16.9.19

MARCO ANTONIO SOLÍS, “OJALÁ”

30th June, 2007

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This is most likely the last time we will see Marco Antonio Solís on this travelogue; he's been a regular presence here since 1988 (and he's been having Mexican hits since 1975), but the chart is drifting away from the kind of traditional Mexican pop he does very well, and younger and flashier sounds are gaining prominence. In the present tense of when I'm writing this, 2019, he hasn't released an album of new material for six years, the longest he's ever gone before; if he does stage a comeback in the age of urbano (he's not quite sixty yet), I'll be pleasantly surprised.

The 2006 album Trozos de Mi Alma 2 (Pieces of My Soul 2) was an album of new recordings, but it wasn't new material; like its predecessor in 1999, it was Solís covering songs he'd written but given to other singers. I didn't note it at the time, but his 1999 #1 "Si Te Pudiera Mentir" (If I Could Lie to You) was originally recorded by Rocío Dúrcal in 1990. And his version of "Ojalá" sounds like classic Rocío Dúrcal: carefully-produced mariachi-inflected pop, with studio orchestration that replicates the soft-rock sound of 70s pop where Dúrcal had her heyday and Solís got his start.

So who sang the original? Well... Paulina Rubio, in 2004. And if you click on that link you'll get a lesson in what production can do to a song. It was only an album track (her big singles from Pau-Latina, "Te Quise Tanto" and "Dame Otro Tequila" appeared here), but it's still as dense with mid-2000s genre-mashup technofuturism as everything else on the album, mariachi horns snaking across a glitchy, twitchy soundscape which she actually takes at a slightly slower pace than Solís would two years later, purring lyrics which he delivers in his traditional trumpet-like belt. Of the two performances, I'm aesthetically constituted so as to prefer Rubio's, but that doesn't mean I dislike Solís's in the slightest: I enjoy both his soft-focus traditionalism and her lively personality-driven pop. Her hissed ad-lib at the start, "quiero que te arrastres, güey" -- I want you to crawl, dude -- is sublime.

Because the song is, in both versions, a kiss-off, with the title "Ojalá" (literally derived from the Arabic for "God willing" but generally used as an informal expression of hope) in the chorus introducing a series of wishes that the betraying lover will meet with similar terrible fates. It's a wallow in hatred and revenge fantasies, and it's even kind of funny (Solís's first line, roughly "I don't know what name to call you, I looked in the dictionary and couldn't find it," is some classic country songwriting). A terrific song, regardless of version, and perhaps the best farewell to this blog that Marco Antonio Solís could have devised. Three weeks at #1 (interrupting Enrique Iglesias' much longer reign to either side), a victory lap for a long-serving craftsman before ceding the floor to the youth coming up, as always, from behind.

9.9.19

ENRIQUE IGLESIAS, “DÍMELO”

19th May, 2007

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When Iglesias fils first burst onto this travelogue in 1995 with back-to-back-to-back number ones, I was at a loss to understand how the Enrique Iglesias I knew (and had a certain affection for) from popwatching in the early 2010s had emerged from that very unprepossessing whiner. Even when I liked some of his later material over the years (nearly all of which we've gotten to sample, as no one has ever hit number one as regularly as him), I rarely recognized him. So this single, parenthetically declared (The Ping Pong Song) in its English-language release, is notable for me as being the first time I recognized him as the same man I knew from later hits.

It's been four years since his last number one, the longest he's ever gone without an appearance here, and he seems to have figured out exactly what his lane would be for the next decade. (It's not far from what I predicted in my discussion of the 1999 hit "Ritmo Total".) R&B producer Sean Garrett (best known for Usher & co.'s immortal "Yeah!") gives him a thoroughly modern, high-tech track with a memorable, even novelty-esque rhythm sample, compresses and pitch-corrects his voice so that his limitations are invisible, and layers digital textures around him to keep the track exciting even during the maundering verses. (Apparently every sound on the track apart from Enrique's voice is from a single well-known loops package, which if not a first on this travelogue is at least indicative of where we are in terms of production history.) The synthesized blasts of sound in particular indicate the direction chart pop would be taking in the near future, as four-on-the-floor dance music took over from more varied R&B-based beatmaking.

The result is my favorite Enrique Iglesias song since "Ritmo Total," although like that song I prefer the Spanish-language version to the more well-known English-language one -- Iglesias is no Shakira in terms of ability to creatively shift between languages. "Dímelo" is less incoherent than "Do You Know," although neither of them are deathless lyrics. It's a typically self-involved love song with a strong central image: "¿Dímelo por qué estas fuera de mí / y al mismo tiempo estás muy dentro?" (Tell me why you're outside of me / while at the same time you're deep inside?) It doesn't quite make sense in Spanish either, which is one way to make excellent pop: arresting, unidiomatic phrases that make the listener pause over them is a great way to keep them in the air, as Swedish songwriters have found for some time.

2.9.19

CHAYANNE, “SI NOS QUEDARA POCO TIEMPO”

12th May, 2007

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I think I've often been unfair to Chayanne here, as I often am to handsome young men who sing earnestly romantic songs without gesturing toward any particular regional musical tradition. International balladry, vaguely contemporary in production but wholly conventional in writing and composition, is probably my least favorite body of musical production: not because it's impossible for real emotion or exquisite performances to come out of it (if anything, quite the opposite), but because without obvious genre markers or any grounding in personal history I can't hear a way into it. The instinct I always have is: "This is between the singer and whoever, real or imaginary, he's singing to; it's got nothing to do with me."

