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.



 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.



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.



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.



    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.



   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.



  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. 



 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.



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.



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.



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."



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.



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.



27th June, 2009

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

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

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

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



13th June, 2009

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

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

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

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



23rd May, 2009

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

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

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

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



16th May, 2009

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

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

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

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



25th April, 2009

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

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

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

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



4th April, 2009

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

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

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

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



21st March, 2009

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

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

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

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

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