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.