Latinidad in American Popular Music: Culture, Appropriation, and Commodification — Pizza FM

This year has been a difficult one so far, with COVID-19 changing the pace of our daily lives, police brutality coming to the forefront of public awareness, and strains being put on us from many different directions. One thing that many people turn to during this troubling time is music. Artists are still putting out releases and music streaming is still in full swing. In fact, the Black Eyed Peas just put out an album in mid-June and they’ve done a range of promotional activities around it. In a way, their album Translation is what caused me to write this piece.

I recently watched a MicTheSnare video about the music that defined the 2010s; MicTheSnare is a YouTube personality who examines the commercial music industry with an analytical eye, and this video is no exception. The audio-visual think-piece was spot-on with its characterization of music in the changing narrative of both American music itself and the American music industry. One important work of decade-defining music out of the thirteen he selected was “Despacito,” a 2017 Reggaetón hit that took America by surprise. Mic argues that “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee opened the door for Latin artists to have spots of prominence in the American sonic landscape. But for all of its memeability, iconicity, and cementation as part of the popular music canon of the late 2010’s, “Despacito” was not novel. Sure, Justin Bieber bringing attention to the song via his remix was somewhat unique, but the song itself is part of a parallel musical progression that had been brewing for some time in Latin America. The song released in January of 2017 and did not gain traction until a couple months later in the United States: in other words, “Despacito” already existed before it grew popular stateside. The track did not come out of nowhere, except in the sense that the United States suddenly realized there were hits in the Spanish-speaking world that, well, existed.

Latin crossover has been a part of the American listener’s repertory for a while. If I mention names like Pitbull, Ricky Martin, Shakira, or Jennifer Lopez, they all take up some space on the popular music landscape of recent American music. But in this acknowledgement is a compromise: language. Modern pop music presented to American audiences is largely in English, or at least has been in English for a long while. Notable exceptions, like Gangnam Style (also pointed out by MicTheSnare) and the recent influence of K-pop, took time to develop and also become mainstream/counterculture. However, up until 2017, that didn’t happen in Latin American music. Music in English was for an American audience. Music in Spanish was for a Latin American audience. Spanish language music that charted well in Latin America and the rest of the world did not do so in the United States, other than in Latin-specific charts. Up until 2017, this language barrier was the unspoken condition placed onto the Latin artist within the United States.

Let’s examine one such artist that had to circumvent these conditions: Shakira. The Columbian pop/rock superstar would make a compromise by including both English and Spanish versions of her singles in album releases. She also alternated between albums largely in English and albums largely in Spanish, beginning with Laundry Service in 2001 and ending with her latest release, El Dorado, in 2017. Shakira’s releases, in fact, are a good example of this American audience/Latin American audience binary. For Shakira’s popular singles in the United States, including “Hips Don’t Lie,” “She Wolf,” “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa),” or “Whenever, Wherever,” the pattern that begins to emerge is that all the songs known by American listeners come from these majority-English albums. This seems to be by design. An American pop hit, especially in the year when “Whenever, Wherever” released, required marketing and radio promotion. At the time, American record labels wanted to promote music in English for American audiences, even if the artist was a Spanish-speaking one.

It’s important to note that the songs that were promoted were the English-language versions of these singles. Meanwhile, in the parallel world of Latin American music, Shakira released “Será Será (Las Caderas no Mienten),” “Loba,” “Waka Waka (Esto Es Africa),” and “Suerte (Whenever, Wherever),” the Spanish-language versions of the aforementioned songs. As someone who is fluent in both English and Spanish, I can say with some certainty that Shakira has a stronger command of language and clearer execution of cadence in her Spanish songwriting. One can listen to just how Shakira plays with both of these concepts in “Que Me Quedes Tú”: the song extensively uses the subjunctive case and toys with scansion in a playful, dialogue-oriented way at the beginning of each verse.¹ Both of these require extensive knowledge of Spanish to write into a song. That isn’t to say that Shakira’s songwriting is necessarily bad in English, but in terms of the merit of songwriting on its own, English-speaking audiences miss out on the intricateness of Shakira’s Spanish-language releases simply because they lived in the fifty states.

Of course, this makes sense for the American market. Whose first instinct is to bring in foreign language music into the United States, especially from a financial standpoint? Would such a song be successful? For a while, the answer was no, not because of an unavailability of songs in other languages, especially Spanish, but instead because of the assumption that they wouldn’t do well. Long gone were the days of “La Bamba” or “Macarena” being hits that spread like wildfire. It sort of became a self-fulfilling prophecy: with the assumption that music in Spanish wouldn’t be popular in the US, the lack of marketing Spanish-language music to American audiences caused music in Spanish not to be popular in the US.

