‘Despacito’ and the Revenge of Reggaeton

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A report by Spencer Kornhaber for The Atlantic.

The first Spanish-language U.S. No. 1 hit since “Macarena” sees Justin Bieber jumping on a music style of fraught racial lineage in Latin America.

The last time a song sung primarily in Spanish hit No. 1 on the U.S. pop charts was in 1996, with Los Del Rio’s “Macarena.” Now, that dance-craze-causer has a successor in Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito,” whose remix featuring Justin Bieber has claimed the top spot on the Hot 100.

Prior to Bieber’s involvement, the song was already a sensation in the Spanish-speaking world, dominating charts after Puerto Rico’s Fonsi released it in January. In the tune, Fonsi’s romantic singing—“despacito” means “slowly,” referring here to the pace of seduction—pairs with rapping from his fellow Puerto Rican Daddy Yankee. Yankee’s name may be familiar to English-speaking audiences from the 2004 smash “Gasolina,” which showcased the distinctive, danceable style known as reggaeton. The reggaeton beat now powers “Despacito,” to which Bieber has contributed vocals in both Spanish and English.

Looking for some context about this history-making hit, I spoke with Petra Rivera-Rideau, author of Remixing Reggaeton: The Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico. An assistant professor at Wellesley College, she described the complex lineage of the song—and the implications of Bieber popularizing it in the U.S.

This conversation has been edited.


Spencer Kornhaber: What do you think of “Despacito” and its success?

Petra Rivera-Rideau: I really like “Despacito”; it’s super catchy. It does follow a trend: Luis Fonsi has been around for a long time, and there are a lot of pop singers in Latin music—Enrique Iglesias, Shakira, Ricky Martin—who have been around for a long time and have been integrating reggaeton into their music lately. But there is something surprising in that Luis Fonsi has a No. 1 hit in the U.S., as opposed to, for example, Enrique Iglesias, whom American, English-speaking listeners might be more familiar with.

Kornhaber: Am I right to be calling it reggaeton? How does it showcase the genre or diverge from it?

Rivera-Rideau: In the media, the song’s been presented as “reggaeton-pop fusion” or “urban-pop fusion,” which are phrases that have been attached to Ricky Martin or Enrique Iglesias or other pop singers. I think that makes sense.

The main thing that people think about when they think about reggaeton is the beat—the boom-ch-boom-chick beat. “Despacito” definitely has that, but there are some differences. Most reggaeton is rapped and not sung; Luis Fonsi is singing not rapping. There’s that guitar riff in the song that you hear in a lot of Latin pop. And it’s pretty different in terms of its melody.

Now that reggaeton has broken into the mainstream of Latin music, there has been a lot of discussion saying that it has shifted its orientation lyrically: that before it was hyper-sexualized and connected to the street and politics but now it’s not. I’m not sure that I totally buy such stark divisions between reggaeton before and pop-fusion now. But it certainly sounds different. It is true that reggaeton has a reputation of having misogynistic and explicitly sexual lyrics, and “Despacito” doesn’t have have such explicit lyrics—but it’s obviously a very sexual song.

Kornhaber: For a lot of Americans, the last the time they’ve heard of Daddy Yankee was in 2004 with “Gasolina.” What has he been doing since then?

Rivera-Rideau: One of the things that’s important about Daddy Yankee is that he had a successful career before “Gasolina.” Reggaeton in Puerto Rico in the ’90s circulated informally for a while and was called “underground.” There were several crews somewhat analogous with hip-hop, with different DJs that would have artists rapping on them. Daddy Yankee was part of one of those groups and was quite popular. Since “Gasolina,” he’s had many albums and several hits, including some success this year with two other songs, “Shaky Shaky” and “Hula Hoop.”

If you listen to Daddy Yankee’s catalog from when he was an underground artist to now, there’s definitely a shift in his sound. He’s become more dance-pop in a lot of ways. But his two songs that are popular now, especially “Shaky Shaky,” sound a lot more like the mid-2000s reggaeton with a very common dancehall loop in it.

Kornhaber: Your book is partly about the racial dynamics in reggaeton. Can you talk about that a little?

