As US social tensions mount, song in Spanish tops charts

Source:AFP Published: 2017/8/29 17:58:39

Luis Fonsi meets with fans as he arrives to appear on Good Morning America in New York City on August 16.Photo: IC

In the summer of 2017, US white supremacists have put on a show of force, the US president is fighting for a wall to keep out immigrants... and a Spanish-language song has achieved record success.

"Despacito," Luis Fonsi's infectious dance track rooted in Puerto Rico's reggaeton music, on Monday marked 16 straight weeks at No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

The 16-week streak ties for the longest reign at the top of the benchmark US singles chart with "One Sweet Day," the 1995 tear-jerker ballad by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men.

The feat is all the more remarkable as non-English music rarely dominates US airwaves nationwide, with the kitschy "Macarena" the last Spanish-language song to hit No.1 back in 1996.

In some markets, such as Miami, Los Angeles and New York, however, millions of Spanish-speaking locals do make up a large minority or in Miami's case, a majority of locals.

Fonsi, celebrating on Instagram, hailed the record as "historic for Latin Music."

The moment in cultural tastes comes just months after US President Donald Trump won an election on promises to crack down on immigration, and last week he threatened to let the government shut down if he does not win funding to build a wall on the Mexican border.

While "Despacito" does not come from Mexico, its Latin flavor is unmistakable. Hispanics are the US' largest minority group. And most Hispanic Americans - more than 60 percent - are Mexican-American.

Fonsi, a veteran Puerto Rican pop singer, turned to the beats of reggaeton, the often testosterone-heavy dance music of the US territory's historically marginalized Afro-Puerto Rican community, with "Despacito" featuring the reggaeton star Daddy Yankee.

"Despacito" had its break on the mainstream US chart in a remix with pop celebrity Justin Bieber, who added a breathy English-language opening verse.

But it was the original that has soared to an all-time record on YouTube, reaching more than 3.4 billion views worldwide since January.

Reggaeton influences

Robin Moore, a music professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said that Bieber undoubtedly gave the song a lift.

But he noted that reggaeton itself was "fundamentally about cultural mixture and international influences" and that politics rarely stopped such fusion.

Reggaeton's sources include Jamaica's dancehall rhythms, New York-born rap and beats from Panama, where Jamaicans and other West Indians came together to build the canal.

"So perhaps the disconnect between tendencies in politics and in the realm of popular culture is to be expected," Moore said.

"It's possible that the tendency is even more marked right now, with many listeners consciously or unconsciously demonstrating their rejection of anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the Trump administration, and instead embracing diversity," he said.

Data on "Despacito" by analytical firm BuzzAngle Music showed that the song had by far the most sales and streams in New York and Los Angeles - unsurprising considering they are the largest US cities - and fared especially well in fellow left-leaning coastal cities such as San Francisco and Boston.

The song has also won an audience far beyond the US, topping charts across Europe, Latin America and Asia - although it was banned in Muslim-majority Malaysia over its lyricism, which even to a non-Spanish speaker is palpably full of sexual innuendo.

Latinos 'here to stay'

Alejandro Madrid, a professor of musicology at Cornell University, said that "Despacito" succeeded in part by reinforcing imagery of Latinos in a way made "more palatable to American taste."

The song - whose title means "slowly" in English - plays off sexual metaphors but Madrid said that it was not nearly as explicit as much of reggaeton, including earlier works by Daddy Yankee.

"It is reproducing what one would expect from someone who is Latino but in a sort of tone-downed version," he said.

"It allows an interaction with Latino culture - without it being aggressive but still keeping some of the 'wild' overtones," he said.

Madrid also tied the song's success to the greater visibility in the US of Latinos who, even if facing political attacks, are also speaking out.

He drew a parallel to the 1990s when California saw a boom in Mexican-rooted banda music - just as Republican governor Pete Wilson was pushing Proposition 187 to deny services to undocumented immigrants.

"What I hear with 'Despacito' is Latinos saying - 'We are here, we are Latino. Whether you like it or not, we are here to stay. And we are part of America.'"

Newspaper headline: Cultural mixing


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