Pop music loves a bandwagon. Mainstream chart success always has, and likely always will, rely heavily on an artist’s ability to deftly hop from one trend to another. In recent years, we’ve seen the unstoppable rise of EDM, the mainstream success of dubstep and the Winehouse-led deluge of neo-soul. Most of the time, these trends are abandoned almost as quickly as they appear. They are introduced by a trailblazer (Skrillex, Winehouse for example), before being hijacked by a troupe of try-hards (Guetta, Duffy et al) before the fad becomes overdone and is duly tossed aside. Such is the fickle nature of pop.
A quick glance at the charts or a brief listen to Radio 1 will reveal today’s prevailing trend. Latin – or Spanglish – pop is very much the genre du jour. This year alone, we’ve seen successful Latin pop peddled by the likes of Justin Bieber, Little Mix, J. Balvin & Willy William, Enrique Iglesias and even, to an extent, Ed Sheeran.
But this trend is nothing new. If we look back to the late nineties, the pop scene was similarly gripped by a spate of hugely successful Latin-inspired tracks delivered by some of the world’s biggest pop stars. So what killed the Latin pop song, and why – in 2017 – is it suddenly back with a vengeance?
Arguably, it was Bayside Boys’s remix of Los del Rio’s behemoth dance track ‘Macarena’ that propelled the Spanish pop song into the public’s consciousness. The 1996 track became one of the most successful songs of all time, spending an incredible 14 weeks atop the Billboard chart. What followed was a smattering of pop songs clambering aboard the Spanglish bandwagon, delivering some of the most memorable pop tracks of the 90s in the process.
The sudden public appetite for Latin pop allowed Spanish-speaking artists, who had previously been largely ignored, a stab at mainstream success. Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin, who helped kickstart the trend with his 1995 hit ‘Maria’, scored a major global smash with ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca’ and another minor hit with the salsa-inspired ‘La Copa De Vida’. Similarly, Spanish megababe Enrique Iglesias, whose previous three albums had found only limited success, suddenly enjoyed a huge boost with his chart-topping track ‘Bailamos’ in 1999. Just two years later, Colombian star Shakira would break into the mainstream with ‘Whenever, Wherever’.
While it’s true that these artists often had to anglicise their work as a condition of their success, they nonetheless became household names, their Latin pop no longer confined to the sidelines. But it wasn’t just Spanish speaking artists getting in on the action. The Spice Girls released two Latin-inspired tracks in 1997, ‘Spice Up Your Life’ and ‘Viva Forever’, both finding huge success worldwide. After her departure from the group, Geri Halliwell also went on to release ‘Mi Chico Latino’, a sultry flamenco-pop song that featured Spanish lyrics, allegedly in homage to Halliwell’s Spanish mother. But Halliwell was more than a little aware of the track’s increased chances of success during a period of Spanish-inspired hits. “I had written the song back in 1998 but by the time the summer of 1999 came around, Latin-influenced music was ruling the charts,” Halliwell said. “Ricky Martin had recently had a number one and there were others on the way. So it was a strange example of synchronicity that I should be ready to go with a Latin track which I had written almost a year before.”
Rather than acting as a springboard for Latin artists to achieve mainstream success, Latin pop became a mere fad for artists to jump aboard. By 2002, the appeal of the genre had begun to decrease, having reached saturation point. This was the year of Las Ketchup’s huge hit ‘The Ketchup Song’, probably the genre’s last major hit before its prolonged hiatus. It’s fitting that while a novelty song launched Latin pop to the mainstream, it should be another that signalled its demise.
In the intervening years, only a few Spanglish tracks have cracked the top 40. The most successful came in 2006 when Shakira released ‘Hips Don’t Lie’, but this was somewhat of an anomaly amidst a largely Latin-light landscape. For the most part, artists who had found success during the genre’s peak had to further anglicise their sound to maintain their relevance. As a result, Enrique embraced dance music while Shakira opted for the purer pop of ‘She Wolf’. But now, almost 20 years since its heyday, Latin pop is well and truly back.
Of all people, it was Justin Bieber who returned the reggaeton sound to Western radios. His guest spot on a remix of Luis Fonsi’s ‘Despacito’ surged the track to the top of the charts in virtually every English-speaking territory. Though the original was already a success in its own right, it was the addition of Bieber that enabled it to truly crack the Western market. Fittingly, it became the first track sung primarily in Spanish to top the US charts since ‘Macarena’.
Like ‘Macarena’, ‘Despacito’ has heralded a new charge of Spanish language hits. Enrique Iglesias has gone back to singing in his native tongue, with his latest track ‘Subeme La Radio’ finding mainstream success, while Shakira has also returned to singing in Spanish for her latest album, as has Jennifer Lopez. New artists are also finding global recognition, such as Colombian singer J. Balvin whose track ‘Mi Gente’ has become a certified worldwide hit. Spanish five-piece CNCO look set to find overseas success too, thanks to their new collaboration with Little Mix.
In most ways, the influx of Spanish pop songs on the Western charts is disarmingly similar to the trend-cycle of the late nineties. So when will it end? As we gradually edge closer to saturation point, it’s only a matter of time before the public once again grows tired of castanets and flamenco guitars and goes searching for something new. Before that happens though, we can expect a spate of novelty tracks and – on a positive note – the emergence of some promising Spanish-speaking talent. But any emerging artists better be quick – because as we learnt in the nineties, the Spanglish trend never lasts forever.