Mexican pop singer Paulina Rubio can’t be bothered with questions about her crossover career, launched in 2002 with her first English- language album, “Border Girl.” She’s between English records now. This is her year to be Latina again.
“Pau-Latina,” her new Spanish album, is not too subtly titled to reassert her Latin roots. She’s focusing single-mindedly and monolingually on rehearsals for her upcoming tour and planned appearance on next month’s Latin Grammy telecast.
The star gets testy when questions veer off topic.
Did fans ever resent her switching to English?
“What?” she asks bluntly, with the impolite Spanish "¿Que?”
Did people criticize her going after the Anglo market?
“No,” she says. “I don’t think people would criticize you for working at the Los Angeles Times instead of El Heraldo de Mexico. On the contrary, your colleagues admire you because you have bettered yourself. And that’s what happens with me.”
Can she share anything about her follow-up English album, due next year?
“Look, let’s talk about my Spanish album,” insists Rubio, in Los Angeles recently for rehearsals. “The truth is, I’d like to talk to you about my plans this year. It’s premature to speak about a record I haven’t even started recording yet.”
Rubio has good reason to stress the Spanish side of her crossover career these days. “Border Girl,” her bid to conquer the U.S. pop market, fell short of sales expectations, marking the beginning of the end of the so-called Latin Explosion. She needs to reinforce her Latin fan base or risk losing it all.
It’s a marketing tightrope navigated by all the artists who shot to stardom in the U.S. as part of the so-called boom of 1999. Five years and a millennium later, only memories remain of the pop culture phenomenon that promised to change the face of America.
It began with Puerto Rican heartthrob Ricky Martin smiling and shimmying his way to the top of the pop charts with the sinuous “Livin’ la Vida Loca,” a sensual smash hit that came to symbolize the frenzied cultural breakthrough of a long-marginalized minority.
By itself, it might have been forgotten as just another Latino novelty, in the oddball tradition of Ray Barretto’s “El Watusi” (1963) or Los del Rio’s “Macarena” (1996). But Ricky wasn’t alone that year. There were J. Lo and Marc Anthony, two native Nuyoricans from Latino barrios. There was Miami’s Enrique Iglesias, privileged son of the suave Spanish pop star. There was Carlos Santana and then Christina Aguilera.
And in the wings, studying her English, was Shakira, the Lebanese Colombian who would soon seduce the world with her belly dance and her charming accent.
Never before had so many Latinos spent so much time at the top of the pop charts in a single year.
For one short and much-hyped stretch, crossover became the expected, not the exception, in pop music. Suddenly, Latinos were hot and cool at the same time, with new prospects emerging as well in film, literature and the arts. Throughout 1999, breathless stories about the Latino cultural coup appeared in national magazines and local newspapers, even in places like Atlanta and Kansas City.
Pundits predicted the Latinization of America had begun.
But it never happened. Instead, the Latin boom imploded. Latin pop stars vanished from the Top 10. Journalists rushed off to cover the next trend. The Latin music industry, once drunk with heady expectations, went into a doozy of a tailspin.
It’s what Los Angeles concert promoter Martin Fleischmann now calls the “Latin Es-plat!” In hindsight, the crash looks like the real explosion of a rocket that breaks apart halfway into orbit, falling helter-skelter back to Earth in random pieces.
The Latin Explosion, as it turned out, was a marketing mirage. Its architects took conventional catchy pop, poured a little salsa on it and called it hip. But it no more represented Latin music than Harry Belafonte’s 1957 Top 10 hit “Banana Boat (Day-O)” represented real Jamaican music.
Not only did the boom’s stars prove to be mere comets, but the flash and bang of the carefully manufactured pop boom blinded the public to what’s really worthwhile in Latin music -- organic, cross-cultural sounds that continue to evolve under the mass media’s radar. It also grossly distorted our expectations of the long-term impact of Latinos on American culture.
That impact won’t be felt like a big bang but rather like the shifting of continental plates. Every now and then, pop culture will get a sudden shaking from the push of a growing Latino population, now the nation’s largest minority. And over time, the cultural landscape could look radically different.
