14.5.18

GLORIA ESTEFAN, “HOY”

4th October, 2003

Wiki | Video

The charting of Gloria Estefan's musical career only by her Hot Latin #1s has told a necessarily incomplete story (for a fuller but still incomplete version, my One Week One Band on her remains available), but one thing it's actually been quite good at has been tracking her shifts into exploring many different flavors of traditional Latin American music from Cuban son to Cuban/Mexican bolero to Colombian vallenato to Dominican bachata to, here, Peruvian huayno.

Best known among English-speaking audiences as the musical genre of "El Condor Pasa" thanks to the Simon & Garfunkel rewrite, and immediately recognizable for its use of Andean panpines, huayno is perhaps the most Amerindian-inflected popular music genre of the Americas, although its dotted rhythms speak to the hemisphere-wide influence of enslaved African musicians over the centuries. We've only heard it here before as one element in wide-ranging mixtures from Colombians Shakira and Carlos Vives (huayno is a pan-Andean music, and so is common to Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina), and it's not entirely uncut here, only the predominant element in what is otherwise merely a sturdy pop song.

It was simultaneously released in an English-language version as "Wrapped", which didn't make the Hot 100 at all and only scraped the upper 20s on the Adult Contemporary chart. In both languages the song seems to be a vaguely spiritual love song to a loved one, although it could as easily be directed to a parent (or even the Virgin Mary) as to a romantic partner. The video, the same for both versions, is set among the ruins of Machu Picchu, which only adds to the spiritual (and neocolonial) overtones. It isn't the last we'll see of Gloria, by a long ways, but it's not as sharp or smart as we've come to expect from her, either. Whenever she tries to get vaguely spiritual (remember "Más Allá"?) her usual excellent taste seems to fail her.

7.5.18

OBIE BERMÚDEZ, “ANTES”

13th September, 2003

Wiki | Video

There is, however, a limit.

Sometimes whiny, self-centered guys are just whiny, self-centered guys. What's more unforgivable is that they bring nothing new to the whiny self-centered guy table. Obie Bermúdez is, on this showing, entirely obviated by Enrique Iglesias, whose clutched-fist ball-of-neediness balladry at least sometimes has interesting production touches. Bermúdez' voice is smoother, and there's a Christian-music prettiness to the cascading harmonies in the chorus which a sophisticate like Iglesias would reject, but the lyrics are straightforward uncomplicating whining about a breakup, and how he demands to get the last word in.

This isn't the last we'll hear of Sr. Bermúdez, and I should note that I'm not writing him off: the Confesiones album as a whole is far more interesting and diverse than the undistinguished ballad "Antes" which carried him to his first #1. We've had unpromising starts here before.

23.4.18

CHAYANNE, “UN SIGLO SIN TÍ”

6th September, 2003

Wiki | Video

Mere weeks after I complimented Ricky Martin for not letting himself be defined by songwriter Franco De Vita's lugubrious chest-beating sentiment-rock, I find that Chayanne has done exactly that. It's probably the best song, and almost certainly the best performance, that we've heard from him throughout this travelogue, but although he's well-suited to De Vita's sturdy, gospel-based sweeping chords and lead-footed rhythms, the result is a kind of emotionally-extravagant narcissist-rock that you have to be keyed into the emotions of or it will fall dispiritingly flat.

"Un Siglo Sin Tí" means "a century without you," and the lyrics of the song are a description of the singer's desolation at having been left, his contrition at having behaved badly, and his insistence that he has changed. Put that way, it doesn't necessarily sound very appealing (every abuser ever could sing along), but I've made the mistake before of believing that pop songs expressing sentiments that would be questionable in actual interpersonal relations are therefore worthless, and (especially) should not appeal to the female audience which does, in fact, enjoy them. Which is just an aesthetic extension on my part of Nice Guy syndrome. Nobody needs my thesis on why Chayanne's grand gesture at the end of the video is creepy.

Pop is, among much else, an idealized version of reality, a safe space where all emotions are allowed to play out without the repercussions that would attend them in life. Even in the real world closing out the possibility of actual contrition and actual forgiveness can be a mistake; but even if there are no good men in fact, let there be some in fiction.

16.4.18

RICKY MARTIN, “JALEO”

9th August, 2003

Wiki | Video

Since 1999, Ricky Martin's uptempo #1s have been notable for their everything-but-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic, in which elements from all over the pop diaspora are jammed together with less concern for coherence than for energy. "Jaleo" is the next step in that process, still as loud and kinetic as anything produced by Desmond Child, but with more unity of aesthetic: it manages to predict certain elements of global 2010s pop even while representing millennial-era mash-up culture at its lavish height.

The change in producers is one reason. Child had moved on to reality-show fodder like Clay Aiken by 2003, and Martin tapped up-and-coming Puerto Rican producer and songwriter Tommy Torres. We've actually met his handiwork already: MDO and Jaci Velásquez had put Torres's compositions on the map back in 1999, but Martin's 2003 album Almas de Silencio was his highest-profile outing. I didn't think much of the brooding ballad rock on "Tal Vez",  but "Jaleo" is straight fire: electronic pulses keep the rhythm while timbales, arabesque strings, and guitars both flamenco and metal provide flourishes. But it's Martin's voice, thick with performed passion, that is the highlight here: no matter how cartoonishly horny "Vida Loca" or "She Bangs" playacted at being, "Jaleo" feels like the sweat and churn of actual desire.