Rivera-Rideau: We wouldn’t have reggaeton if we didn’t have complicated historical patterns of migration in the Caribbean basin. A very basic idea of what ingredients produced reggaeton would be hip-hop coming from the U.S., dancehall based out of Jamaica, and a type of music called reggae en español from Panama in particular. There’s debate about the origins: Did Puerto Ricans make reggaeton or did Panamanians make reggaeton? One of the things that brings all of these things together is that many of these musics come from urban, predominantly black, working-class communities—whether they’re from Kingston or Panama City or New York or San Juan.

My book talks specifically about the Puerto Rican context. In Puerto Rico, there’s a sense that the island’s trinity of races—black, Spanish, and indigenous—has produced a harmonious society with no racism. But when you look at things like who has access to education, or at housing segregation, it’s very clear Afro-Puerto Ricans are discriminated against. Reggaeton provided a space to talk about those issues. Tego Calderón, who was really the person who brought reggaeton to the mainstream in Puerto Rico before “Gasolina,” has a song called “Loíza” in which he talks about institutional racism in Puerto Rico. Eddie Dee wrote songs about the discrimination he faced as a rapper and as someone of African descent.

At the same time, the story of reggaeton’s emergence in Puerto Rico also exposes the persistence of anti-black racism there. In Puerto Rico, reggaeton was tied to public-housing developments that in the ’90s were part of an anti-crime initiative called Mano Dura Contra el Crimen, headed by the then-governor Pedro Rosselló. The discourse around the campaign was heavily racialized: Young, predominantly non-white men were seen as perpetrators of crime. At the same time that started happening, reggaeton was becoming more popular. Crime and drugs, which were the issues that provided the so-called justification of Mano Dura, became attributed to reggaeton singers and fans. It became a very maligned music.

In the mid 1990s, Puerto Rican police went into malls and took reggaeton recordings and tried to charge the store owners with peddling obscenities, and that got thrown out by the courts. At the same time, when the government targeted reggaeton, it got publicity: People who hadn’t heard of it started hearing about it, which taught artists that there might be a bigger market for them than they originally thought.

In 2002, there was another censorship campaign in Puerto Rico, this one called the Anti-Pornography Campaign, concerned with visual representations of sexuality on TV. They really targeted reggaeton music videos for their portrayals of women, and the ultimate result of that campaign was the passing of laws similar to what we have for parental warnings on TV in the U.S. Again, it gave reggaeton artists publicity and expanded their market. If you read interviews with artists in the early 2000s, they realized that if they changed their presentations in a particular way they could become more popular.

It’s shortly after that that we see “Gasolina” come out in 2004. Then as it enters the pop world, reggaeton’s reputation shifts a little bit. Its reputation doesn’t ever totally go away, but it becomes less prominent.

Once “Gasolina” comes out in 2004, we see a lot of reggaeton artists who’ve been around for a long time in the underground scene get signed by major record labels and have a much broader audience outside of places where they had been popular before. Then sales start going down around 2007, and you see some people talking about this reggaeton bubble that burst. What’s great about “Despacito” is that it shows reggaeton never really went away. It’s everywhere you look.

Kornhaber: So what happens when you have the ultimate white boy Justin Bieber jumping on this style?

Rivera-Rideau: I’ve been so interested in the Justin Bieber story. In interviews Luis Fonsi says Bieber heard “Despacito” while on tour in Colombia and the crowd was going crazy and he liked it. He contacted Fonsi to be on the song and recorded the remix. I find that story to be very interesting: Justin Bieber initiated this, as opposed to, people might assume, Luis Fonsi initiating it.

One of the frustrating things about the media coverage of the remix is that there’s a lot of emphasis on Bieber. This is Fonsi’s ninth studio album—Bieber definitely did not discover him, but a lot of the English-language media I’ve seen presents it that way. For a long time, whenever Latin artists have crossed over into the U.S. they have been presented as “new discoveries.” Like in the ‘90s, we had the so-called “Latin Boom” with Ricky Martin, Shakira, and Enrique Iglesias, who were incredibly popular in Latin pop music already.