Today, the disappearance of Latino stars from the U.S. pop firmament seems more stunning than their ascent.
“Everybody thought the Latin thing would be the next big thing, and I’m totally surprised that it hasn’t happened,” says former Madonna and Michael Jackson manager Freddie DeMann, who engineered Shakira’s crossover success. “There’s a wealth of talent out there that for some reason, which I can’t figure out, is underrepresented in television, music and the movies.” What happened? The answer goes well beyond the vicissitudes of pop music tastes, which are fickle and often unfathomable. It has to do with long-term patterns of assimilation, historic resistance to foreign languages, and the overwhelming dominance of American marketing in the world.
Far from marking a cultural milestone, the Latin Explosion simply demonstrated once again this country’s capacity to absorb outside cultures and neutralize them. It proved that any Latinization of America inevitably involves the Americanization of Latinos.
The Latin Explosion “may ultimately have been just another turning point that didn’t turn, just another novelty that got picked up on,” says professor George Lipsitz, chair of American studies at UC Santa Cruz. “On the other hand, it may be the harbinger of something more profound.
“It may be that the actual culture is ahead of the music industry, and it may be that in the streets and dance halls and on the turntables of U.S. society there’s a different kind of mixing. It’s not an either/or choice between separate Latino barrios and a homogenous white center. So it’s not just a question of separatism versus assimilation, but it’s what degree of mixture and at what time.”
Commerce, not culture
In some ways, the Latin Explosion was a quintessential American success story. But it’s about commerce, not culture. Not coincidentally, four of the five top crossover stars -- Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, J. Lo and Shakira -- all belonged to one company, Sony Music.
“The Latin rock explosion was engineered by Sony,” says Joe Levy, deputy managing editor of Rolling Stone magazine. “They planted the explosives and they lit the fuse.... They put tremendous marketing muscle behind all of this, believe me.”
Sony had the experience to make it happen. In the 1980s, when it was still Columbia, the company managed one of the biggest crossover feats in pop music history -- the selling of singer Julio Iglesias, Enrique’s father, to English-speaking fans. The elder star still holds the record for most consecutive sold-out shows at the Universal Amphitheatre: 10 nights in 1984.
Iglesias had spent years building a huge worldwide fan base in various Romance languages -- Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian. Columbia found the right moment and the right gimmick to translate that success, matching the crooner with Diana Ross and Willie Nelson for two hit duets.
A bit later, executives applied a similar strategy to package Cuban American singer Gloria Estefan for the U.S. market. By the time Martin and Shakira came along, Sony had the inside track on how to sell Latino artists in the U.S.
The formula: Play down the polyrhythms, play up the “hot and sexy” stereotype, and keep the lyrics generic, and mostly in English.
“I don’t want to sound too cynical, but what Sony did is the exact same thing that Ford does and Coke and Pepsi do,” adds Levy. “There’s a corporate story that’s gotten a little lost. Part of this was [former Sony Chairman] Tommy Mottola’s project. Whether or not this continues depends on whether the new executives at Sony want to continue with the business plan.”
Conditions today, though, are radically different than they were five years ago. Mottola has moved to another label and Sony is amid a proposed merger with German giant BMG. More important, say record producers and label managers, the economic downturn in the record industry has put the brakes on attempts to promote artists in new markets, an expensive endeavor under the best of conditions.
Not that anyone was particularly eager to take up the cause. When the crossover curve hit bottom with Mexican pop singer Thalia’s English-language debut last year, she couldn’t be rescued even by that Midas of Crossover, her husband, Mottola.
Earlier this year, Mottola admitted to Billboard magazine that the Latin Explosion was a mirage. “There never really was a Latin explosion,” he was quoted as saying. “But we used it to take gigantic advantage of it, and lots of our stars benefited from that.”