Or maybe that's my cultural tourism showing, in which the exotic is conflated with the erotic through the gaze of colonialism: this is after all the most capital-L Latin track we've heard from Ricky Martin. "Jaleo" is a term of art from the flamenco tradition, and means the handclap-and-shout breakdowns in a flamenco performance: the song uses it as a synonym for passionate physical activity, which could be simply dancing or much more intimate. In the lyric, Martin plays an ageless lothario who has seduced countless lovers but is obsessed (of course) with only "tu" -- a desire which is consuming him. There's a strong theatrical element to the song's structure, with the verses strethching out in tantalizingly delayed gratification, and heartstopping crescendos on the line "Atrapado! Moribundo!" (Trapped! Wasting away!), while the chorus spins into (a musically stereotyped representation of) a whirling dervish, babbling "jaleoleoleoleoleoleoleola" to infinity.

The faux-Middle Eastern elements in "Jaleo" are of a piece with its faux-flamenco texture: the video, as if to generalize all Latinidad into a single indistinguishable mass, was shot in Brazil, with capoeira dancers showing up halfway through. But that generically thrilling quality also means that it's not far from actual post-millennial Middle Eastern pop, which has taken inspiration from the dynamism and showmanship of Martin and Torres (as well as from a host of other influences, Western and Eastern) and applied it to local styles, with the result that uptempo dance music from Morocco to Iran is among the world's most consistently exciting.

Even so, "Jaleo" is a relatively goofy and silly song, like most of Ricky Martin's uptempo numbers. He is above all else an entertainer, but one still operating at a very high level. That can't be said for all his contemporaries.

9.4.18

SORAYA, “CASI”

2nd August, 2003

Wiki | Video

My careless lack of engagement with Latin pop (a few odds and ends excepted) until circa 2010 has been a drag on my analytic and appreciative capacity throughout this blog, but I don't know that I've ever felt it weigh so heavily as it does here. Soraya was entirely new to me: and she never should have been.

Like Shakira, she was a Colombian of Lebanese heritage; unlike her, she grew up in the United States in working-class circumstances. Her mother died of breast cancer in 1992; two years later, she landed a major-label recording contract on the strength of her singing and songwriting. Her first three albums, released between 1996 and 2000, were all released in both English- and Spanish-language editions, and had some success in both markets, gaining some Adult Contemporary play in English and some Latin Pop play in Spanish. Although she sang in Spanish, her music was very much in line with Anglophone singer-songwriter conventions: Carole King and Sheryl Crow seemed to be her lodestars.

But shortly after her 2000 album was released, she was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer herself. She took three years off to fight it, and in 2003 released her fourth, self-titled album, also released in two different editions (although the English-language version was not entirely in English). The first single from the record, "Casi" (almost), was her first, and only, Hot Latin #1 hit.

It's a strong pop/rock song in the 90s post-alternative mold, guitar-led without being aggressive or leaving her excellent sense of rhythm behind. The lyrics are vague enough to be cast in a romantic situation -- "I almost gave up... until I thought of you" -- but are certainly applicable to her experience as a survivor. She had been a vocal proponent of breast cancer support and education before, thanks to her mother's death, but her activism increased since her remission. It would not be enough; in 2006, after a fifth and final album, she succumbed to cancer.

I can see -- or rather hear -- why she didn't leave much of a footprint on the wider Latin Pop landscape: her folky, harmony-heavy pop songs were rather old-fashioned and rarely particularly distinctive, and even before her diagnosis she had no interest in playing up her sex appeal. The Colombian-American community is too small for her to have become a Selena-like icon, and although she won a Latin Grammy for her self-titled comeback, she was neither ahead of trends like Shakira nor operating within a longstanding Latin tradition like India.

But I'm glad I got to hear "Casi." It's a good song.

26.3.18

JUANES FT. NELLY FURTADO, “FOTOGRAFÍA”

19th July, 2003

Wiki | Video

Summer, 2003 was fairly late in the millennial-pop era which had first crested in the late 90s: in the Anglosphere, *NSYNC had parted ways, Beyoncé had gone solo, and even Eminem had started taking himself seriously with 8 Mile. The Latin boomlet of 1999 was experiencing its own growing pains, as the next generation of Latin pop stars were coming into their own; mainstays like Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias, and Shakira would have to adapt to new climates.

This song introduces two voices we'll meet again (one more frequently than the other), and whose highest moments of pop imperiality are still some years off. But their careers, intersecting here for the first time, have run in odd parallel. Their debut albums debuted within a week of each other in October 2000, and their first hits, "I'm Like a Bird" and "Nada," though quite different thematically, showed off a shared melodic flair and deceptive lightness of touch (and thinness of voice) that meant they would both be perpetually underrated for years.