Now, there’s one big exception to this general rule of pre-Despacito Spanish-language music consumption in the United States. It’s Latinx people! As a Latino, I’m part of that group and have some firsthand experience as to the availability of Spanish-language music in the US market. Up until 2017, there was a parallel music market for Spanish speakers more closely aligned to Latin America than the United States. In online marketplaces like iTunes, music from around the world, including Latin America, was more available to American consumers than it had been previously. Releases from Latin American artists could be purchased online at the click of a button. Just as radio played a role in English-language music dissemination within the US, so too does it play a role in the dispersal of Spanish-language music. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I would hear Spanish-language station 93.5 on the radio whenever I was picked up from school. It featured contemporary hits from Latin America that I did not hear anywhere else. Latin Pop, Reggaetón, Rock en español, and Bachata were all in full force, like a rogue broadcast of Spanish that the rest of Chicagoland seemed unaware of. Advertisements, hosts, and the music itself (except in cases of bilingualism) was all in Spanish. While still part of the collective American music consciousness, I had the opportunity to explore this parallel development in Latin American music via radio.

Over time, things changed in the accessibility of music. iTunes was no longer the dominant way to listen to music as it gave way to the further globalization of music brought on by YouTube and streaming services, and the time was right for a different kind of Latin crossover in 2017.

“Despacito” is a standard 2017 Reggaetón song. It’s got a dembow feel, it features Daddy Yankee (a staple of the genre for the past three decades), and a music video featuring La Perla in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this article, it’s not entirely novel. Reggaetón developed into the poppier, hip-hoppier, widespread version of itself that existed at the time of “Despacito” over a few years of Latin American listenership of Reggaetón. It’s got its own storied history that goes from Panama to Puerto Rico and the rest of the Caribbean, involves government censorship, and an eventual spread across the Spanish-speaking world like wildfire. In the US, however, Reggaetón didn’t have that strong of an influence before “Despacito.” Even today, post-Despacito, it’s not a popular music genre the way it is in Spanish-speaking countries.

Nonetheless, the release of “Despacito”, and the subsequent Justin Bieber remix that brought it attention in the United States (months after its initial release) did something unique. It opened a door that had stayed closed since “Macarena” in 1995. For the first time in over twenty years, Spanish-language music could have a place on the American musical landscape.

It’s great that “Despacito” was exposed to an American audience that embraced it, despite the language barrier. I remember being both confused and overjoyed that a Spanish-language song was taking the US by storm that year. This type of music had existed since the 90s, and just now was when the American listening populous acknowledged its existence. What MicTheSnare said is objectively true: “Despacito” opened the door for Latin artists to flourish in the American market.

The thing is, that door was opened a little too wide.

Whether a listener consciously thinks about this or not, the music industry is marked by trends, in a very general sense. This can work its way in to a number of things, especially for the consumer. For example, genres are important indicators for people to identify their musical tastes with (e.g., I love Hyperpop, I hate Country, Rap is something I like to listen to with friends). Another example: if a song goes viral and is trending, chances are you’ll be more likely to listen to it. In terms of a recent trend, changes in listening habits have influenced how songs are written, produced, and released.

But for those who work within the music industry, the idea of the industry itself being marked by trends also holds true. Charts indicate, to a limited extent, the success of a particular work of music within current music trends. Genres like Hip-Hop get more respect as they become trendier and thus are more viable for moneymaking at a label. Label executives can search for “the next Lizzo” when looking for artists. In some cases, this is for the best. It’s a musical survival of the fittest, and only the fittest music makes its way to the consumer. At the same time, the American music industry’s co-opting of Latin American music for American listeners has, in the past three years, started to cause some issues.

Following the release of “Despacito,” there was a sense of urgency by American Pop artists to capitalize on the trendiness of that song. Remember that music like this had been commonplace in Latin America and largely ignored up until now. When “Despacito” broke the dam between Latin American and American music, everyone rushed to get a taste of the floodwater. The approach from American Pop artsits was, as corny as this sounds, to make a “Despacito 2”, i.e., a Spanish-language track that would blow up worldwide, with their name attached, of course. For American artists who had their eye on the Spanish-language music market in both Latin America and the United States, it turned into a race to make the best Despacito 2 possible.

