Thursday's sold-out lovefest between Marc Anthony and his fans at the Rosemont Theater posed a number of questions but none bigger than the singer's own: If this is crossover, what is he supposed to be crossing over to? Or from?
It's in many ways disingenuous questioning because Anthony has spent the last year crafting an eponymously titled English-language record designed to attract non-Latinos, precisely the kind of folks who weren't already listening to his multimillion salsa sellers.
But while that effort produced a hit single with "I Need to Know" and a Grammy nod in the best male pop vocal category, after reaching No. 8 on the Billboard chart, the record quickly sank from its perch, while other Latin artists -- including Christina Aguilera, Santana, wannabe Lou Bega and Mariah Carey -- all passed it by on their way to loftier heights. In the meantime, "Desde Un Principio/From the Beginning," a quickie compilation of old salsa hits, quickly rose to No. 1 on the Latin charts, from which it hasn't really strayed.
Latin crossover? Anthony is U.S. born and raised. He started out singing hip-hop before discovering salsa. A few years ago, his public Spanish was halting but endearing. Ironically, now that he's finally comfortable with it, he has eschewed it on stage for his native English. When he used Spanish at all on Thursday, he quickly translated or just sprinkled it in for effect.
Does any of this matter? Sure -- because no matter how dismissively he shrugs off the crossover question, he's playing to it with all engines on. Other Latin bilingual artists--say, Aguilera, Gloria Estefan and Ricky Martin, to name a few--sound the same whether singing in English or Spanish. In other words, musically, they don't pander to particular audiences.
But Anthony -- an immensely talented young man -- has traded an aggressively innovative musical repertoire in Spanish for sheer pop pap in English in order to appeal to non-Latinos. And on some level, he must know he has cut a devil's deal. The energy and response to the Spanish-language material, both the dance numbers and the majestically overwrought boleros, contrasted sharply with what was unquestionably polite respect during his English-language ballads.
But what saves Anthony every time are two things: The first is his amazing voice, an instrument of superb authority and passion that may well make him the greatest pure singer to ever come out of Puerto Rico. The second is symbolic but just as powerful: As a second-generation Puerto Rican, Anthony embodies all the contradictions, all the aspirations, of a community coming of age. That Anthony has decided that genre success isn't enough for him is implicit; that the community has decided to ignore that is explicit.
About halfway through the show Thursday night, what had started as a standing ovation turned into something else entirely. For four long minutes, the audience thundered and hooted until a visibly moved and shaken Anthony finally said, "But I haven't done anything . . ." Then he proceeded to get on his knees and bow to the crowd. Hopefully, the next time he goes in the studio, he'll remember that happened immediately after "Si Te Vas."
Obejas is a Tribune staff writer.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times