"Fotografía," as the title suggests, is in a long string of pop songs about mooning over a lost loved one's recorded image: the Pretenders/Selena, Def Leppard, and a bit later Nickelback have all bettered it in terms of staying power, but for sheer charm, the Colombian Juanes and Portuguese-Canadian Furtado are hard to beat. The thin, shuffling beat, the carefully but not intricately picked guitar, an electronic whine, and eventually an electric buzz, make up nearly the whole of the production: the focus is on their voices, both nasal and unadventurous, sticking closely to the sing-song pseudo-reggae template. Which sounds like a formula for dullness, but Juanes' melodic gifts and Furtado's surprisingly excellent Spanish make the song one of the best Hot Latin #1s of 2003, behind only Shakira and India.

They would collaborate again, reversing the ft. credit on Nelly Furtado's 2006 single "Te Busqué", but since it only hit #1 in Spain, we won't cover it here. But we'll have plenty of time to get to know Juanes: he's only getting started.

19.3.18

MARCO ANTONIO SOLÍS, “TU AMOR O TU DESPRECIO”

12th July, 2003

Wiki | Video

My moderated take on Maná's music last week is the product of having worked on this blog for eight years: when I started it, I was certain I would adore Maná as a breath of fresh air. But my esteem for straight-up rock has diminished, while my esteem for the romantic Mexican balladry Maná was always a reaction to has only grown. I've publicly despised (or, more kindly, didn't get) a lot of Marco Antonio Solís's work over the years, but here's where I come around fully on the man.

Possibly it's just the production, thick but detailed, with tenderly atmospheric horn charts and swooping strings, a  rhythm carried by timbales and bajo sexto, that generates this response; the aging classicist in me appreciates how well this follows the template of the Golden Age of Mexican song. Solís's thin voice isn't very like the burnished flexibility of Jorge Negrete's or Pedro Infante's, but his shift into a fuller-throated register for the chorus "Tal vez es un error hoy de mi parte..." (Perhaps it's a mistake on my part) is more than adequate.

"Tu Amor o du Desprecio" (Your Love or Your Contempt) takes a relatively unusual theme in the love-song genre: it's a breakup song, but the singer is hesitant throughout to commit to actually saying so, aware of how much pain -- and how much power to inflict pain -- it will create. The final line, "I will have to take either your love or your contempt," is a remarkably clear-eyed and adult summation, refusing either self-martyrdom or self-pity.

It does run on a touch too long: five minutes is an eternity when you've sung the entire song in two. But I can forgive a lot when it sounds this good.

12.3.18

MANÁ, “MARIPOSA TRAICIONERA”

5th July, 2003

Wiki | Video

I've been using the "rock en español" tag quite liberally since starting this blog eight years ago (real time) and fourteen years ago (chart time), but this may be the first time it actually applies, at least to the degree that "rock en español" was ever an organic musical movement and not just a marketing campaign. (And to the degree that, under capitalism, there is a difference.)

In the 1980s, "Rock en Tu Idioma" (rock in your language) was a publicity campaign started by a Mexican subsidiary of an international (originally German) record company to sell the middle-class youth of Latin America on local bands playing in styles which had originated in the US and Great Britain between 1956 and 1980, as a complement to rather than as a replacement for the English-language originals; what "rock en tu idioma" was meant as a replacement for was local (and often heavily racialized) styles of music which working-class audiences played and enjoyed, and which nationalist elites, after enough time had passed for nostalgia to do its work, always appropriated for propaganda purposes. What young Mexican Maná fans in the early 90s were rejecting was not the imperialist ubiquity of U2 or Pearl Jam, who they also loved, but the supposed provincialism and sentimentality of Los Bukis or Juan Gabriel (and never mind the traditional bolero, trova, and ranchera music which would have been the Mexican equivalent of jazz song).

When the English-language music press caught on to the Spanish-language rock scene in the 90s as part of their dilettantish interest in "world music," they used "rock en español" as a replacement for "rock in tu idioma," boosting acts like Maná and Café Tacvba whose massive popularity throughout  Latin America was scarcely increased by a handful of semi-adventurous English-language fans. My introduction to Maná was in this English-language press (my younger siblings, who paid closer attention to local popular culture when we lived in Guatemala in the early 90s, knew them already), but it wasn't until I began to really dig into Latin music in earnest in the late 2000s that I listened to them with any attention.

And? They're fine. The trouble with "rock in tu idioma" was the same trouble that rock in general was having in the 1980s and 90s: genre-requisite signifiers of rebellion and Dionysian menace had long since turned itself into the complacent, self-perpetuating mainstream, which by its nature shuts out the poor and otherized, so that truly countercultural rebellion and visions of sexual freedom were taking place elsewhere: in the underground, in hip-hop, dance music, and (in Latin America) the electronic blends of Jamaican and Latin music which would eventually coalesce into reggaetón. (Which in 2018 has become its own hollow, self-perpetuating mainstream, but one thing at a time.)

This is a long way to go without talking about the actual song. Which is unrepresentative of Maná's dully earnest hard-rock catalog, but perfectly representative of where the top of the Hot Latin chart was at in the early 2000s: "Mariposa Traicionera" (Betraying Butterfly) is an old-fashioned swaying bolero played by a rock band with high-gloss studio accompaniment, not wholly unlike recent entries from Gloria Estefan, Alejandro Fernández, or Charlie Zaa. The main "rock" signifiers are singer Fher's hoarse tones and guitarist Sergio Vallín's tasteful guitar runs, which also fit into the Cuban-Mexican tradition the whole song is cast in. The final refrain, with its repeated "ay ay ay ay ay dolor," is even specifically Mexican, a nineteenth-century corrido trope which the trova (troubadour) tradition kept alive in the twentieth century.