English-language media has also been emphasizing that Luis Fonsi has a lot to gain by Justin Bieber being on the track. It’s true that suddenly this song is No. 1 on the Hot 100, and it’s going to be part of the conversation with “Macarena” and “La Bamba” when we think about the crossover of Latin artists. But Justin Bieber also has something to gain by being on this remix: There’s a huge market for Latin music, and there’s a general kind of Caribbean turn in American pop music lately. So this adds an element to his repertoire, though it isn’t his first time dealing with this style and connecting with Spanish-language artists. My introduction to Justin Bieber was his song “Sorry,” which I heard from afar and thought, “Oh somebody’s playing a reggaeton song.” He also had a Latin remix to that song featuring J Balvin, who’s a popular reggaeton singer from Colombia.

What’s different about “Despacito” is that it’s a Spanish-language song and not an English song, which is significant because many people assume that Latin crossover artists move from Spanish to English. One person this brings to mind is Romeo Santos, the frontman for the bachata group Aventura who now has a tremendously successful solo career. He has songs with Usher, Drake, and Nicki Minaj, and frequently he talks about how he’s a bilingual artist, he grew up in the U.S., and he chooses to sing in Spanish. If these artists want to be on his tracks, he’s not going to sing in English to accommodate them. One question I have about the Justin Bieber song is, was it his idea to sing in Spanish? That I’m not so sure.

Kornhaber: How do you think about Latin pop’s relationship with American pop historically? Have there been discrete waves of interaction, is it a sporadic thing, or is there always an ongoing crossover?

Rivera-Rideau: This is a really complicated question because of how we define Latin music. There are a lot of Latin-music aesthetics that have made it into pop music that we may not recognize as Latin: certain chord progressions, rhythms, instrumentation. As well there are artists who aren’t necessarily marketed as Latin music artists, but are of Latino descent. But it’s the language, or a certain kind of guitar sound like the one that opens up “Despacito,” that are really associated with a lot of stereotypical notions of Latino culture.

We do have these moments when Latin music does cross over. Certainly the ’90s was a big moment. “Macarena” was in 1996, then you have Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez in the later ’90s and early 2000s. You could also think way back to the 1940s to mambo music, of Afro-Cuban origin, as another term that encompasses a pretty diverse style of music. At that time, certain artists with a very specific style crossed over. Pérez Prado was a mambo orchestra leader had top-10 hits; Desi Arnaz, who was a musician in addition to being an actor, was influenced by mambo.

Kornhaber: How is Justin’s Spanish?

Rivera-Rideau: It was a lot better than I thought it was gonna be. I’ve read mixed reviews, though. Some people think his Spanish is pretty good, and a lot of people are making fun of it. One of the threads that goes across the discussions is how interesting and surprising it is that he did it in Spanish at all.  Especially because he did have this Latin remix of “Sorry” in which he still sings in English, and that follows the bilingual remix format that we’re seeing in a lot of pop songs.

Kornhaber: What should people check out next if they’re intrigued by the sound of “Despacito”?

Rivera-Rideau: People always talk about reggaeton as if it’s monolithic because of the ubiquitous beat. But it’s a really diverse genre of music. One might want to look at some of Daddy Yankee’s older stuff: “Gasolina” was on a larger album, Barrio Fino, which was groundbreaking in terms of integrating reggaeton into the Latin mainstream. I really like Tego Calderón, who integrates salsa and other Puerto Rican traditions. Also Ivy Queen: Reggaeton is a genre in which most artists are men, but Ivy Queen has had a long career beginning in underground.

Then there are these new groups of artists coming out, like Maluma and J Balvin, from Colombia, who have this sort of romantic reggaeton going on. I’m partial to the older stuff, but I’m sure that’s generational.

The success of “Despacito” makes me really excited to see what’s going to happen next. When I was writing my dissertation, a lot of people were telling me to hurry up because nobody’s going to be listening to this music by the time the book comes out. But people are still listening to it. There are some who are really upset because reggaeton has become very commercialized. But on the other hand it’s an interesting moment to think about how this genre has moved from being so maligned, marginalized, and censored to now being the No. 1 song on the English-language pop charts.

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