This was my reaction here -- at least until the pre-chorus line "Y la melancolía / me ataca por la espalda sin piedad" (and melancholy / attacks me from behind, merciless) made me pause in my tracks. Wait, is this a song about depression?

Well, it's a song about loss, whether real or imagined; the chorus is delivered in a conditional tense, as the title (If We Had Little Time Left) should have made obvious, and the middle eight is more or less a thesis statement: "Nadie sabe en realidad que es lo que tiene / hasta que enfrenta el miedo de perderlo para siempre" (nobody really knows what they have / until they face the fear of losing it forever). Which in English sounds like the tag line to a Spielbergian apocalypse-made-personal or a Nicholas Sparks-style sentimental romance; but the glory of pop music is that it can compress such narratives into three-minute shots of emotion without having to drag us through three-act structures and lingering closeups.

The production supporting Chayanne's throaty rasp here is more muscular than usual: 90s-style post-alt rock production with crashing drums and chugging guitars. There's a certain kind of comfort to it for older or middle-class listeners, particularly in the age of reggaetón, but Chayanne so clearly belongs to an older generation that (as of this writing at least) this song will be his last appearance on this travelogue. It won't be for lack of effort; his late-2010s singles are collaborations with reggaetoneros old and young. But as a valedictory, "Si Nos Quedara Poco Tiempo" works very well.

26.8.19

JENNIFER LOPEZ, “QUÉ HICISTE”

5th May, 2007

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This is only Ms. Lopez' second appearance on this travelogue, and her first appearance by herself -- her debut was eight years ago, in a duet with Marc Anthony, who (as of this #1) she has been married to for three years. And although he doesn't sing on this song, his fingerprints are all over it: the principal melody was, the story goes, given to him in a dream by Rocío Dúrcal (who had only recently died), insisting that it was "for Jennifer." So Anthony, along with a Colombian songwriting husband/wife team he regularly collaborated with, has the writing credit for the song. Which (of course, since I'm writing about it) paid out: a #1 Latin hit, respectable placement throughout the European charts, even Lopez' Spanish-language debut on the Hot 100.

But Lopez is no Dúrcal: she has a dancer's, even an actor's voice, and her singing here is more dramatic (aided of course by tense, massive production) than technically polished. There's nothing wrong with that: in fact it gives her songs something of an everywoman quality, easy to belt along with in the car or in a late-night rage over the fucker who ruined your life. Because it's a kiss-off song, and a really good one, full of righteous fury and reclaimed self-respect, a woman leaving behind a man who destroyed their happiness with uncontrolled anger and words he couldn't take back.

But the lyrics, poetic and specific as they are, are secondary to the production, alternating between quiet, tension-building verses under which plucked guitars and scraping strings burble, and explosive choruses where power chords, rock drums, and swirling strings lend force to Lopez' full-throated denunciations. It's not surprising that the production was handled by Anthony's long-time salsa collaborator Sergio George (or that a salsa remix was made) -- the punchiness and drama of contemporary tropical music underlies the whole thing, even if the tense, sawing rhythms are much more old-world than the liberatory dancefloor beats of salsa.

It's a really good song, one of J. Lo's career highlights, even if its mixture of rock instrumentation and high drama don't quite seem to fit together at a decade's remove. Writing about the mid-to-late 2000s in the late 2010s has been an exercise in trying to see truthfully: it's just far enough away that it feels fundamentally different from the present, but not far enough away for a coherent nostalgia to have accrued around it. Everything still feels awkward and unfinished, like prologue to now; remembering that it felt then like the culmination of history (as is habitual for me with earlier periods) is still work.

19.8.19

JUAN LUIS GUERRA Y 440, “LA LLAVE DE MI CORAZÓN”

31st March, 2007

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The moment has perhaps never been riper for one of Juan Luis Guerra's hyperliterate, musically inventive, and shrewdly contemporary songs to make a return to this travelogue. Alejandro Sanz (like Shakira, from an entirely different direction) is one of his few peers in terms of intellectual sophistication, and the rise of reggaetón, the first post-hip-hop Latin music form, means that neither his Caribbeanness nor his engagement with the contemporary has to be watered down for mass appeal.

It doesn't hurt that this song presses down on two nostalgia buttons at once: its merengue foundation bears 1950s mambo horn charts, while Guerra's dense, motormouthed lyrics are undeniably post-hip-hop, though for a rather more old-fashioned value of hip-hop than the younger reggaetoneros might recognize; it's much more patter song than boom-bap. But Guerra isn't just mixing Dominican merengue and Cuban mambo (which would develop, in Puerto Rican New York, into salsa), he's also delivering half the lyrics in English, and particularly a formalized pop-song kind of English which listeners to old rock & roll, doo-wop, or British Invasion records would recognize. The effect is kind of a mashup of all the different kinds of music he might have heard on the radio as a young child, energetic as hell and supporting a typically screwball lyric about a guy calling into a radio psychologist who gives love advice to talk about the girl he met online.

Because it's 2007, online dating is going mainstream (although Guerra was broaching the topic here a decade ago), and even though the video casts the caller as an overweight dude (and a young Zoe Saldaña as the out-of-his-league object of his affections), it's not mean-spirited: once he enters the black-and-white nightclub space where Guerra y 440 are playing, he's as dapper and smooth as anyone else, which is part of the point of the throwback music: elegance isn't an inherent virtue but a stylistic choice, and the contemporary is capacious enough to contain whatever of the past we still find useful.