Our first encounter with Maná is late enough in their career trajectory that Revolución de Amor was heralded as a masterful self-reinvention; if they're comparable to U2, it's their Achtung Baby. It won't be the last time we see them, but the genius of the charts, the way they flatten out all subcultural distinctions and actually lived patterns into sheer unmeaning numbers, is that they sound here not as a revelation but as continuity. 

5.3.18

ENRIQUE IGLESIAS, “PARA QUÉ LA VIDA”

31st May, 2003

Wiki | Video

Another Enrique Iglesias number one, another throaty, unconvincing ballad. This one is particularly unprepossessing because the verses borrow imagery from a song (and a legendary performance) so immeasurably better that everyone involved in "Para Qué la Vida" (what's the use of life) should have been too ashamed to carry on with the rest of it. It's different enough from "Nothing Compares 2 U" that there would be no danger of running afoul of the Purple One's (or the Bald One's) legal teams, especially since no English version was ever cut that might attract more attention, but calling up the ghost of that crowning moment in pop history only underlines how damp of a squib the present offering is.

Enrique had more or less mastered the craft of ballad-singing by this point, to the degree that he ever would: nothing but vulnerability in the voice, melodies by committee, and hangdog in extremis lyrics that make a sympathetic listener want to comfort the broody boy with perfect cheekbones and unthreatening stubble. He could go on forever at this rate, and looks likely to. He eclipsed Luis Miguel as the artist with the most Hot Latin #1s with this record, and although the contest isn't technically over yet, it's all but a foregone conclusion.

19.2.18

RICKY MARTIN, “TAL VEZ”

12th April, 2003

Wiki | Video

After two major crossover dance-pop albums whereby he had become the Disney-prince handsome face of Latin Pop for the English-speaking world, Ricky Martin had earned a self-important Spanish-language record. The credits for Almas del Silencio (souls from the silence) are a who's who of Latin pop producers and songwriters, from the omnipresent Emilio Estefan and Estéfano to (masculine) stars who were famous in their own right like Ricardo Arjona, Alejandro Sanz, and (still to be met on this travelogue) Juanes. "Tal Vez" (perhaps), the first single and first Hot Latin #1 from the album, was written by Franco De Vita, who we haven't heard in his own voice since 1991, but who was responsible for my favorite Chayanne song in recent memory.

True to De Vita's form, the song is a power ballad with Srs Rock Instrumentation, and Ricky Martin's soulful voice very nearly gives it the sweep and cheesy emotional heft of a Bryan Adams song. Doubling and trebling his voice in the studio, he fails to match the grain and sounds instead like his own duet partner, a gesture towards solipsism which will mark his career going forward. Like many of the charmed generation who came of musical age around the turn of the millennium, he no longer has to try: he's going to be rich and famous no matter what. All that's left is to fill in the details.

So "Tal Vez" represents one path toward a sustainable career in maturity: the chest-beating ballad singer, attractive because brooding, bleating out his masculine pain. It's not an uncrowded field: many exponents are already regulars here, from Chayanne to Enrique. But it's not entirely a comfortable fit for Ricky, and not even necessarily because of any reluctance to enact traditional gender stereotypes. The key line in "Tal Vez" comes at the end of the third verse: "Tal vez yo nunca supe a quien amaba" (Perhaps I never knew who I loved), a stealth uncloseting under the guise of a straightforward "I did you wrong, babe" ballad. The video makes it a generalized love song, about parent-child and even friend relationships as much as romantic ones, Martin himself only a watchful spirit above it all.

A waste of his dynamic boy-band-bred physicality, you might say. But he'll be back.

12.2.18

CONJUNTO PRIMAVERA, “UNA VEZ MÁS”

22nd March, 2003

Wiki | Video

Juan Gabriel has made his swan song as a performer on the chart, but his songs remain. "Una Vez Más" (Once more) was a song on his 1982 album Cosas de Enamorados (Lovers' things), and its swoony romanticism, a fragile soft-rock ballad in the original, is an unusual if ultimately congruent fit for a sound which we have only met once before on this travelogue: conjunto chihuahuense.

Mexican conjunto is a style of norteño focused on relatively small combos of musicians with formalized instrumental setups. The style of conjunto played in the state of Chihuahua is almost unique in that a saxophone is typically added to the accordion as the primary carrier of melody in the conjunto, which is otherwise almost all rhythm: electric bass, drums, and the plucking bajo sexto.

As if to underscore the importance of the saxophonist to the Chihuahua sound, the only member of Conjunto Primavera to have remained constant since the band was founded in 1978 to the present day is saxophonist and leader Juan Domínguez. Singer Tony Melendez, whose buttery, reverb-drenched pipes place "Una Vez Más" in the classic midcentury pop tradition, was Primavera's second lead singer starting in 1988, and under his voice the band became more than just a local success, slowly gaining ground over the 90s until they scored an unlikely #1 in the midst of the world-straddling pop stars of 2003.

