Despacito: Topping the charts everywhere, but is it really that impressive?

I’ve been busy working on other writing projects and my thesis, so I am a bit late to the party, but this song is still played widely on the radio. It’s still #1 in America. I heard it on the bus and it got me thinking: is it really that impressive that a Spanish language song made it to the top worldwide in 2017? It is impressive because most songs on the charts are in English and English is often deemed the official language of rock and pop, no doubt. There are still barriers to non-English language music appearing on the charts: the need to appeal to American audiences.

Here’s some statistics and facts about the popular reggaeton/pop song:

The song has been banned in Malaysia and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro made a parody of it to promote his agenda.

For those who don’t speak Spanish, the title translates to “Slowly” and the lyrics are very sexual. Nothing wrong with that, but the lyrics could be better written. I like the Serge Gainsbourg style of raunchy lyrics: double entendres, innuendos, and lots of wordplay. I’m not one of those critics who says “Today’s music is so dirty, back in the 60s and 70s it was all innocent.” That’s not true.

Taking a look at the song, here are some reasons that the song made it big. Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber were already famous. Luis Fonsi has had an established career for a couple of decades now and has charted in the US Latino charts. That factor makes it really easy for an already established artist to get a hit. Look at the pop charts and you’ll see that it’s populated by the same musicians. I don’t often see new blood there.

Going from my experiences, when I was young I was one of the few Hispanic students at my school (I started Kindergarten in 1999) and I was the only half Hispanic student there. By the time I was in secondary school (started in 2008 and graduated in 2011), I had quite a few Hispanic classmates, but I was pretty much the only one who was half Hispanic. There were so few Hispanic people where I grew up that if my parents wanted to say something to me in secret, they could tell me in Spanish and no one else would understand. Now, they can’t do that because there’s always someone within earshot who understands. My grandmother from Venezuela lived in America from 1993-2005 and it was difficult then and she felt isolated because she didn’t really speak English. Granted, she lived with my family in predominantly white suburbs. If she were still alive and she lived in the same part of America as she did then, it would be a lot easier for her.

The Hispanic market in the US is bigger than ever, it’s an important market. Releasing songs in Spanish will appeal to a huge portion of the market. If the song is poppy and catchy, it will have crossover appeal for non-Spanish speakers. You see that with Shakira’s music, although her biggest hits are mostly in English. If you go to shops in America you’ll find lots of Spanish language publications and books translated in Spanish. Pretty much everywhere you go, you turn on the TV and you can find a Spanish language TV channel.

“Despacito” is catchy, it gets stuck in people’s heads, it has a summer vibe to it. It has a bit of a reggaeton influence, but not so much that it sounds out of place on a pop station. Kind of like how Taylor Swift’s earlier songs could be played on both country and pop stations.

With all the press the song is getting, you would think that it’s the first Spanish language song ever to make it big, when in fact it isn’t. Maybe these other songs in a qualitative way didn’t make it that big, but they were huge.

Remember “Macarena” from 1995? What about “The Ketchup Song” by Las Ketchup from 2002? Those songs were huge when I was a kid and I’d hear them on the radio. The Selena Movie soundtrack went to #7 in the Billboard Charts in 1997, most of the tracks were in English, except for The “Cumbia Medley”. Bring it to the present day and you hear Pitbull saying “Dale” in a lot of his songs.

And this is only talking about recent years and music in Spanish!

What’s really more impressive are the Hispanic musicians who made it big in the 1950s and 1960s, during a time of widespread institutionalised and individualised racism. For those who haven’t seen my post on Hispanic musicians, I’ll tell you one of the stories from that post, the story of the first Hispanic rock star, the one who paved the way for other Hispanic musicians.

Let’s go to the year 1958: this was four years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine confirmed in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896. While segregation on paper was supposed to be illegal, it took decades and many more court cases and legislation to overturn all the segregation laws across the country. It can still be argued that segregation still exists today.

At the time there was little representation of Hispanic people in the media. Off the top of my head I can think of is Rita Hayworth (half Spanish), Rita Moreno (Puerto Rican), Anthony Quinn (Mexican), and Desi Arnaz (Cuban).

To put this in perspective, there were 3.2 million Hispanics in the US according to the 1950 US Census and 5.8 million in the 1960 US Census, compare that to the 2010 Census with 50 million plus Hispanics in the US. It’s to be expected that there would be more representation today.

That year, a 17 year old musician named Richard Valenzuela recorded a few hits: “Come On Let’s Go”, “Donna”, and “La Bamba”. These songs were on his self titled, posthumously released album. Most of the songs on the album were not in Spanish. The exception was “La Bamba”, a cover of a traditional Mexican song. This song made it to #22 on the Billboard Charts. The record label Anglicised his name to Ritchie Valens to appeal to white audiences.

In 1959, Ritchie Valens toured with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper in the Midwest. They died in a plane crash on 3 February.

Ritchie Valens’ success was impressive, I’d argue more so than “Despacito”. “La Bamba” reached the top 40 during a time of segregation and overt racism. Valens didn’t have a big record label behind him – the record label that he was signed to was what we’d call today a startup. It wasn’t one of the big labels, just a small one based in LA. He was a newcomer, with an 8-month long music career cut short by his death in a plane crash. He overcame a lot of barriers to get to where he got. He went from farmworker to rock star.

But even before that, there was a forgotten musician, Gloria Rios. I never knew about her until today. In 1956, Ríos performed a song called “El Relojito” (translates to the little clock – was a version of “Rock Around the Clock”). The song has a jazzy sound to it. However, it did not get the success or recognition of “La Bamba”.

Around the same time as “La Bamba”, Daniel Flores and his band The Champs recorded “Tequila”, which topped the charts in 1958: appealing to Americans of all backgrounds. While it had no Spanish lyrics, it had a Latin sound.

Many other Hispanic musicians followed like Trini Lopez, Chan Romero, Sam the Sham, Joan Baez, Question Mark, Jerry Garcia, Linda Ronstadt, and Carlos Santana. Ritchie Valens particularly inspired Carlos Santana. Carlos Santana looked up to Ritchie Valens because of how few Hispanic rock stars there were.

Representation in the media affects children. Children look up to musicians, actors, and athletes. When a kid sees a celebrity they can relate to, it has a positive impact on them and it inspires them and shows them that their dreams can come true too with hard work.

To reiterate, “Despacito” breaking records today is not nearly as impressive as the trailblazing in the 50s with Gloria Ríos, Ritchie Valens, and Daniel Flores. “Despacito” makes me want to change the station. To each their own.

We’ve made a lot of progress since the 50s and that’s a good thing. It’s not an insult that I think the success of “Despacito” is not impressive. It’s great to see songs with diverse influences, but let’s put things in perspective. It’s not groundbreaking and that’s okay. Chart music today is more diverse than ever before. There is less of a race barrier now than before. Now it’s all about the marketing savvy and access to resources.

Know your music history and influences. Music of the past shapes the music of today.

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