29.7.19

CONJUNTO PRIMAVERA, “ESE”

17th March, 2007

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Why Conjunto Primavera has been the only Mexican regional act to have reliably punctuated the #1 spot in the mid-2000s is a question I don't think I'm at all qualified to answer. The portion of this travelogue that has been taken up by regional Mexican music has dwindled since the 1990s, and Primavera, who were here all along but whose first #1 wasn't until 2003, are just about the only holdouts. That will shift in the coming years, as banda gathers pop strength, but regional Mexican music will remain only a minor strain among all the Hot Latin #1s, although of course a much richer part of the full tapestry of the chart.

This song once more strikes me as the kind of thing they could have recorded at any time between 1988, when the band's current lineup was settled, and the present: the usual questions that a music critic tries to ask about a #1 song -- why this song? why now? -- can only be answered with an elaborate shrug. Presumably, the chart being now well into the download era, "Ese" was assisted by digital sales, like many of its contemporaries have been. But also presumably it was huge on the Regional Mexican format, although I would consider it an unlikely candidate for crossover to the broader Latin Pop format.

It's a now familiar sound: norteño-sax, with keyboards imitating a churchy organ, a guitar keeping time, and Juan Dominguez' airy saxophone supporting Tony Melendez' starchy, wounded vocals. delivering an old-fashioned lyric in a strictly conventional tableau: the singer begs the object of the song not to weep over the one who broke her heart, because he's here and has loved her all along. The lyric is full of Nice Guy Energy, although because it isn't formalized into an ideology it's not more than averagely toxic.

15.7.19

ALEJANDRO SANZ FT. SHAKIRA, “TE LO AGRADEZCO, PERO NO”

10th March, 2007

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The third in a trilogy of songs that have been winding through the #1 chart for almost two years, at least in terms of how I've received them. The Shakira/Alejandro Sanz duet "La Tortura", in the summer of 2005, was the longest-reigning #1 song on the Hot Latin chart at the time that I began this blog in 2010, a crowning glory of mid-2000s Latin pop. Then Sanz's solo hit "A La Primera Persona" was only on top for a week in November 2006,  a compact illustration of the difference between pop thrillpower and tasteful male auteurism. Now "Te Lo Agradezco, Pero No," its video a direct sequel to that of "A La Primera Persona," only reigns for only one week: Sanz is still very much the auteur here, Shakira playing a duet partner rather than expressing her own thoughts in her own vivid language. But her very presence lends more color and drama to the song: the music moves to a danceable rhythm (and Sanz himself enters into some choreography in the video, a first for him, apparently at Shakira's insistence), and uses a sturdy Afro-Latin chassic even though the body is auteurist European pop.

And if "La Tortura" was about a woman's rejecting a man's take-me-back whinging, and "A La Primera Persona" was about a man pitying himself over lost love, "Te Lo Agradezco, Pero No" forms a sort of resolution: both man and woman reject the other's overtures at reconciliation, because they are adults and can recognize the toxicity of their past entanglements: they've both hurt the other, and they're setting each other free. Sure, there's still feelings, sure, they will probably return in the future, but they don't belong to each other. All of this, however, is inference and implication: Sanz' lyrics are typically telegraphic and a bit gnomic, and rhythm and sound matter more than laying out a coherent narrative. Multiple readings can reside in any good pop song, and this is a very good pop song.

It begins as a maundering bolero, with acoustic guitar and swaying timbale rhythms giving propulsion to Sanz's throaty murmurs, but as the song builds, more and more elements are introduced, including subtle electronic percussion, so that by the time Shakira enters, whispering in unison with Sanz, it's developed into a catalan rumba, the combination of flamenco passion and Afro-Cuban rhythm that served as a particularly Spanish response to the modernism of Anglophone folkies like Bob Dylan. (Sanz works very much in the lineage of Dylan; and of Gato Pérez). And then, after the second chorus, a Memphis soul horn chart breaks out, turning the song into full-out Latin jazz, which Sanz's phrasing and harmonic leaps have been anticipating all along. The chorus is pure 70s r&b, and as more and more voices get added to it it takes the pull of gospel; and when Sanz breaks out into a half-rapped improvised montuno it's a gesture toward both salsa and r&b traditions.

It's notable that none of the traditions Sanz is folding in are particularly new: genre as a capacious grab-bag of historical authenticities is a familiar mode to many postmodern artists of his generation, among whom I'd include people as different as Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, Juan Luis Guerra, or Manu Chao. The gestalt is the point, much more than recreating any one tradition in particular. Shakira, too, has worked in this synthesizing manner (see "Suerte"), and if the traditions she's engaging with here feel more particular to Sanz than to her (her vocal timbre is much more muezzin than gitano), that seems to be exactly what she wanted when she approached Sanz with the desire to be on the other side of the "ft." this time.

8.7.19

MANÁ, “MANDA UNA SEÑAL”

3rd March, 2007

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The third Hot Latin #1 in a row from Maná's 2006 album Amar Es Combatir (to love is to struggle), and it's time for me to acknowledge that whether I like it or not Maná were speaking to the broader Latin-music audience in the late 2000s in much more meaningful ways than I have been able to understand on this travelogue so far.

But I'm getting closer with this song. It helps that it's a straight-down-the-line power-pop song, with 80s guitar chugs and sparkling harmonies and anthemic choruses, and so feels closer to the derivative, romantic, essentially conservative heart of Maná than incorporating Afro-Latin rhythms or post-grunge posturing does.

