1st April, 2000
Over the past year or more of Hot Latin #1s we've tracked how the Latin Pop industry (as variously constituted over some two dozen countries and innumerable regional and local scenes) worked to consolidate its selling power by issuing music in various formats, whether generic or linguistic. Following in the footsteps of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, who were the first to crack the crossover code in the 1980s, and of poor abbreviated Selena, who blazed a new path in the 1990s, a new generation of pop stars has effortlessly taken to code-switching between language and genre, a game which will only grow more high-stakes as the music industry recedes from its turn-of-the-millennium apex. This song represents that apex, a confluence of luck, dedicated craft, and industry willingness and preparedness to immediately exploit any available market.
Which isn't to say that the song, or the band, don't matter; but its gargantuan success spread far beyond the limited capacity of either, so that any examination of "A Puro Dolor" necessarily becomes not about the story within the song, but the story about the song.
That story: Son By Four were a Puerto Rican boy band in the best boy-band tradition, dating back to doo-wop legend: a group of friends who could harmonize behind one angelic-voiced singer and won local talent contests and a record-label exec took a flyer on them. Panamanian composer and producer Omar Alfanno, whose brief career as a singer in the 80s had led to more remunerative behind-the-scenes roles working with legendary salseros as well as up-and-comers, agreed to write songs and produce for them. He remembers writing this one in ten minutes to fill out a major-label debut, and any deep study of the song's lyrics, composition, and arrangement will bear that out: it's a wholly generic love-as-pain song, in a long and often far more distinguished Spanish-language tradition.
But because it was 2000, it was released in both a ballad version and an uptempo salsa version, to get both romantic pop airplay and tropical play, to squeeze a few more nickels out of it before Son By Four inevitably ended up on the ash-heap of pop history. And it became a hit, starting almost immediately in early 2000, as Ángel López's creamy lead vocal and the smooth harmonies of the other three injected 90s R&B smoothness into Latin radio if not for the first time (we remember the Barrio Boyzz, among others) then at a moment when listeners were particularly receptive to it. It was a wider boy-band moment, as anyone alive in 2000 will surely remember: Backstreet, N'Sync, and the rest were also busy injecting 90s R&B smoothness into music that a non-R&B audience could feel comfortable with. Son By Four were in the right place at the right time: riding both the boy-band wave and a return-of-salsa wave (see also in these pages Marc Anthony, Jerry Rivera), they were also perfectly positioned to take advantage of Latin Pop's new-found legitimacy in the wider Anglo pop world.
Because as soon as it was clear that "A Puro Dolor" was a phenomenon, they were rushed back into the studio to record an English-language version, "Purest of Pain", which didn't set the Anglophone charts alight but did respectably. They would also record a ranchera version (inexplicably not online) for the Regional Mexican market. And although Son By Four themselves weren't involved, a cumbia cover and a Brazilian cover were two more of the biggest Latin hits in 2000, keeping Omar Alfanno (and the record label) happy and the song blanketing pan-Latin consciousness throughout the year and beyond.
The Latin Grammys held their first ceremony in 2000. Son By Four won the inaugural Pop Song of the Year and Tropical Song of the Year, and performed with N'Sync, who were peddling their Spanish-language version of "This I Promise You." In total, "A Puro Dolor" spent 20 weeks at the top of the Hot Latin chart, a record at the time, and which even in the streaming era of slow turnover and epic chart reigns has rarely been exceeded. (As of this writing, it's only been broken twice in sixteen years.) Not bad for a song the success of which even its composer couldn't understand; Alfanno told Billboard a year after its release that he had gone back to the piano to try to analyze the song's structure to figure out what had made it a hit, without success.
But that's pop for you: mercurial, fickle, inexplicable, infuriating, adorable, unforgettable. It's why, despite feeling that we've heard it all before, that there are no surprises and no innovations left, we keep listening.