Compare them to the rowdier Rieleros del Norte, the only previous chihuahuense combo to appear here, three whole years ago, and there's a mellowness and classiness to Primavera's sound that isn't wholly due to the cover. Juan Gabriel was writing in a self-consciously classicist pop mode, but the intense intimacy of his vocals is smoothed out in a much more self-possessed cover: even though the lyric is a drama of longing and renunciation, Melendez' voice only shows any strain on the middle eight, where the key shifts into the stratosphere. 

5.2.18

SHAKIRA, “QUE ME QUEDES TÚ”

1st March, 2003

Wiki | Video

I don't know if I can adequately express my thoughts -- or more accurately, my feelings -- about this song. Let's see.

In late 2001, I had a lingering, hopeless crush on a young woman of Mexican heritage who I knew little about except that she loved Shakira (the dark-haired, Spanish-language Shakira of the 90s). It was largely under the influence of that crush that I bought Laundry Service at the strip-mall CD store which was the first physical locus of the music nerdery that would consume much of my adult life.

If I remember correctly, I bought Bob Dylan's Love and Theft in the same purchase. The polarity of the two albums felt right: one a gravelly-voiced recapitulation of a hundred years of folk and blues imagery in creaky arrangements swung just wrong enough to make them feel fresh, the other a hypermodern, fiercely intelligent pop-rock record that blended three continents' worth of unconventionally literate, emotionally expressive, and body-first musical traditions into dance music that even a timid, emotionally stunted nerd like me, more comfortable swimming about in Furry Lewis and Charley Patton rewrites than with beautiful young Latinas who asked me uncomfortable questions, could appreciate.

Every time I listened to Laundry Service, and I did often in 2001 and 2002, it was as though I was listening to it with my eyes averted, trying to hear what Gabriel García Márquez had praised in her rather than admitting that the obvious pleasures of rhythm and tenderness meant anything to me. I still felt wrong, creepy, a dirty old man (I was 23) when I listened to millennial-era pop music, the legacy of a sheltered evangelical upbringing which had left me with the lasting impression that expressions of physicality were tantamount to pornography, and that consuming pornography was the ultimate social crime. But (as with actual pornography) I found myself unable to stop listening to pop, no matter how ashamed I was of it.

"Que Me Quedes Tú" (literally That You Remain to Me, but in context more like "as long as I have you") became an island of solace in the middle of the album. Neither in English nor a dance song, its 60s-throwback chiming sitar-like hook, with a guitar arrangement that reminded me of the Britpop the internet was teaching me I had missed, and Shakira's hushed, back-of-her-throat performance (doing things Alanis Morrissette never could have) felt like one adult speaking to another, rather than a teenager performing for bleachers of creeps.

The distinction, I've come to realize since, was all in my head: there's no intrinsic difference between a rhythm guitar chug and a pulsing sequencer, or between 60 and 120 bpm, only the cultural meanings we assign them. And even at her most scantily-clad and snake-hipped, Shakira was always self-evidently an auteur, making her own performing decisions and entirely in control of her narrative. (Britney Spears is the obvious comparison; her early work, which I dismissed then but now admire, I still prefer only to listen to rather than watch videos which still seem exploitative and uncomfortable.) Poptimism, or the belief that pop music can be as meaningful, as well-crafted, and as culturally relevant as anything set up in opposition to it, whether the "rigor" of art music or the "authenticity" of folk (or the combination of the two attributed to various masculine-identified subgenres like rock or hip-hop), remains the guiding principle of my musical life.

But enough personal history. What about the song in the context of the Hot Latin chart?

It doesn't sound entirely out of place. Ricky Martin, Carlos Vives, Ricardo Arjona, and Shakira herself have been bringing rock instrumentation to the forefront in recent years, and although the ratio of ballads to uptempos has improved since the early 90s, there are still plenty of slow songs. But I don't think there's been a genuine rock ballad at the top of the chart since the heyday of Ana Gabriel, and although a poetic expressiveness to the lyrics has been relatively common thanks to auteurs like Juan Gabriel and Ricardo Arjona, "Que Me Quedes Tú" is still unusual for the apocalyptic thoroughness with which Shakira is willing to sacrifice the rest of the world, as long as she is able to indulge in her lover's inventive kisses and eternal melancholy.

It's an extravagant, hyperbolic expression of love set to such tastefully classicist guitar pop that unless you speak Spanish well, you could entirely miss its weirdness. I did for many years, feeling only the romantic self-indulgence of the chorus rather than the destructive glee of the verses. But as an expression of a complete thought, a doomed but whole-bodied feeling common to many relationships, it's perfect.

29.1.18

ENRIQUE IGLESIAS, “QUIZÁS”

22nd February, 2003

Wiki | Video

A significant landmark in the career of both Iglesias fils and the Hot Latin chart at the time, "Quizás" is probably the best song, and certainly the best performance, he's delivered to us since "Ritmo Total," back in 1999. After two album cycles aimed at the English-language market, with Spanish versions as an afterthought, he's returned to the comfort and perhaps the sincerity of a Spanish-only release. It was also, as his 15th number one, the moment he tied with Luis Miguel as the artist to have the most number ones on the chart. That contest will continue, but it will probably not surprise you to learn who eventually won.