I want to be skeptical here of my usual conflation of post-80s rock with conservatism; outside the Anglosphere, rock means different things, and especially on a different time scale, than what the usual histories of US and British fads claim are set in stone. But it is noteworthy that Maná is having bigger hits than ever at the moment that reggaetón is challenging the settled assumptions of the Latin-music industry: Maná are the very definition of a settled assumption, and their not exactly dominance but certainly resurgence here in the 2000s might be comparable to something like the way the rock gods of the 1960s and 1970s reentered the US charts in the late 80s as a sort of comfort food to aging Boomers weirded out by hip-hop and hair metal.

To use a word with more currency in Hispanophone theory than Anglophone, Maná have never made particularly autochthonous music: and reggaetón's refusal to embrace the Estefan-bred crossover ideal, as seen in the paltry "Latin Invasion" of 1999 and the rather less paltry career of Shakira -- reggaetón remains defiantly aimed at an urbano audience, forcing Anglophone audiences to come to it (as they actually did with "Gasolina") rather than seeking to ingratiate itself by crooning in translated English -- is an assertion of greater autochthony, and particularly a darker-skinned, poorer, and urban autochthony, than the comfortable Latin middle class, both in the US and elsewhere, is comfortable with. They're comfortable with Maná, a crossover act in everything but language; Maná makes extremely comfortable music.

It's impossible not to read all of this from the vantage point of 2019, of course, which has proved the reggaetoneros right and the ingratiating middle class wrong; as concentration camps for darker-skinned, poorer, and urban Hispanophones proliferate, as border-wide fortresses are raised to protect the wealthy and white from rising tides and the tropical poor those tides will displace, as Us and Them become ever more deeply riven by race, language, and class, Maná's ode to romantic questing, expressed in beautifully poetic literary Spanish and accompanied by totemic sounds from the past four decades of sensitive white male guitar heroics sounds more and more hollow, an aristocratic fashion for dressing in the workingman's clothes of yesteryear while the mob cries out for justice.

1.7.19

LUIS FONSI, “TU AMOR”

24th February, 2007

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Fonsi's fourth appearance here, and he's more invested in the legacy sounds of rock than ever, to a degree which seems inexplicable in today's post-urbano landscape.

 "Tu Amor" is one of those most unlikely of hits -- a new track on a greatest-hits compilation (Éxitos 98:06, in which the use of a colon rather than a dash turns the title from a mere descriptor into a Biblical pun) -- the occasional success rate of which continues to inspire the practice. It's a relatively undistinguished midtempo ballad, chugging along with no variation in tempo, just dynamics, while Fonsi's romántica-oriented voice, unsuited to the more idiosyncratic emotional signifiers of rock, wails glibly over top.

It was only #1 for a week in the interregnum between radio-only and streaming-plus calculations of the chart, which presumably means it was popular in digital downloads (this was two weeks after the release of the deluxe edition of the compilation). Fonsi was at his first commercial peak in the late 2000s, still young enough to be a heartthrob, but mature enough that, having found his voice, he could produce great music and not just generic imitations of it. If this leans more toward generic than great, it's firmly in line with contemporary trends: in the mid-to-late 2000s blustery ballads were all the rage on international versions of Pop Idol and X Factor, and it would be a couple more years before dance music became the center of international pop again. (And Fonsi will be there too. Stay tuned.)

24.6.19

HÉCTOR EL FATHER, “SOLA”

3rd February, 2007

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2007 opens with another moody, minor-key reggaetón from a long-serving pioneer in the genre. Héctor El Father and Tito El Bambino had been performing as Héctor y Tito since 1996, making a name for themselves in Latin rap and reggaetón circles until they split up in 2004. Héctor's solo career exploded; he signed up with Jay-Z under the imprint Roc-La-Familia, which no doubt played a role in this song getting to #1: these were the peak Roc-A-Fella years.

But after only two more years in the limelight, Héctor would step away from reggaetón, turning his MC name literal by becoming an evangelical minister. He is still a significant presence in Puerto Rico's Christian media, preaching over the radio.

There's nothing particularly sacred about this song, but it is, perhaps inevitably, sanctimonious. As a message song primarily in the second person, addressing a woman in an abusive relationship from the point of view of the man who "loves" her and is miserable watching her suffer, there's an undercurrent of victim-blaming (of the "just leave him" variety) and a heavy focus on his own feelings rather than any actual support for her. But no doubt it was still originally heard as a socially conscious song -- acknowledging the damage that men do to women wasn't exactly high on original-recipe reggaetón's priorities -- and I'm sure people in situations I've never been in have used it for solace or courage.

The fragments of repeated melody, bellowed in Héctor's doleful baritone, turn the dembow pulse into a persistent knocking rather than an invitation to dance. Every subaltern genre begins as sex-and-violence dance music and is turned into emotionally cathartic music over time. If I'm not particularly impressed by this entry in the transition reggaetón was making into expressing the full range of human emotions, it was still part of a necessary movement. Crudely-expressed sentimentalism is part of every genre too.

10.6.19

RICKY MARTIN FT. LA MARI & TOMMY TORRES, “TU RECUERDO”

23rd December, 2006

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We close out the raucous, pulsating, hotly contested 2006 (a.k.a. the Year Reggaetón Broke) with an older, perhaps more calcified, Puerto Rican sound.

