It seems that the summer of 2017 will be defined by the supermassive hit, “Despacito,” sung by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. You can’t turn on the car radio without hearing the catchy song that has topped the Billboard pop charts for weeks. The success of the song has brought up the usual chatter about how the United States is impacted by Latino culture; if we have a number one hit, it is further evidence of growing Latino influence on American culture.
It is true that nowadays most Americans seem to be more open to foreign cultural tastes; for example, in most urban areas you can easily find a vast array of foods from around the world. American music also seems to be expanding its boundaries; it now includes many musical strains that have arrived with the millions of immigrants who feel the need to maintain a musical connection to their homeland. Latinos, especially Mexicans, have always preserved this type of strong bond.
For some young music lovers out there, the “Despacito” phenomenon may be proof that Latino music has finally conquered the American public, but this occurrence is not really new. Americans have had a long fascination with Latin American music and over the years it has grown exponentially.
A quick glance at popular musical tastes in the U.S. easily shows that Latino music has enjoyed periods of popularity throughout the twentieth century and into the present. For instance, Caribbean music, such as mambo—the Pérez Prado kind—was all the rage in the 1950s. Anyone who watches an old rerun of the 1950s sitcom, I Love Lucy, can hear Cuban music in its theme song. Lucy’s (Lucille Ball) husband, Rickie Ricardo (played by the Cuban actor and orchestra leader, Desi Arnaz), was supposed to be exactly that in the show, an orchestra leader who entertained at the Tropicana Club. Around the same time that this television sitcom and mambo were all the rage, rock music came into its own. Richie Valens, “La Bamba,” rode this wave of early rock and roll popularity and hasn’t lost its luster over the years.
The rock explosion of the late 1960s was accompanied by José Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad,” which is a staple to this day in American radio and stores at Christmas season. Then, in the first years of the 1970s, San Francisco gave birth to a fusion of rock, blues, African, Cuban, and Puerto Rican rhythms that were exported to the world in the form of classics like Santana’s version of Tito Puente’s “Oye cómo va” and Malo’s “Suavecito.” By the mid-seventies, even Mocedades syrupy, “Eres tú” (though not strictly Latino), and the good old Texican heartfelt song by Freddy Fender, “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” were a hit across the American heartland.
During the years of the supposed “Decade of the Hispanics,” the 1980s, American and Latino audiences went bananas listening to Gloria Stephan and the Miami Sound Machine’s infectious “Conga.” Los Lobos rendition of “La Bamba,” from the soundtrack of Luis Valdés’ film about the life of Richie Valens, was again a huge hit on American radio, reaching number one on the Billboard charts.
While in the 1990s Rock en Español came of age in Latin America and began to infiltrate some markets north of the border, it was the “Macarena” (another song not quite Latino) with its corny dance that took the U.S. by storm. The decade ended with the wild gyrations of Ricky Martin’s, “Livin’ la Vida Loca” at the top of the charts. Santana’s monster album, Supernatural, released in 1999, blasted to the top and into in the new millennium with its motley crew of musical tastes mixed with Latino sounds. Around this time Shakira’s sassy and, at times, lyrical songs that made people dance everywhere, along with music from Jennifer Lopez, Mark Anthony, and Elvis Crespo.
Behind the scenes of this musical landscape, in the mid-nineties, Latino audiences were establishing trends more in line with popular sounds coming from Mexico and the Caribbean. Banda and narcocorridos began to dominate radio, especially out in California. And the Caribbean catchy bachata, salsa, and merengue were spreading out from the barrios of New York and Miami. In the new millennium, the extremely infectious music of reggaeton took off. The audience for these styles grew by leaps and bounds as the children of Latin American immigrants came of age, looking for some cultural connection to their parents’ homelands. Many Americans had also become acquainted with this musical diversity through various media. It was only a matter of time before a song would appear that would appeal to this mixed, mass audience: in this sense, “Despacito” arrived perfectly at the right time.
Music audiences in the USA are now predisposed to accepting almost any style of music, whatever its origin. People’s tastes vary widely and most Mexican American youth living in urban areas the likes of Los Angeles, San José, and Chicago are no different in this regard; they’re inclined to listen to anything from classic rock, hip-hop, Latino rock to the bouncy banda rhythm of La Arrolladora Banda el Limón. Still, many of them tend to claim that their world is defined only by Mexican music, in particular, the operatic country, and sometimes, weepy songs of Vicente Fernández, as well as the macho, sexist, misogynist, narcocorridos that glorify violence, such as those of El Komander.
Contrast this scene to the musical tendencies of youth in Mexico’s urban areas, where American music rules the bars and discos. Retro rock is hugely popular in restaurants and bars that cater to Mexican hipsters who down their small brewery beers to sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties rock of all genres. “Antros” or discos pulsate with hip-hop and electronic music until six in the morning, with a smattering of Mexican music thrown in sometime during the night. Mexicans are enthralled with American music of all types. Not unlike in the USA, urban Mexicans have developed an eclectic musical taste, but with one difference: they appear to be defined less by traditional Mexican music and more by American musical importations, which underlines the effect that this music is having and will have on Mexico’s urban youth.
Yes, Latino music has made an impact in the American music scene. Since the 1950s, Latin American sounds have been part of the American musical landscape, with mega-popular songs appearing now and then of which the latest is the saccharine “Despacito,” a tune that like “La Marcarena” will soon lose its luster and won’t attain the status of a classic in the vein “Oye Cómo Va” and “La Bamba.” But I’m not sure the impact is as big as some claim it to be.
Let me give an illustration of what I mean.
Not long ago, I was at a bar called “Los Lobos” in the City of Guanajuato with some Mexican American students. The clientele was mainly local people between 18-45 years of age, drinking beer, playing pool, and just taking in the scene. The music was nothing but American classic rock. At one point, Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” started blaring out of the speakers and my students were amused at hearing this New Jersey song in Guanajuato. When the song was about to go into the chorus, I said, “Get ready.” “For what?” They asked. I didn’t answer. At the top of their lungs, the entire bar crowd sang the chorus in unison to a man and woman. The students laughed and asked, “What the hell is going on?” At that point, they realized the impact that American music is having in Mexico. This is the influence of growing up with MTV and watching nothing but Hollywood films. These Mexicans seemed to know the lyrics to every song played that night. American music is definitely part of their lives.
The day I visit some all-American town in the Midwest, let’s say, in Iowa; and I stop at a local bar full of Iowans, and the Tigres del Norte song, “Jefe de Jefes,” comes belting out of the sound system and everyone in that bar joins in singing with gusto every word, then I’ll know Mexican music has also become part of everyday life of Americans.