In some cases, artists took the Despacito 2 challenge quite literally. Luis Fonsi and Demi Lovato collaborated on the follow-up single to Despacito with “Échame la Culpa.” Beyoncé used the same approach as Justin Bieber and was featured on a remix of J Balvin’s “Mi Gente,”² just a quick five months after.³ Little Mix did the same with a remix of CNCO’s “Reggaetón Lento” a month before Beyoncé, although admittedly this was more popular internationally than in the US. These sort of remixes or collaborations did exist prior to the release of “Despacito”, but it seems that the open door was calling for an opportunity for American artists to get on this trend train. It’s crucial to remember that the worlds of Latin American music and American music had less interaction up until this point in 2017, staying somewhat separate from each other. Collaborations definitely existed, but the prevalence of Spanish-language versions of popular songs the year before is indicative of the separation of the two markets. In order to get something to Latin America, the language needed to be changed to suit that market. I remember the heavy airplay of the Spanish version of “Stereo Love” on 93.5 and the availability of David Guetta’s “Titanium” in multiple languages including Spanish. But after Despacito, that precedent changed, especially in those first few months.

These initial three collaborations are an interesting jumping off point into further interaction between the collision of these two markets. In the years that followed, many collaborations flourished between American and Latin American artists. Drake was featured on “Mia,” Tory Lanez collaborated with Ozuna on “Pa Mi,” and French producer DJ Snake also got stateside Latinas Selena Gomez and Cardi B together with Ozuna on “Taki Taki.” To me, these three records seem like genuine attempts to reach across the aisle, reminiscent of similar approaches in the 2000s, Juanes’ “Fotografía” especially.

But on the other end, there are recent collaborations that are the opposite, i.e., that feel and sound like cash grabs more than a genuine collaboration. Katy Perry remixed Daddy Yankee and Snow’s “Con Calma” last year.⁴ To some degree, the remix feels trite in how Katy Perry performs it. She throws out mezcal, spicy, and “Ay Daddy” as innocent one-liners throughout. This particular remix makes it clear: despite Latin music taking a more prominent role in the United States, some American artists feel like the way to approach Latin music is to occupy a stereotypical imitation of Latinx culture, Katy Perry included. Others felt the same way about the track.

In conjunction with this recent increase in collaborations with Latin artists over the past three years, there continues a throughline of Latinx cultural exploitation that empowers stereotypes to perpetuate through music. It’s present in pre-2017 tracks like Inna’s “Cola Song” as well as post-2017 tracks like Migos’ “Taco Tuesday.” My fear is that the door that “Despacito” opened allows for collaborations of this nature to reach a more mainstream level. This brings me back to the recent Black Eyed Peas album, Translation.

Despite Taboo being Latino, the group suffers from the same problems of stereotyping Latin culture in this latest album. It’s hidden behind the star-studded list of featured artists from Latin music and the slick production the Peas are known for, but members apl.de.ap, will.i.am, and J. Rey Soul make their verses sound like exploitation. On tracks like “No Mañana” and “Mamacita,” Spanish is used as a collection of cool catchphrases to spice up hooks rather than an actual language. The Peas certainly are going in the right direction by seeking to collaborate with Latin artists (and have expressed interest for collaborating with more in the future) but have overlooked genuinely interacting with Latin music. What some American artists fail to understand is that Spanish is not a punchline. Even Justin Bieber, who can be partially credited with bringing “Despacito” to the forefront in the US, has fallen prey to this type of thinking.

This approach doesn’t make good music. A cross-cultural collaboration demands respect of culture. It’s not hard to use something other than “spicy”, “taco”, or “caliente” in a chorus. Musical products of genuine thought could be so much better than the music that American artists feel empowered to release post-Despacito. To me, these catchphrase collaborations feel as artificial as a track named “Obese (Red, White, and Blue Hamburger).” In this time of cultural re-evaluation, I wouldn’t mind if American artists skimmed this kind of approach to collaborations from their potential repertoire.

[1]It’s important to note that Shakira did work with frequent collaborator Luis Fernando Ochoa for this song, but Shakira is also listed as the primary songwriter in the credits.

[2]This track, in and of itself, is also notable for J Balvin’s remixing of both the original “Voodoo Song” by Willy William and the use of the now-trademarked Pitbull “EEEEEEEYOOOOOO!”, partially trademarked because of its use in this song.

[3]This is not Beyonce’s first foray into making music for a Spanish-speaking market. Beyoncé released Spanish versions of selected B’Day tracks, new remixes, and a new collaboration with Alejandro Fernández in an EP titled Irremplazable, which had success in Latin America.

[4]This is especially true after acknowledging that “Con Calma” itself reworks Canadian reggae artist Snow’s “Informer”, with Snow being featured in the former.

Originally published at https://www.pizzafm.org on July 25, 2020.

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Writer at Pizza FM, Media Consultant for Twocanoes Software, & Music Tech alumnus at UIUC (w/Spanish & Informatics Minors). Also a Songwriter/Sound Designer!

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