The inevitable music video has four people on stools before the audience. Only the primary singer, a former boy band member and global hitmaker, is pushed a little forward, which makes him look taller than the rest. To his right on guitar and harmonies is the song's writer and producer, who got his start writing and producing for a later iteration of the singer's old boy band. On his right, eventually making the song a duet, a Spanish singer who pushed flamenco vibes into chillout worldbeat music to comparatively limited success, whose close-cropped haircut is a visible reminder of the cancer she had spent the previous year in treatment for. And on the far side of the line, perhaps the world's foremost traditional cuarto player, picking out delicate emotional lines on the traditional Puerto Rican instrument.

The credit line should really read "Ricky Martin ft. La Mari (of Chambao), Tommy Torres, and Christian Nieves," but of course the instrumentalist gets left off: pop has its caste system. Still, of the four spotlit players (there's a full orchestra behind them, because this is a ballad), Torres is the one whose performance is most anonymous: his sweet pop-derived melodies do little but set up volleys for Martin, Mari, and Nieves to spike. La Mari earns applause in the middle of the song for injecting a little cante gitano into her verse, which is the first time I teared up while listening to it; the second was during the dispassionate fluidity of Nieves' cuatro solo. After which Martin gently improvising as though over a salsa montuno rides out the song on a high note.

It's a gorgeous performance, and if the song itself doesn't quite live up to it, that may be because it's a stitched-together pop recreation of traditional jíbaro music rather than a song emerging naturally from that tradition. Not that a traditional jíbaro would ever float within a million miles of #1; but this, with the r&b-inflected rhythms in Martin's voice, the flamenco hints in La Mari's voice, and the pura romántica in Torres, is even more gloriously miscegenated than most pop.

It's the kind of thing that used to be able to go to #1 in the closing weeks of the year, traditionally slow for music buying or radio adds, giving older or less dominant audiences a time of year to hear themselves represented at #1. There's nothing necessarily festive about it (it's a song about still feeling conflicted about an old flame), but in the year of reggaetón it still feels like sentimental throwback to a classicist never-never land, and so it's holiday music regardless.

27.5.19

MANÁ FT. JUAN LUIS GUERRA, “BENDITA TU LUZ”

16th December, 2006

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Like Aerosmith or U2, Maná are more beloved by rock fans for their earlier, hungrier work than for the massive hits that blanketed the pop airwaves in middle age. But their collaboration here with Juan Luis Guerra, who is more of a Bowie figure in remaining perpetually relevant (although perhaps to a smaller coterie) throughout many shifts and phases, feels less like a quick muso-cred cash-in (like, say, U2 baptizing themselves in Muddy Waters) than the natural result of writing a very simple and straightforward song that requires some kind of folk-based arrangement in order to have emotional resonance: and hey, it's 2006, bachata is growing in popularity.

Because although Maná are the above-the-line credit, and wrote the song themselves internally (Guerra really is only a guest), it's a bachata song through and through. It's worth noting that in the whole history of the chart, the only people who have ever had a bachata #1 are Juan Luis Guerra himself and a rhythm-raiding Gloria Estefan. This will change in the near future, as the New York bachata scene coalesces into pop strength; but for now Maná are very much appropriating (not necessarily in a problematic sense) a particularly Dominican sound.

Of course when bachata first coalesced as a local version of Cuban boleros and sons in the hinderlands of the Dominican Republic, it was the furthest thing from a point of national pride for the Dominican elite, who despised its rusticity, its frankness, and its Blackness. (Listening to the earliest bachatas makes it hard to believe that such romantic music was once considered unfit for broadcast, but that's elites for you.) By the late 1980s, though, bachata's national popularity was too undeniable to continue being censored, and the switch to electric guitars and more danceable tempos kept it competitive with merengue, salsa, and the other tropical music burgeoning in the Caribbean. Still, it wasn't really a pan-Latin sound until Juan Luis Guerra became a pan-Latin star; and Guerra was never a bachatero so much as an eclectic musical genius who used bachata, among many other styles, because it was part of his Dominican heritage.

This is the second time Maná has appeared here with a swaying Caribbean rhythm instead of their usual rock-based flatfootedness; if "Bendita Tu Luz" is better than "Mariposa Traicionera", it's because of Juan Luis Guerra's rhythmic intricacy and the nimbleness of modern bachata over the somnolence of traditional bolero: but "Mariposa Traicionera" is more complex in its lyrics (even though, as the YouTube comments point out, it's rather slut-shaming), while "Bendita Tu Luz" is so devout in its declarations of love that it could quite possibly double as a Christian hymn. One more way in which Maná recalls U2, then.

20.5.19

RBD, “SER O PARECER”

2nd December, 2006

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There's a reason "come to Brazil" is such a common refrain among internet pop fandom that it's become a meme: Brazilian youth culture in the twenty-first century (like Japanese youth culture in the late twentieth) has an endlessly voracious appetite for pop music from all around the globe, and pop acts who cultivate that audience are often richly rewarded.

RBD, a Mexican pop sextet formed in the 2004 telenovela Rebelde (a teen soap in the Degrassi or 90210 tradition with a students-forming-a-band plot like The Heights), cultivated their Brazilian audience early and often: every one of their Spanish-language releases was closely followed by a Portuguese-language version, years before anyone though to have them record in English.

Like many a "manufactured" pop act before and after them, they released material frequently: "Ser o Parecer" (in Portuguese "Ser ou Parecer") was the lead single from their third album in three years. And the video, although released in Spanish, was shot in São Paulo, with the addition of very Brazilian CGI making the urban landscape even more colorful, fantastic, and otherworldly.