"Quizás" is a new mode of song for Iglesias: a personal, even confessional song. It starts with the words "hola viejo," or "hello, old man" -- it is, in fact, addressed to Iglesias père, whose voice we haven't heard since 1992 and whose imperial era we missed entirely -- and as a song sung by a wealthy, directionless young man to his wealthy, directionless father it's got all the emotional indirectness, protective philosophizing, and hedging acknowledgment of mortality and moral vacuity that aristocratic-poetry fans could wish for. The broader, more sentimental video is a beautifully-shot short film that backs away from engaging with Iglesias' (and Léster Méndez') lyrics in favor of a smushy universality.

Perhaps the best thing about the song having been at least partly written by Iglesias rather than for him is that there's nothing in it that's out of his range: he doesn't have to push into a strangled whine, letting most of the song inhabit the choked back of his throat. The quivering-lip emotionalism of his delivery finally sounds earned, or at least not entirely dishonest. But then again, perhaps I'm just more affected by songs about fathers (I've had one) than about lovers.

22.1.18

INDIA, “SEDÚCEME”

15th February, 2003

Wiki | Video

The arbitrariness of the charts strikes again, as the Nuyorican singer to whom Jennifer Lopez is most indebted only appears on this blog now, years after J-Lo made her casual appearance. Linda Viera Caballero, nicknamed "la India" (the Indian) by family because of her darker complexion and straight black hair, had started in a freestyle group in the mid-80s and made a "Latin Madonna" record in 1988, but only really came into her own when she met Latin jazz titan Eddie Palmieri in 1991. Her big but flexible voice and facility with jazz, salsa, and r&b made her one of the great Latin singers of the 1990s, switching between Spanish on dynamic salsa workouts and English on legendary house tracks from local New York and New Jersey producers.

Her 2002 album Latin Song Bird: Mi Alma y Corazón was a kind of capstone on a decade of great work, a summary of her whole repertoire (the next album would be a Greatest Hits), with punchy electronic updates of classic Caribbean sounds from salsa and bolero to merengue and bachata to straightforward romantic ballads and even a Christmas song. "Sedúceme" was the big hit: it was on the album in both salsa and ballad versions, and would also be released in English as a series of house remixes ranging from rote to classic banger.

But the salsa original, which leads off the album and soundtracks the music video, is fully as vibrant and modern as any club mix: much of the salsa instrumentation may be traditional, but synth strings, electric bass, and glassy pianos swirl in the mix much like samples or patches in a DJ's mix. But the star of the song is undeniably her voice, which combines traditional diva power with a jazzy, soulful sense of timing and phrasing. Since most of the female-led salsa we've heard over the course of this travelogue has been from pop singers like Thalía, Gloria Estefan, or Daniela Roma, it's a real pleasure to hear la India's powerful control and rich technique in service of a basic but universal sentiment: love me now, for the moment is fleeting, and I want to carry the memory of your body in mine.

15.1.18

OLGA TAÑÓN, “ASÍ ES LA VIDA”

1st February, 2003

Wiki | Video

The miniaturized and necessarily distorted picture of entire careers that this blog, scraping only along the top level of a single ancillary chart, presents is rarely given such a finished narrative as Olga Tañón's three appearances. (This was the third; as of this writing, fourteen years later, it's unlikely but not impossible that she will return.)

In her first appearance, she had partnered with the great Mexican songwriter Marco Antonio Solís to create an elaborate diva ballad on a very traditional Spanish-language pattern with poky, amber-frozen production; in her second, five years later, she had moved on to millennial-era adult-contemporary, all glistening production and sublimated R&B. Here, she finally sounds like the merengue star she always was, even if the pop production is more generic kitchen-sink Latin Pop than actual merengue -- the merengue version of "Así Es la Vida" (Such is life), all rhythm and horns, is an object lesson in the way that Peak Music Industry of the millennial era understood regional Latin music as essentially subtractive.

But having the third act of a #1s career being a celebratory uptempo song is in itself not particularly noteworthy, although as a rule I'm all for celebratory uptempo songs. What really makes it narratively satisfying is the lyrics. In "¡Basta Ya!" (Enough!) Tañón was ending a relationship, fed up with deception and aloofness; in "Cómo Olvidar," (How to forget) she was mourning the loss of physical love, the body remembering what the mind doesn't want to; and in "Así Es la Vida," she responds to the overtures of a past lover with a lightly philosophical chorus (my rather free translation): "Isn't that like life, your luck changes day to day, I gave my life to have you, and now you want me back / Isn't that like life, you win some you lose some, I lost when I loved you, and now you're losing so much more."

It's practically an Elizabethan kiss-off, and paired with the dramatic flamenco guitars, drumline percussion, and merengue horns and delivered in Tañón's deep, resonant voice (she was 33, which in traditional pop terms meant she was due for divadom), it's one of the strongest songs we've had in what has been a pretty good couple of years. 

8.1.18

RICARDO ARJONA, “EL PROBLEMA”

7th December, 2002

Wiki | Video

Ricardo Arjona's relatively complex and poetic singer-songwriter rock has been a necessary counterweight to the more demotic and direct millennial-era pop which had largely enveloped the top of the Hot Latin chart over the past few years; but this, his biggest-ever hit, is as direct and pounding as any dance song, even if the lyrics' simple structural conceit is still a highly poetic one.

