East Harlem salsa singer Marc Anthony, whose pachuco-intellectual good looks and sensitive way with phrasing and rhythm should break him big time on his first pending English-language release, is quoted in Time musing, “I don’t know what they’re talking about with this Latino crossover thing….We’re not doing Latin music on our English stuff. Latin-tinged, yes.” It’s funny he should notice, since any musician with Puerto Rican roots making a grab at the American mainstream must have already figured out that it won’t be his music that crosses over, but his race. Jennifer Lopez doesn’t have to play a Latina to be considered a crossover acting success, although the one time she did, interpreting the title role of Selena in Gregory Nava’s underrated biopic about the slain Tejana singer, it inspired her to cut her own album—in the American pop vernacular of hiphop-derived dance tunes and R&B-ish ballads, of course, some with the requisite tinge. And the mad monster party hit of the summer and much-vaunted crossover trailblazer, “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” has virtually nothing Latin about it except its comely singer, former Menudo poppet and General Hospital guest star Ricky Martin.
Used to be, singles in traditionally African-American styles like soul, R&B, and later rap claimed crossover status when they jumped from the R&B to the pop charts. But now those genres own the pop charts, album sales, and video rotation. R&B balladeering, hardcore white rappers, and party funk have collapsed chart designations; radio segregation has not disappeared but has been sliced thinner—white guitar-based outfits are now listed under “alternative,” with lower-selling black singles in the euphemistically named “urban” area.
Crossover doesn’t have to be about race. Generally speaking, when a record that’s expected to appeal to a limited market—a minority, sure, but one of potential consumers; just ask Shania Twain—sells bigger than expected, it’s a crossover hit. But the hype swirling around “La Vida Loca” sure isn’t about the music’s daring originality. Musically, the song has it all—blaring horns, a dirty-swing tempo, “hot” guitar “licks,” a devil-woman narrative, and a relentless, shimmying beat. It’s a bespoke production of Martin’s chief songwriter, Robi Rosa (he’s the “licks” guy), and surefooted musical hack Desmond Child that looks back so keenly and steals so masterfully it can’t help but sound like the future. But despite its familiar strains, the song couldn’t have been recorded—or pulled off—by anyone else. It’s a concentrated solution of “Latin crossover,” sweetened and spiced for popular consumption. And it must be working, because all the newsweeklies agree: With his not-remotely-Latin single and sexy-nice-guy persona, Ricky Martin is leading the way for a massive influx of best-selling Latin pop.
Martin’s cute, he’s talented, he’s charming, he’s smart—and he’s lucky as hell. What is happening to him (or via him) didn’t happen to Ritchie Valens or Carlos Santana or Gloria Estefan or poor Gerardo of “Rico Suave” infamy because during their respective reigns, there weren’t enough Latinos in the U.S. to make it worth Time’s while to put them on the cover, or for Newsweek to offer a rundown of the best currently lesser-known Latin popsters as if it had been listening all along, or for People and Cosmo to introduce Spanish-language versions of their magazines targeted to the Latino diaspora. These magazines, on behalf of the products they sell, from skin cream to political positions, want a piece of the Latin market. If race sometimes trumps musical genre, economic power always, always trumps race.
There’s another, more insidious, possibility as well: that it isn’t just the seekers of Latino money and votes who are pushing the Latin pop wave, it’s the musical mainstream press and back-benchers. The fact that black musical traditions have become the standard pop vernacular still infuriates the white rock crowd, who are glad there’s something new out there that isn’t black. As a television executive once stated about Canadians (this is true), Latino artists are “foreigners, but not different enough to be threatening.”
Martin’s album was well-placed to explode the Latin consumer and voting bloc into mainstream consciousness, but since it was also a meticulously crafted effort to do the same for Ricky Martin—no one who believes in luck alone hires Desmond Child—the exact proportions of chance to calculation are moot. Ricky Martin kicks off with the inevitable English-language version, so listeners confused by the existence of Martin’s four previous records know they’re in the right place. The rest is a textbook for hugely ambitious Latin pop stars taking aim at the American mainstream.
The album is built for speed, summer, and sensualidad. Fast ones (few) alternate with slow ones (many), with the Latin tinges studded about as carefully as strawberries on a cake. “Spanish Eyes” sprays its Latin references indiscriminately, in a south-of-the-border neverland where a Puerto Rican guy and Spanish-eyed girl dance the Argentine tango in Brazil to corpulent horn-belching salsa as background singers chant “Baile, baile, baile,” so that everyone’s clear on what Ricky and the girl were doing in the summer rain. On the duet with Madonna, “Be Careful (Cuidado con Mi Corazon),” she sings in Spanish and he in English, both credibly, and the whole thing sways like a hammock on a summer day, although she won’t let Martin sing in his key. And this stuff is as humid as an orchid farm: Images of a wet Ricky abound, and the singer’s spiritual quests in the East have not stopped him from bringing back more than mere enlightenment—he’s got sitar and the gurgling underwater effect of Indian tablas wetting down the already sopping full orchestra of “She’s All I Ever Had.”
If his persona retains the general shape of the adult Ricky, Spanish-language version, his days of being, as a friend of mine attests, “the cutest Menudo,” a spunky, big-hearted boy prone to manipulation, aren’t quite over. The mocha-colored siren in “La Vida Loca” is cousin to “Lola, Lola,” from 1998’s Vuelve. (Elsewhere on Vuelve, the singer’s undone by a drink with as potent a personality as these women.) But that same malleable kid can sing “Let me undress your soul” with a straight face, so the acting career wasn’t a fluke.
Most of the ballads fall somewhere between the middle of the cheapest roads—the ping-ping style of mopey R&B dedication tunes and awful wind-machine power ballads, neither of which the Backstreet Boys would touch with 10-foot poles. (Then again, they wouldn’t ask Diane Warren for so much as the time, but she has written two limp ballads for Ricky.) Martin’s at his best when booty-slapped by the beat, so “Shake Your Bon-Bon” insists on just that, although I won’t vouch for the staying power of this euphemism, and if Ricky had gone to college he would know better than to rehash that hilarious Hawaiian party joke, “Come on I wanna lay ya.” “The Cup of Life” (better known as “La Copa de la Vida”) is real salsa, sorta, and infernally irrefutable, as a million swooning Grammy Awards-show viewers discovered when Martin unleashed it on that stage earlier this year.
Like the best textbooks, the record concludes with an abbreviated summary of lessons and a quick condensation of the cultural pendulum as Ricky swings it—he reprises “Livin’ la Vida Loca” and “She’s All I Ever Had” (now called “Bella”) in Spanish, and if this presentation of thesis and antithesis isn’t clear enough, there’s synthesis with the “Spanglish Radio Edit” of “Maria.”
How any of this will play with audiences interested in Latin pop in a more native form is a mystery. At best, the wave will spark curiosity in purer expressions of Latin music that actually make distinctions among intra-Latin genres—audiences may discover that salsa does not equal bossa nova does not equal ranchero. But the worst-case scenario is pretty satisfying, as well—Martin and Lopez will sell millions of albums and dominate the pop charts with their danceable, hook-laden, totally professional party music. Latin-tinged, of course. CP