Some artists pay a high price for their crossover dreams. Just ask Julio Iglesias. The singer has never recovered his full Latin fan base after hitting pay dirt in the United States, where non-Latino fans are still a big part of his audience, as evidenced by their large numbers at his sold-out show last month at the Greek Theatre.
Latin fans are loyal until they feel betrayed or abandoned, especially by an artist seeking acceptance from Anglo-Americans.
“You end up getting rid of that initial [Latin] public, and that’s not good,” says David West, who helped launch Tower Records in Mexico and manages Mexican acts such as Natalia Lafourcade. “When Julio goes to Mexico, he doesn’t sell three tickets anymore.”
Martin, Anthony, Rubio and Enrique Iglesias have all released post-crossover Spanish albums. But they’re not selling to Latinos like they used to.
The problem, say West and others, is the sheer time it takes to work both sides of the border. The English market is so huge it absorbs performers. Rubio worked it incessantly, only to see “Border Girl” sell substantially less than her previous Spanish-language album, the top Latin album of 2001.
But whether in Spanish or English, having flops is just part of show business. It shouldn’t be surprising that Latinos are having trouble getting back on the charts, observers say. So are Madonna and Pink.
Being replaced is a sign that Latinos arrived to begin with.
Historically, Latino success in pop music is nothing new. To paraphrase Paul Simon’s “Graceland”: Every generation throws Latinos up the pop charts.
In the 44 years between 1955 and 1999, 455 singles by 117 Latin artists made it onto the Hot 100, a measure of sales and airplay, according to Billboard chart research conducted by veteran label executive Bill Marin. Of those, Marin found, 25 were No. 1 records, including six songs by Latinos that held the top spot for 31 weeks in 1999.
Most of the charting Latinos did straight-up English-language tunes, such as the R&B-inflected; “96 Tears” (1966) by ? (Question Mark) & the Mysterians, or “Fame” (1980) and “Flashdance ... What a Feeling” (1983) by Irene Cara. Only a minority of the hits by Latinos had a Latino feel to them -- Perez Prado with his muted mambo, Ritchie Valens with his “La Bamba"-lite, and Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine with their disco fusion.
Prado, the Cuban bandleader, was the first Latin artist to hit No. 1, with 1955’s “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.” It was an ideal instrumental for the Arthur Murray generation, but it gave no hint of the exciting music being made back in his homeland.
In most cases, in fact, there’s a central disconnect between the crossover hit and the real McCoy. Americans regularly get a taste of Latin music without having to digest the spicy, crunchy, bubbly, exotic, complex and textured main course. Call it the Taco Bell approach to mass-market pop.
Some say Latin artists have to pay too high a price to make it in the mainstream. They must shed their Latinidad, beginning with language, a cornerstone of all cultures.
“What the mainstream wants is a kind of flavor of otherness without the history, the political implications and the specific [cultural] connections that actually produce the music itself,” says Lipsitz, the UC Santa Cruz professor. “Shakira comes to the U.S. and the language changes from Spanish to English, the sexual politics change from feminist to romantic, the hair color changes from brown to red to blond, and she goes from making public appearances with [Colombian novelist] Gabriel Garcia Marquez to dating the son of Carlos Menem, the former right-wing president of Argentina.”
U.S. fans, in other words, never got to experience the real Shakira because she had to remake herself for them. All immigrant groups, the professor adds, have been offered the same Faustian bargain. To succeed, Frank Sinatra could not be too Italian, nor Bob Dylan too Jewish.
Even radically modified Latin rhythms have been a hard sell. Case in point: 1985’s “Conga” by Estefan and the Sound Machine, which caramelized Cuba’s traditional carnival rhythms.
“I remember when I took ‘Conga’ to the labels, they almost threw me out of the building,” recalls the singer’s husband, producer Emilio Estefan. “They told me the song was crazy. ‘It will never happen in the States, Emilio. Radio stations will never play that.’
“You know something? All the DJs played the song. It became a super hit here and a super hit all over the world. It proves that music has no language.”