The young women, Anahí, Dulce María, and Maite Perroni, trade off the lead vocals, with the young men (Christian Chávez, Alfonso Herrera, and Christopher Uckermann) only joining in for the terrace-chant chorus. A mixed-gender pop group is such an atypical formation that it's hard to say whether it's unusual for the format for the song to be sung from a female point of view (there are no genders in the lyrics, just the eternal "you" and "I"), but it's notable anyway: the strained vocal fry of the female half of the group is far more distinctive here than the smooth anonymity of the male.

Anahí and Maite Perroni have both remained major pop stars in Mexico since the band broke up in 2009; the rest of them (save Herrera, who was always more of an actor) continue to release music to less fanfare. For all RBD's success between 2004 and 2009, this will be their only appearance here: their playful fashion and innocuous sentiments are very much tied to a time and place. Rebelde (the show) was set in an exclusive private school in Mexico City, an embrace of privilege and whiteness that the concurrent reggaetón revolution is, if not actively rejecting (reggaetoneros gotta make money), at least complicating.

13.5.19

ALEJANDRO SANZ, “A LA PRIMERA PERSONA”

25th November, 2006

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When we first ran across Sr. Sanz, as the male foil to Shakira in "La Tortura", I was pretty dismissive of his contribution, approving of his weaselly performance of masculinity without attributing much of the song's punch or heft to him, a European interloper on decidedly American (in the hemispherical sense) turf. But this song has me reconsidering my stance.

Alejandro Sanz was born in Madrid to Andalusian parents, and his earliest musical efforts were entries in a postmodern flamenco revival that was briefly fashionable in late-80s Spain. Even when he made the shift into more commercial adult-contemporary ballad material in the early 90s, his phrasing retained echoes of the throaty "gitano" singing style of flamenco tradition. His 1997 worldbeat album Más remains the all-time best-selling record in Spain, and he responded to that ongoing success by becoming a demonstratively "thoughtful" pop star in the mode of a Sting or a Bono, recording increasingly political material and lecturing at Harvard on Hispanic culture.

His global exposure following "La Tortura" meant that his 2006 album was practically guaranteed to be a hit, which makes this one of the strangest #1s we've ever had, as emotionally florid, hyperverbal and structurally anti-pop as some of Juan Gabriel's most lavish excesses. The flowing, pattery verses recall Bob Dylan at his most motormouthed, though Sanz' soulful, gritted-teeth delivery is in both a flamenco and a rock tradition. The drums beat martially, or funereally, and the trumpet which bursts through the moody, atmospheric instrumentation like a grateful sunbeam could equally be a clarion charge or a variation on "Taps."

Because the point of all Sanz' motormouthed excoriation is the old story: love lost, ego bruised, a man on the hunt for his next source of succor. But there's no confidence that he will get it: the chords perversely refuse to resolve, no chorus ever explodes into certainty, there is only another cycle through the same obsessive refrain. It's a strange art-rock curiosity sitting atop the Hot Latin chart for a week, presumably the beneficiary of early digital download metrics sandwiched in between far more conventional radio pop.

6.5.19

WISIN & YANDEL, “PAM PAM”

4th November, 2006

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It made sense, during reggaetón's first imperial period, when many observers considered it a flash in the pan, a novelty that would be finished in a season or two as the Latin youth audience moved on to the next shiny thing, that one of the hits of the era would join the dots to a flash in the pan of a previous generation. If you're not listening for it, it might be easy to miss the pitched-down flute from Bolivian folklorico group's 1981 rendition of "Llorando Se Fué" in the mix, playing a melody last heard on this blog as played by an accordion in French dance-pop group Kaoma's 1989 "Lambada".

I definitely did not do "Lambada" justice when I covered it in 2010, trying to connect it to contemporary English-language material I already knew rather than working backwards through the Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Peruvian, and Afro-Bolivian roots of the material. But this revival isn't the last time we'll encounter it in the reggaetón era, and the novelty connection I made above is once more an Anglocentric one: the real connection is that the new pan-Latin music of the 2000s is harkening back to an earlier pan-Latinism of the 1980s, giving it a a grittier, minor-key hip-hop gloss, but retaining the dance-centric fusion that an electronic age demands.

But that's just one sound in the stew of sounds cooked up by producers Luny Tunes, Tainy and Naldo for this one-week-wonder, an organic hit which was never released as a single but topped the charts anyway. The lyrics consist largely of the usual boasting: Yandel's refrain "Bailando la toqué y ella se dejó/Me aprovecho y pam-pam-pam, la toco y pam-pam-pam" is perhaps more of a reference to the sexual legend of the lambada than to the actual song (although it structurally echoes the original "Llorando Se Fué" lyrics). I'd translate it "Dancing I touched her and she let me/I seize the opportunity and bam-bam-bam, I touch her and bam-bam-bam."

But in the video (shot in Brazil, and it wants to make sure you know it), the rhythmic "pam-pam" of the title is keyed to the hip and thigh movements which will later be formalized in English as twerking. Some Anglophone musicologists' dismissive attitude toward reggaetón as "just" dancehall in Spanish sometimes makes me eager to catalog the ways in which reggaetón has developed into its own distinctive genre: but it should never be forgotten that all post-hip-hop Afro-Caribbean music, from Jamaican dancehall to Puerto Rican reggaetón to Dominican dembow to New Orleans bounce, feeds on each other, especially in the real physical spaces in which the music is celebrated.

