A report by Joe Coscarelli for the New York Times.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, only one pop song really mattered: Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” remix featuring Justin Bieber led the Billboard Hot 100 for a record-tying 16 weeks and now ranks as the most-streamed song ever, in addition to its radio ubiquity. The song’s official YouTube video — for the all-Spanish version without Mr. Bieber — has had more than 3.5 billion views in less than six months.
But seasons change. Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” debuted at No. 1 this week, knocking “Despacito” from its comfortable perch for the first time since May. Now comes the interesting part.
Following the unprecedented success of a truly international hit, which brought together two Puerto Rican veterans from different genres with a teen idol singing mostly in a foreign language, the Latin pop industry is well aware that it has a moment to capitalize on. With the rise of streaming and the borderless music ecosystem it fosters, artists and executives from the Spanish-speaking world are heeding the lessons of “Despacito” — as well as highlighting the groundwork that made the phenomenon possible — to gauge where Latin music with crossover aspirations must go to secure its foothold in the United States.
“‘Despacito’ helped to open the big door,” said Jesus Lopez, the chairman of Universal Music Latin Entertainment, which released the song and is home to artists including Juanes, Nacho and J Balvin. For years, “the momentum was getting closer and closer and closer” to a Latin pop breakout, Mr. Lopez said, but “Despacito” — with its almost five billion total streams — represents the “big explosion that gets everyone to focus.”
While past Spanish-language smashes, like “Macarena” and “La Bamba,” had a novelty component, “this is a real song,” said Sebastián Krys, a producer and executive who worked behind the scenes on “Despacito.” “It’s just a different dynamic when you have a hit like that.”
Those involved in the track’s success — and those hoping to replicate it — point to the growing Latino population in the United States and the democratic nature of social media and streaming platforms as key ingredients. But musically, the cross-pollination of Latin genres has also expanded the potential audience as figures from the worlds of reggaeton, Dominican dembow, bachata, Latin trap and more traditional pop intermingle, leading to a new generation of versatile artists like Ozuna, Bad Bunny, Maluma, J Balvin and Arcángel.
Those sounds have dovetailed with an American pop moment indebted to the Caribbean and so-called “tropical” influences — from Drake and Rihanna to Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and Mr. Bieber’s “Sorry” — priming listeners for more electronic, rhythmic and dance-oriented music, as well as big-name collaborations and remixes.
“Pop in the Latin-scape has changed,” Mr. Krys said. “It’s not unlike what happened to pop music in the general market a few years back, when R&B and hip-hop took over,” leading to a new default sensibility, he said. Observing that shift, Mr. Krys and his stable of producers at Rebeleon Entertainment helped to push Mr. Fonsi, who has long been known for his power ballads, toward the harsher reggaeton beat, which has usually been associated with “more explicit,” aggressive music, Mr. Krys said.
But as reggaeton’s center has moved over the years to Colombia from Puerto Rico, the genre has slowed and softened some lyrically, broadening its reach.
Erika Ender, an accomplished Panamanian songwriter who wrote “Despacito” with Mr. Fonsi, said that the pair “really wanted to be very respectful toward women,” and she credits the song’s sensuality with its mass appeal. (Nodding to the political climate, she added: “With everything that’s happening in the U.S. and the things said against Latinos, we’re all singing and dancing in Spanish.”)
The track, which began on an acoustic guitar, went through at least five different arrangements before landing on the pop-reggaeton version — with a beat by the Colombian producers Mauricio Rengifo and Andrés Torres, Ms. Ender said.
Mr. Lopez of Universal Music credited the younger crop of “bilingual, bicultural” producers with bridging genres and generations. “The best investment that Universal Latino made in recent years was not only artists, but producers that make the sound more international,” he said, emphasizing the influence of E.D.M.
Rebeca Leon, a manager for J Balvin and Juanes, also pointed to artists who “spent a good amount of their youth in the United States, being exposed to American hip-hop and pop.” (Mr. Fonsi was raised in Orlando, Fla., while J Balvin and Ozuna both spent time in New York.)
“I call them unicorns,” Ms. Leon said, “with a foot in each world.” Spanish-speaking children are “listening to Bruno Mars and Katy Perry,” too, she added. “They want something that sounds like that.”
With a hybrid sound equally intelligible in South America, Mexico, the United States and Western Europe, services like Spotify, YouTube and Apple Music provide crucial distribution hubs.
“Whereas radio used to be where people discovered music, now it’s where hits are consolidated,” Mr. Krys said. “After everybody’s gotten wind of it through Spotify or YouTube,” radio programmers “sort of jump on it,” he continued. “That’s what ‘Despacito’ does: It all of a sudden opens up the minds of some of the gatekeepers in the general market. They say let’s not ignore this, let’s not put this music in its own ghetto.”
J Balvin’s current hit, “Mi Gente,” with the French D.J. and producer Willy William, provides an instructive post-“Despacito” example. The song, which has little to do with reggaeton but is sung entirely in Spanish, dethroned “Despacito” atop the Spotify Global Top 50 chart last month and has seen its English pop-radio airplay increase in turn. Though Mr. Balvin has collaborated in the past with Mr. Bieber and Pharrell Williams (notably, in Spanish), “Mi Gente” reached No. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 without a marquee guest.
Not that one is out of the question. “All the Anglo artists are knocking on our door to make remixes and collaborations,” Mr. Lopez said.
But unlike the Latin pop moment of 1999, when stars including Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony were singing in English, the language barrier is now seen as less of a hurdle. Ms. Lopez, who like Shakira and Enrique Iglesias, has toggled between worlds, has her first Spanish-language album in a decade scheduled for October.
Mr. Krys said that Mr. Fonsi had recorded an English adaptation of “Despacito” early on, only to shelve it after Mr. Bieber recorded his majority-Spanish version. (The artists have said the remix happened organically after Mr. Bieber heard “Despacito” in a Colombian club while on tour.)
Collaborations are increasingly moving toward Spanish, not away from it: Mr. Fonsi has reworked “Kissing Strangers” by DNCE and Nicki Minaj, while J Balvin did a version of French Montana’s summer hit “Unforgettable.” Mr. Lopez added that Juanes had recently recorded a verse for Logic’s suicide-prevention song “1-800-273-8255,” which broke into the Top 10 this week and could be further propelled by a Spanish remix.
“I knew the lyrics to all the Beatles songs and didn’t know how to speak English,” said Mr. Krys, who was born in Argentina. “People in the world enjoy English-language music and don’t know what it means. There’s no reason that can’t be true of other languages.”