On 31 December 2016, a curious thing happened on YouTube. The platform’s most-watched music video on New Year’s Eve wasn’t a hoary old seasonal favourite, a longstanding party anthem or one of the year’s biggest hits. It was Chantaje, a Spanish-language reggaeton-influenced track by Shakira, featuring a guest appearance from her fellow Colombian singer-songwriter Maluma. Chantaje is a great song – tense, infectious, and with an accompanying video that is diverting, featuring as it does Shakira walking a small pig on a leash and twerking in front of the urinals in a gents’ lavatory. But still: more popular as 2016 drew to an end than any of the year’s inescapable hit singles? Bigger than Drake’s One Dance or Sia’s Cheap Thrills or Justin Bieber’s Sorry? Apparently so: 15.3 million people watched it in just 24 hours.
As it turned out, Chantaje’s popularity wasn’t an aberration so much as a hint of things to come. Latin pop has been one of 2017’s biggest success stories. By common consent, Despacito by Puerto Rico’s Luis Fonsi, featuring Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber, was the song of the summer: 16 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, making it the joint longest-running No 1 in US history; a chart-topper everywhere from the Philippines to the Czech Republic; both the second and third most-streamed song of the year on Spotify (the remix featuring Bieber just pipping the original version); the first YouTube video in history to reach 4bn views. It was followed by Cuban-American singer Camila Cabello’s transatlantic No 1 Havana; Mi Gente, a single by Colombian reggaeton star J Balvin and French singer and producer Willy William remixed to include a guest appearance by Beyoncé; and Reggaeton Lento, which began life as a single by CNCO – a boyband put together on Simon Cowell’s Latin American version of The X Factor, La Banda – before another Cowell-boosted pop band, Little Mix, were brought on board.
The year ended with this year’s X Factor winners, Rak-Su, releasing a self-penned single called Dimelo that pieced together a string of Latin cliches – hips like Shakira, got me feeling Latino, had to WhatsApp my amigos etc – and the improbable sight of last year’s X Factor winner Matt Terry, who hails from the barrios of Bromley, singing in Spanish onstage at Capital Radio’s Jingle Bell Ball: he was filling in Enrique Iglesias’s parts on Subeme la Radio, another Latin American hit.
The reasons for the explosion in Latin pop look varied. At their most prosaic, the surge in YouTube views for Latin videos – more than a billion each for tracks including not just Despacito, Chantaje and Mi Gente but Gente De Zona’s La Gozadera, Nicky Jam’s Hasta el Amanecer and Chino y Nacho’s Andas En Mi Cabeza – can be accounted for by the vast increase in internet access in Latin America itself, which has doubled since 2010 as the price of broadband has plummeted. According to one UN report, a broadband connection that would have cost 18% of average monthly income in Latin America in 2010 cost just 2% in 2016. That also must have had an impact on streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, which now challenge radio as the primary means by which people access new music. The Global Top 50 playlist is invariably on Spotify’s homepage: tracks that are already huge in Spanish-speaking territories have a storefront previously denied them by Anglophone media.
Record companies have got wise to the fact that a track can have a much wider global reach if you remix it, adding guest appearances by artists big in another country: who knows, you might also break one of the guest artists in the track’s country of origin. You can see this approach most clearly in Bum Bum Tam Tam, a Brazilian hit by MC Fioti whose new remix features US rapper Future, Colombia’s J Balvin, Spanish EDM star Juan Magan and London’s Stefflon Don.
The question of whether the vogue for Latin pop is a fad or a permanent broadening of mainstream taste is an interesting one. On the one hand, Luis Fonsi’s follow-up to Despacito – this time featuring Demi Lovato – only scraped to No 46 in the UK. On the other, there are signs that it is part of a broader trend that encompasses not just pop, but more underground music. This year, Canadian-Colombian electronic auteur Lido Pimienta won Canada’s coveted Polaris prize with the Spanish-language album La Papessa; there has been widespread acclaim for the output of experimental Mexican dance label Naafi, home to Mexican Jihad, Lao, Imaabs and a succession of futuristic, boundary-crashing DJ mixes. Time will tell, but for now at least, one line from Mi Gente, “Tamo’ rompiendo la discoteca” – “we are smashing the disco” – seems inarguable.
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