The bulk of the song is made up of couplets whose lines begin "El problema no es que..." and "El problema es que..." (The problem is not that... / The problem is that...), in which the first line describes a difficulty about the beloved, and the second details how it impacts the lover. From the first, relatively benign line "The problem wasn't not finding you / The problem is forgetting you," it grows increasingly obsessive and even masochistic, until lines like "The problem isn't that you hurt me / The problem is that I like it" and "The problem isn't the wounds / The problem is the scars" signal, if the repetitive pounding rock of the music and Arjona's grainy shouting hadn't already, that we're in darker territory than usual.

The music, though, is more varied and even uplifting than just "pounding rock" -- a gospel choir gives its usual unearned gravitas to Arjona's distorted self-pity, and crisply funky piano and guitar runs recall the Rolling Stones at their decadent peak in the early 70s. Arjona's classic-rock instincts work for him on "El Problema," as his first-person character edges into the same kind of psychological unpleasantness that Jagger's protagonists plumbed regularly. None of which really explains why it was such a huge hit in 2002 and 2003: even Arjona, who made it the lead single off Santo Pecado (Holy Sin) was befuddled by the song's success, claiming he never expected it to be played on radio. Maybe it's as simple as that there's a greater hunger for emotional masochism in the pop audience than is generally assumed: I know I relate, strongly.

25.12.17

LAS KETCHUP, “ASEREJÉ”

9th November, 2002

Wiki | Video

All right, settle in.

One of the reasons I wanted to start this blog, way back in 2009, was that I saw British people talking about "Aserejé" as a glorious piece of ephemera that came from nowhere and led to nothing, and I suspected that there was more to it than that, that there was a history there invisible to Anglophone eyes. As it happens, I had never heard the song: I lived in the only major market (the United States with the English-language overlay switched on) where the song was not a massive hit, and had not happened to be interested in both pop and the broader world in 2002 -- my interest in the UK's experience of music at the time was entirely NME-led, to my regret.

It took me this long to get to it, and I can't be sorry it did, because my knowledge of Spanish girl group and novelty pop history would have been incomplete without the researches into 1977 I did in 2012 and 2014 or the deep dive into 80s Iberian pop I did in 2015. But even this blog contains hints of what would come: Mexican girl group Pandora a decade ago, Mexican pop group Onda Vaselina four years ago, Nuyorican hip-hop group Barrio Boyzz, novelty dances from Banda Blanca to Azul Azul, pseudo-flamenco from Gipsy Kings to Enrique Iglesias and most prominently, Ricky Martin's own novelty crossover.

It's the surf guitar from "Vida Loca," mixed down and looped throughout the chorus as a constant drone (and in so doing, getting back to the Eastern origins of the surf twang) that is Las Ketchup's most prominent association with current Latin pop trends, but there are others: the affection for, but cultural distance from, hip-hop (the nonsense refrain is a Hispanicization of the opening bars of "Rapper's Delight"), the acoustic dance-pop instrumentation (throw in accordion and it could be a Carlos Vives song), and even the vague Orientalism (a constant feature of Iberian roots music) is consonant with Shakira's contemporary gestures towards her Lebanese heritage.

But all of that is incidental, and possibly coincidental. What Las Ketchup are really in dialogue with is in their own country's history of novelty girl-group songs, from the unison-sung flamenco-rock of Las Grecas, whose Franco-era "Te Estoy Amando Locamente" was as heavy as Zeppelin, to the electro-pop of Objectivo Birmania, whose "Los Amigos de Mis Amigas Son Mis Amigos" was a hookup anthem for the movida madrileña, to the flamenco-house of Azúcar Moreno, whose "Bandido" lasted better than the songs that beat it at the 1990 Eurovision.

Although Las Ketchup were from Andalusia, "Aserejé" doesn't include any traditional flamenco signifiers, unless the lyrics' coding of their hip-hop-loving protagonist as Roma counts, but rather gestures towards Western European urban music. The rootsy shuffle-and-guitar of the backing track represents an early-2000s pop assimilation of 90s worldbeat pioneers like Manu Chao and Rachid Taha, in which Spanish, French, American (often via-Britain), and Arabic musical traditions were blended: if the result sometimes sounded painfully generic, that's one of the hazards of attempting to boil a continent's worth of musical diversity down to its common denominators.

But part of that global mish-mash is Catalan rumba, the urban Barcelonan variation on the Cuban-influenced "rumba" palo of flamenco, as popularized in the 70s by Peret and continued in the 90s by Spanish-pop heiress Rosario Flores (among many others). A greater emphasis on rhythm (as befits its Afro-Cuban origins) and less on florid emotional virtuosity made Catalan rumba one of the default roots musics of post-Franco spain: "Aserejé" just barely qualifies, as its rhythm aims for dance-pop consistency rather than "gitana" funkiness, but the great joy of millennial-era dance pop was its ability to assimilate any cultural tradition and return it to the world: 2010s dance-pop flattens everything into the build-and-drop patterns of EDM, leaving textural differences as the only distinguishing characteristics between songs.

But, background aside, what do I think of the song? It's a pleasurable enough way to pass the time; its four-week run at the top of the Hot Latin chart is about right. I always appreciate novelty songs more than I actually enjoy listening to them, and my generalized American chauvinism includes the entire hemisphere: despite the length of this post, the most exciting and interesting Latin Pop in the millennial era was not coming out of Spain. "Aserejé"'s most noteworthy quality is its global success, which (like that of Psy and OMI a decade later) was less dependent on the specific qualities of the track itself and more on the popular appetite for a particular kind of nonsense in a given moment. 