8.4.19

DAVID BISBAL, “¿QUIÉN ME IBA A DECIR?”

28th October, 2006

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We interrupt your regular Latinoamericano programming for a three-week interpolation of furrowed-brow idol pop from Spain. David Bisbal first gained attention on the peninsula as the runner-up of the first season of Operación Triunfo (the Spanish edition of Star Academy) in 2002. He kicked around for a while, failing to win the opportunity to represent his country at Eurovision, before embarking on the kind of pop career that everyone in those early days of reality singing competitions was allowed. Smartly, he hooked up with producer and songwriter Kike Santander, who had helped shepherd the solo Gloria Estefan and Alejandro Fernández to glory, and used that production savvy and his own imitation-soul singing to become Spain's biggest pop star, for a time.

We've not been troubled by him here, but not for lack of effort: his second single went to #3 on the Hot Latin chart in 2002. It would take his third album, Premonición, and its debut single, an ungainly and outdated mix of rock muscle, flamenco noodling, Bisbal's impassioned yowl, and electronic scratching, before he landed at #1 stateside.

The single's cover art makes all too obvious what early-2000s careers he's trying to emulate: Justin Timberlake's Justified fedora, Ricky Martin's Almas de Silencio tight t-shirt and Pietà pose. Unfortunately he doesn't have either man's charisma or lightness of touch, and the result is a self-aggrandizing plod that slides off the memory almost as soon as it touches it. The lyrics are a bombastic, hyperbolic description of doomed love, exactly in line with Hispanist tradition and with nothing whatever new to say.

Not to worry, we'll hear from Bisbal again: the Latin market loves nothing more than a handsome, self-consciously brooding man. Maybe the second time's the charm.

1.4.19

PAULINA RUBIO, “NI UNA SOLA PALABRA”

30th September, 2006

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I compared Paulina Rubio's last entry here, "Dame Otro Tequila", to "Since U Been Gone," a song it preceded by several months. The debt that "Ni Una Sola Palabra," two years later, owes to "Since U Been Gone" is notable, although more in the space which Kelly Clarkson and Max Martin's adaptation of indie-rock aesthetics to chart pop opened for female pop artists using rock sounds to do well commercially than in anything inherent to Rubio, whose appearances here have frequently used rock sounds.

But if "Since U Been Gone" was a pop-auteur's adaptation of the Yeah Yeah Yeah's "Maps," "Ni Una Sola Palabra" (not a single word) is no adaptation, but a union of indie-rock and chart-pop sensibilities. It was written by Xabi San Martín of Spanish band La Oreja de Van Gogh, who weren't indie at all in the cloistered Spanish scene (where they were as central to pop as Mecano in the 1980s) but certainly would be in an American context, and it would require a more overtly pop personality like Rubio's to take their sound from local sensation to transatlantic phenomenon.

The result is the best song we've heard from her yet, and one of her most enduring classics regardless of chart placement: with a chugging power-pop guitar line, an exquisite candyfloss melody, and Rubio's throaty vocals playing with the stuttering descant on "amanece-eh-eh-er," it's become something of a Latin pop radio standard in the years since, the Paulina Rubio song that can hold its head up alongside the Julieta Venegases and Natalia Lafourcades who were even then assuming critically-claimed auteur status in Mexican pop. (We will hear from at least one of them down the line.)

The fact that the song never shifts into a key change, forcing Rubio to strain at the upper level of her range in order to approximate a Clarkson-like banshee wail, is probably why it never reached higher than #98 on the Hot 100; bellowing as an approximation of emotion is littered all over postmillennial Anglophone pop, to the degree that something like this which merely circles around its own tight groove may sound unfinished or undercooked to ears conditioned to expect a build-and-release.

But I think that's a failure to appreciate genre. This song doesn't need catharsis, it's not an emotional break-up song, but a wry song about being emotionally ghosted; puzzlement, rather than pain, is its keynote. The campy video, in which Rubio poses as a superhero over the Los Angeles nightscape, gives the game away: at its core, despite the whining synth and spaghetti-western flourishes, this is a pop-punk song.

25.3.19

MANÁ, “LABIOS COMPARTIDOS”

5th August, 2006

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Maybe it's the date. Thirteen years in the past is long enough to seem embarrassing by its failure to be current, but not so deep in the past to have achieved the varnish of widespread cultural nostalgia. (Of course, i'm in my forties; if you're younger it may seem an eon ago.) It doesn't help that Maná doesn't sound particularly 2006 here, and is closer to the radio-friendly alt-rock of 1996, which sounds particularly ungainly in a chart quickly being reorganized according to the pulse of reggaetón.

The song itself is perfectly serviceable; with a different arrangement, it could have been a ranchera classic, the age-old whine of a man unwilling to share his lover's lips with another, but who can't bring himself to leave her over the infidelity either. If it is infidelity (one irony of hairy rock dudes bellowing this song is that rock was supposed to have relieved us of our sexual hangups back in the seventies. Lennon being a jealous guy was meant as a regretful confession, not a cri d'amour propre); but it's hard to imagine such rigid cultural fetishists as Maná being even aware of polyamory.

The very nineties drumming, which has heard of breakbeats (or, to put it another way, Afro-Latin rhythms) while the rest of the song plods along in a hairy yarl, sounds particularly wan and insignificant compared to the authority and insistence of the dembow riddim, and if the chiming guitars and sub-Bono vocalizing are even more anonymous, it's hardly a point in their favor.