Not quite, says Ruben “Funkahuatl” Guevara, veteran record producer and music historian. Americans, he believes, will never accept real Latin artists, as opposed to Ricky Martin, whom he compares to Frankie Avalon.
Guevara tested his theory in a recent music history class at UCLA. For his Anglo students, he played music by alt-Latino bands he likes -- Maldita Vecindad, Fabulosos Cadillacs, Mano Negra.
Then he asked: Would you buy these records for the music alone, even though they’re not in English?
“What I kept hearing was no, because it’s not in English and I can’t relate to it,” Guevara says. “It’s not in my culture. It’s not in my experience. It isn’t the soundtrack of my life.”
Awareness of a market
The Latin Explosion’s heat may have dimmed, but its impact lingers in subtle and unexpected ways.
Promoters book bands in places they never played before. Tower Records now stocks Latin music in all its stores, a direct result of being caught out of stock in several outlets when Ricky Martin first created a sensation with “La Copa de la Vida” (The Cup of Life), which he performed at the closing ceremonies for the 1998 World Cup in Paris before an estimated 2 billion television viewers worldwide.
Today, business executives are acutely aware of Latin music’s market possibilities.
“When I started with Gloria,” recalls Emilio Estefan, who has worked with almost every major crossover act, “to be Latino, nobody wanted to hear about that. You talk to Carlos Santana. You talk to Jose Feliciano. When we started in the music business it was horrible to be a Latino artist. It was a lot easier once you had Jon Secada and especially Ricky and Shakira and Jennifer, because now people knew there was potential.”
The music has shown its real potential not in the U.S. but in Latin America, where it has witnessed its own brand of crossover. In the past five years, the continent’s most daring artists, such as Colombia’s Juanes and Mexico City’s Cafe Tacuba, broke out of their alternative niches to become the new Latin pop mainstream. And as-yet-unheralded artists continued to fuse sounds from the barrio with those on the Internet.
“That [new] Latin music has the richest grammar and vocabulary of how to be local without being parochial, how to be universal without being abstract,” says Lipsitz. “It mixes the particular with the universal brilliantly, and in some ways that will outlive the conveniences of the marketing industry, because it’s a cultural stance that is very much on time for the world that’s emerging all around us.”
The danger, he adds, is that “the stubbornly monolingual nature” of U.S. culture will keep most people from appreciating what’s coming.
The sweet irony: While the crossover bust may lead some to think Latin pop music is extinct, it’s actually growing. From 1998 to 2003, the domestic Latin business lost proportionately less ground than the industry overall, and now it’s recovering much faster. Latin sales have jumped 17% this year over the year before, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- more than twice the rate for the industry overall.
And a Latin act is back in the Top 10. Los Lonely Boys, a trio of brothers from West Texas who play a bilingual blend of country, Tex-Mex and rock, have one of the year’s big breakthrough albums with their self-titled debut, which has sold a million copies.
There are at least seven other Latin acts on the Top 200 chart, including Chicana R&B; singer Amanda Perez (90) and L.A. banda/rap duo Akwid (196). Those artists represent the future of Latin music in the U.S., industry insiders say. They are not manufactured. They arise from the new generation of bilingual and bicultural kids whose life is already a fusion.
In Miami, Cuban American producer and songwriter Rudy Perez, who steered Christina Aguilera’s reverse crossover from English to Spanish, has started a new company, Upfront Music Group, to specialize in the new Latino generation. It launches next year with the debut of Michael Angelo, a young Puerto Rican singer who will get global exposure when he sings a Spanish theme song for the Athens Olympics, to be aired on Telemundo, now owned by NBC.
The trick, says Perez, is to keep the crossover momentum going.
“I’m fighting dinosaurs here every day,” he says. “Because every day I’m trying to let everybody see this is the new world. This country is going to be the biggest Latin country of all, but it’s not about Latin music and mainstream music. It’s about a fusion of everything.
“There are people who don’t want to move forward. But evolution is like a ship that’s taking off right now. Either you get on board or you’ll be left behind.”
Contact Agustin Gurza at email@example.com.