18.12.17

THALÍA, “NO ME ENSEÑASTE”

26th October, 2002

Wiki | Video

Two singles, two number ones: Thalía, after a decade of hard pop work, has fully arrived. She is part of the generation of pan-Latin modernizers like Enrique, Marc, Ricky, Alejandro, and Shakira, and although a silly gender-essentialized literalism might suggest that she has the most in common with Shakira, she actually reminds me more of Enrique Iglesias. A similarly limited range, thin voice, and reliance on expressiveness over sonority means that she's carried by production more often than the burnished voices of Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin or Alejandro Fernández are. (Shakira's even more unconventional voice is its own animal.) But unlike Enrique, Thalía knows how to use her voice to ends other than balled-fist self-pity.

This was the second single from her 2002 album Thalía, and since "Tú y Yo" was an uptempo jam, "No Me Enseñaste" (you didn't teach me) is therefore by venerable pop tradition a ballad. At least on the album it was: the single release, in a now-familiar attempt at covering all bases, contains the "Estéfano Mix" (a club version), the "Marc Anthony Mix" (a salsa version), and the "Regional Mix" (a cumbia version). When she performed the song at the 2002 Latin Grammys, the first half was the ballad original and the second half was the salsa mix, in a triumphant performance that cemented her belated but complete arrival on the US Spanish-language music scene.

Although the "Estéfano Mix" is period trance (and so has perhaps aged better than any of the others for an EDM-centric music scene), Colombian superproducer Estéfano had also co-written and produced the original. The lyric, surprisingly wordy for such a straightforward pop song, is nominally about loss (the central line is "you didn't teach me, love, how to live without you"), but Thalía doesn't play it that way: her gospelly woah-oahs at the end are a celebration of getting over the bastard. Love didn't teach her, goes the narrative of her performance, so she taught herself.

11.12.17

ENRIQUE IGLESIAS, “MENTIROSO”

28th September, 2002

Wiki | Video

The nadir of the mid-to-late 90s on this blog, when every other single was Enrique Iglesias proving himself incapable of wrangling his strangled whine of a voice into the power-ballad patterns of classic Latin pop, returns!

It's not the song's fault. It would be easy to imagine lovely, powerful, dramatic readings from contemporaries like Marc Anthony, Alejandro Fernández, or Ricky Martin; even Luis Miguel at his most sleepwalking would outperform Iglesias here. It's a good song, and a shimmering production in both the pop and mariachi versions (a cross-genre promotion which made for perhaps the least natural fit for Iglesias' voice), with a lyric confessing to a man's deceptive, predatory behavior towards a woman, all justified because "es que te quiero tanto" (it's that I love you so much).

To a degree, the callowness, self-pity and perpetual adolescence of Iglesias' vocal performance matches the weaselly "I'm a good guy because I'm admitting how bad I am" lyric, but it's hard to believe that any of this was intentional, or that it was received by Latin pop listeners in that spirit. The quivering jaw and tremulous emotion in every line (somehow simultaneously over- and under-sung) strikes me as so patently phony that it's hard to enter sympathetically into the head of a listener who hears it as fulfilling any aesthetic, emotional, or even erotic requirement.

But plenty of selfish, immature brats engage in romantic and sexual partnerships: it must appeal to someone.

4.12.17

JENNIFER PEÑA, “EL DOLOR DE TU PRESENCIA”

24th August, 2002

Wiki | Video

The hunger, as much spiritual as commercial, for a replacement for Selena had been an undercurrent of the Latin music industry since her death. One of the likeliest candidates was Jennifer Peña, whose first large-stage performance had been at a Selena tribute concert at the Astrodome in 1995, when she sang "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" at eleven years old. She was already being managed by Selena's father; her debut album as a singer fronting Jennifer y los Jetz,  would be released the following year.

But like Selena herself, her career was less one of meteoric success than of constant work, slow movement forward, and gradual leveling-up. Libre, released in 2002 when she was eighteen, was her fifth album, but the first attributed entirely to her name and also the first after jumping from EMI, where the Quintanillas had signed her, to Univision, which had also broken Selena widely in 1993. She retained the cumbia sound which was her signature, but with production from Rudy Pérez and Kike Santander, aimed more squarely at the broader Latin Pop market.

It worked, clearly. "El Dolor de Tu Presencia" (the pain of your presence) is both a lush r&b ballad and a skanking cumbia jam, with pure pop harmonies and a bassline that won't stop. Although it was written by Rudy Pérez, it's very much a teenager's song, moaning about how the boy she's in love with is in love with her best friend, tearing their friendship apart and causing her pain. Still, it's smartly produced and sung with a warmth older than her years.

A power-ballad pop version, all swelling strings and crashing drums, was also released, which no doubt had a lot to do with bringing it to #1 (cumbia remained popular on the border, but not necessarily in the larger US Latin Pop market), but the cumbia rendition made the video, which cuts shots of her mooning over the love triangle with shots of her dancing in front of her cumbia band, acknowledging that after all, everything's a performance.