Just a few years ago, a new Latin artist would need a miracle to achieve the ranks of Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran or Rihanna on the pop charts with a song entirely in Spanish. Huge names in Latin music like Enrique Iglesias and Shakira would typically be constrained to the lower half of the American charts with their global hit singles; even when they broke the curse, their songs did not have the same longevity their English equivalents would have. So why is “Despacito” still on the radio?
The current success of reggaeton shouldn’t be a surprise for those who have been paying attention to trends within the music industry. In 2014, Canadian reggae fusion band Magic! brought the sound back into the mainstream with their song “Rude”. The song was sung entirely in English and was far from an accurate portrayal of Latin culture; however, the sonic imprint of the hit outlasted its chart performance. Numerous American pop singles such as Rihanna’s “Work”, the tropical lead off of 2016’s “ANTI” and Drake’s “One Dance” practiced the same method of incorporating elements of reggaeton in their musical composition.
The recent hits in Spanish also owe their success to one of the most well-known names in Latin Pop, Enrique Iglesias, who paved the way for more dancehall anthems in Spanish with his song “Bailando”, which has garnered over 2.5 billion views on YouTube between the videos for its Spanish, Spanglish and Portuguese versions since 2014.
Enter J Balvin. The Colombian singer and rapper made it to the top of the American Latin charts in late 2014 when his song “Ay Vamos” went viral, having accumulated over 1.4 billion Youtube views at the time of publishing. One of the first music videos to grow as rapidly as it did, “Ay Vamos” captured the Latin American flavor that was missing from the previously mentioned songs like “Rude” or “Work” or even “Bailando”, since Iglesias himself is Spanish and not Latin American. In such a short period of time, Balvin managed to establish himself as a recognizable force within the industry. In 2015, he was invited to collaborate with Major Lazer for the Spanish remix of “Lean On” and he recorded a verse for the Latino remix of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” later in the year, both of which have been huge hits around the globe.
In 2017, though, the remix-in-Spanish method was flipped on its head thanks to “Despacito”. When Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee released their collaboration in January, the single instantly became a hit among Latin American listeners, but it was when Justin Bieber remixed it three months later that it became a pop culture phenomenon. The song did not only become a huge hit, it actually tied Mariah Carey’s “One Sweet Day” for the title of longest-running number one single in the American chart history with 16 weeks atop the list and passed “Macarena,” which had held the record since 1993 at 14 weeks, for the longest run at number one for a Spanish song. While the song’s original version arguably stands as the better “Despacito”, the Bieber remix did serve to familiarize the North American public with the Latin sound slowly through the inclusion of an English verse to open the song.
“Despacito”s performance has influenced other artists with a primarily English catalogue to hop on various Latin tracks for remixes. Little Mix used their star power over on the other side of Atlantic to make CNCO’s “Reggaetón Lento” a top five hit in the United Kingdom, where the song had never charted before the collaboration happened. Just last month, Beyoncé joined J Balvin and Willy William on their song “Mi Gente” and announced that all proceeds from the song would be donated to charities to help heal Mexico, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands affected by the recent disasters. “Mi Gente” was already a global hit and a top 20 hit in the United States all-genre chart, and the first completely non-English track to top Spotify’s Global Top 50 list, but the Beyoncé feature did push it into the top three following the full tracking week after its release.
“Mi Gente’s” leap on the chart turned out to be a historic moment in American music history: for the first time ever in the chart’s 59-year history, there were multiple non-English hits in the top ten. A week later, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s charity single for Puerto Rico topped the digital downloads chart, replacing “Mi Gente,” marking the first time two Spanish songs led the chart back to back.
The globalization of music industry and the dominance of streaming certainly influences what the consumers can listen to and therefore shapes the music charts. This year, for example, saw BTS, one of the well-known K-pop bands, debut on the American top 100. It has become more and more possible for international artists to blow up in the United States, even though they are not necessarily able to follow up their massive hit all the time and disappear after their fifteen minutes is over. New Zealander Gotye and Kimbra with “Somebody That I Used To Know”, Nico & Vinz with “Am I Wrong”, or OMI’s “Cheerleader” are, unfortunately, examples of so-called one-hit wonders from outside of the US. Yet streaming has done wonders for Latin music especially, considering that more than 80% of Latin music revenues in the US come from streaming services according to an RIAA report published on October 25.
Even though globalization has certainly affected the pop landscape, foreign languages still typically do not sell very well in the American musical landscape. However, there is definitely a growing interest towards Spanish songs and the genres of reggaeton and reggae fusion, but it is important to note that these genres are particularly successful in summer and not as much in the remainder of the year. “Despacito” and “Mi Gente” were both singles destined to be summer anthems; their release dates, late April for the Justin Bieber remix of “Despacito” and late June for “Mi Gente,” are the concrete proof that this was the intention of the record labels. To actually measure if America is beginning to appreciate — not to be confused with appropriate — the beauty of Latin music, we are going to have to wait and see whether another “Despacito” climbs up the charts. Until then, enjoy singing along to Luis Fonsi and Bieber in your car, because the song is not going anywhere just yet.
Contact Ugur Dursun at mudursun ‘at’ stanford.edu.