working with pop producers; if anything, they were demonstrating that reggaetón was a bigger tent than a blinkered focus on the riddim would suggest.

"Abusadora" is, like so many of Wisin y Yandel's songs, a worshipfully horny celebration of a sexually assertive woman at the club. The title literally translates to "abusive woman," but what or who she's abusing is never clear: maybe it's the singers (although Yandel repeats "Bendita sea la hora en que te encontré" -- blessed be the hour in which I met you), maybe it's substances, maybe it's simply her own pretty privilege. But if they're suffering, they don't complain: Wisin brags about his ability to keep up with her, and Yandel croons in silvered fragements of AutoTune about how little control he has over himself.

The sawtoothed synths and AutoTune are more than anything else a time capsule: this is post-subprime mortgage pop, big and splashy and dance-friendly, the cheap blare of foreclosed futures. The long, embittering crisis of the 2010s will temper the noise and energy on display here, but for the next couple of years at least, we'll keep on partying like it's the end of the world.