Maná will return, and I may feel differently about them when they do, but it's worth noting that 2006 was so unsettled a time in the US charts, as physical sales tanked, digital sales had not yet fully replaced them, and streaming was still in utero, that this song remains the highest Maná has ever charted on the Hot 100. Why this utterly anodyne moan, which offers so little novelty to the non-Hispanophone, should represent them, other than to confirm the stereotype of rock en español being wholly derivative and failing to transcend its Anglophone models, is a puzzle. But it's not our puzzle.

Onward.

18.3.19

RAKIM & KEN-Y, “DOWN”

29th July, 2006

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Another minor first: the first reggaetón song to replace a reggaetón song at the top of the chart. Industry observers were quick to note all the signposts of a craze, which sounds comic from the vantage point of 2019, but it was not obvious at the time (especially if you were older than thirty and not attuned to Caribbean culture) that reggaetón would transform the pop landscape rather than burning bright before fading away like, say, Selena-era tejano.

But what Rakim (who would soon start spelling his name R.K.M. to avoid tripping over the legendary Long Island MC's trademark) and Ken-Y have introduced to reggaetón's quickly-growing multiplicity at the top of the chart is a pop element. We've seen pop reggaetón before, of course: but where Shakira and Alejandro Sanz were international pop stars borrowing the dembow riddim for some dancehall authenticity, Rakim and Ken-Y were a Puerto Rican reggaetón duo who aimed for uncomplicated pop sheen from the beginning, an unthreatening hearththrob version of Wisin and Yandel. (Four months ago, I contrasted Wisin & Yandel against Andy & Lucas; Rakim & Ken-Y split the difference.)

Rakim raps rather anonymously, Ken-Y croons in a falsetto-free Timberlake imitation, and they shift between Spanish and English so fluidly that it's hard to believe crossover appeal wasn't uppermost in their mind. The production by Mambo Kingz is similarly straightforward and frictionless, and the lyrics are so uncomplicatedly plaintive a recitation of romantic heartbreak (and so entirely free from the sexuality and violence which the moral guardians of Puerto Rican culture used to justify anti-reggaetón legislation) that these two perhaps better merit the comparison (which I levied against Shakira and Sanz) to the role Pat Boone played in rock 'n' roll history.

Which isn't entirely as a villain, but also as a prophet, hailing the domestication, prettification, and (yes) whitening of a once-dangerous music. For Rakim & Ken-Y, although they'll not trouble us again, set a template which pop-reggaetón crossover acts continue to follow to the present day. Late-2010s reggaetón, with its universalizing romanticism, sounds much less like mid-2000s Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, or Wisin & Yandel and much more like Rakim & Ken-Y. For what that's worth.

7.1.19

DON OMAR, “ANGELITO”

22nd July, 2006

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No sooner has reggaetón been grudgingly accepted within the exclusive club of the Hot Latin #1s than it turns maudlin and literary. Don Omar was Daddy Yankee's principal challenger to the title of supremacy within reggaetón's first explosion in popularity; his 2006 album King of Kings was the first reggaetón album to debut at #1 on the Latin Albums chart, but "Angelito" was only at the top for a week compared to "Rompe"'s three-month reign. Don Omar's true imperial era is yet to come; in the meantime, there's this.

I don't know enough about the history of reggaetón to say for certain whether this was notable as being an early ballad in the style, but it's certainly true that it was the first balladic reggaetón to achieve such widespread success, crossing over to listeners who weren't invested in reggaetón but knew a good weepie when they heard it. In that way it's comparable to something like 2Pac's "Dear Mama," a moment of vulnerability all the more notable for the self-aggrandizing celebrations of violence and excess that surround it.

But Omar's not giving away anything about himself: the voice in which he speaks for most of the song is that of AIDS, the death sentence of a woman who loved a stranger incautiously one night and whose soul is the "angelito, vuela" (little angel, fly away) of the chorus. Pop-song PSAs have rarely been more lavish: the funereal opening and sawing strings before the the dembow riddim finally kicks in on the second chorus are time-tested signifiers of Gravitas, while the spoken-word outro, which in a club-aimed track would be reserved for the shoutouts to producer and label (DJ Eliel does get namechecked in the intro) is a lapel-shaking DO YOU SEE giving the song an Aesopian moral: "Vive la vida minuto a minuto y encontrarás en cada uno de ellos un motivo por el cual conducirte en la forma correcta. Te lo aseguro." (Live your life from moment to moment and you will find in each of them a reason to conduct yourself in the proper manner. I promise.)

But while it can be inferred that Don Omar is advocating safe sex, he's cagey enough to allow the moralist-friendly interpretation that he's advocating abstinence. The background to all of this was government repression and censorship, as the rich white upperclass of Puerto Rico used morality laws to raid nightclubs and record stores where reggaetón, born of the largely Black underclass in San Juan, was being disseminated (many thanks to Eduardo Cepeda's hugely informative column on the history of reggaetón), and Omar, an international star working with a major budget (the video, shot on location in Rome, was not cheap) and already dealing with charges of drug and arms possession, was smart enough to walk the line that would keep his work free from the censor's marker.

Ultimately I find "Angelito" more interesting than gripping: the discourse on safe sex has moved so far past its banal sentimentalities that it's more of a period piece than many of its contemporaries. But Eliel's widescreen production is still pretty great, even in the HD era.