The mouths of Spanish speakers

Dissecting the success of Justin Bieber’s crossover hit and the appropriation of the Spanish tongue

“Chantaje” by Shakira and Maluma was definitely one of the best songs of 2016; it’s slinky reggaeton beat traded flirty verses between Maluma and Shakira in a way that is essentially the Spanish version of Rihanna and Drake’s bop, “Work.”

It’s a shame “Chantaje” wasn’t a crossover hit like “Despacito,” the Justin Bieber remix of Luis Fonsi’s song, as Shakira and Maluma’s sultry chemistry makes “Despacito” feel like a middle school dance. “Despacito” is a clear shot for song of the summer as it spends its second week on Billboard Hot 100 at number one, eclipsing Ed Sheeran’s potential song of the summer, a “Cheap Thrills” ripoff titled, “Shape of You” (nobody needs to hear Sheeran, at the liquor store, singing, “Put that body on me,” as they buy their joints and booze this summer). In its defense, Bieber’s “Despacito” builds on what the original song does — doubling down on Fonsi’s lusty sensuality with Bieber’s charming annunciation of “Despacito.”

Bieber got the idea for the remix when he played Fonsi’s “Despacito” during his Colombian concert and seeing fans’ reaction to it — they went wild! Bieber then reached out to Fonsi and Daddy Yankee to hop on a remix; the song helps Bieber out more than Fonsi, bestowing a maturity and manliness that isn’t saturated with muscles or tattoos, but rather with a mature sensuality folding over onto a cultural crossover hit for Fonsi. This isn’t Bieber’s first time dabbling in a Latino market. Last year’s “Sorry,” a remix with J Balvin, embellishes a traditional reggaeton beat with Major Lazer’s distorted sonic symphony, earning Bieber another number one hit on Billboard’s Top 100. Reggaeton has too steadily leaned on softer poppier sounds, with romantic reggaetoneros like Maluma, Nicky Jam and J Balvin opening an avenue for such collaborations to happen.

Bieber is just one of many non-Latino pop stars who has made use of Caribbean, African-pop, Afro-Latinx and Latinx sonic palettes, complicatedly used in both pop and hip-hop. It’s difficult plotting the exact moment that this second-wave “Latin boom” under the guise of reggaeton hit; hip-hop has always had a symbiotic relationship with Caribbean, Afro-Latinx and Latinx sounds. Tropical house comes to mind as an easy label (yet ambiguous; what does it actually refer to?) to think of formal pop songs like Sia’s 2016 “Cheap Thrills,” or even Major Lazer 2015 hit “Lean On.” Tropical-house, as a style of pop music, is more of a saturated impression of Afro-Latinx and Latinx sounds surfacing mainstream radio in 2015 until today.

Indie and mainstream hip-hop has taken an interest in African, Afro-Latinx and Caribbean sounds too. Drake’s debated use of Patois on “Views” and “More Life, or on Rihanna’s, short use of Patois in the chorus of the dancehall tinged “Work,” for instance, are two major stars mainstreaming these sounds. As black music and sounds interact differently when invoked with black artists, those diasporic conversations have a different tone than the usual conversations of power in white-appropriative music — as Doreen St. Felix brilliantly writes for MTV.  

The questions haunting “Despacito” aren’t just of appropriation but what unhinges and rewards these antics. If “Despacito” can get mainstream pop airplay thanks to Bieber but “Chantaje,” with a global superstar like Shakira behind it, can’t get any radio play — then there is the problem in sight: Radio’s selective gears. Which mouth gets to speak Spanish and which doesn’t? Speaking Spanish, despite popular assumption, is still heavily politicized. Speaking Spanish when you are a person of color makes you a target for responses like, “Go to Mexico,” (as if every Spanish speaker comes from Mexico) or my favorite, “We speak English in America” (Since when? 1492?). At first, it does sound a bit absurd for a rethinking of what we hear on the radio but when a majority of Americans speak more than one language that absurdity transforms into a reasonable demand. The power dynamics of institutions like mainstream radio decides which mouths get to speak Spanish and which of those can’t. For Bieber, a white dude, singing Spanish grants him maturity and sensuality; for Fonsi or Shakira, speaking Spanish is seen as alien and portraying a lack of intelligence.

Coincidently, KIIS FM, a mainstream pop radio station serving the greater Los Angeles area, plays “La Tortura” by Shakira and Alejandro Sanz on occasion, a song with not one word in English. “Despacito” is actually the first song in Spanish since 1995’s “La Macarena” to be number one in the United States and it’s easy to see why: A catchy song made even more irresistible with the looming fantasy of lusty lover-boy Bieber singing about slowly kissing your neck, playing into the fantasy of the Latin-lover alongside Fonsi and Yankee. All along this call of visibility, or, audibility, for Spanish songs and Latinx sounds is a trap when you get Bieber in the club singing “Despacito,” forgetting the words and replacing them with Dorito and burrito — as if those two things are emblematic of Latinx culture. Maybe only to the mouths and eyes of Bieber they are.

It’s reflective of the entire problem — if Latinx heritage is minimized to Doritos and burritos then you can keep your Trump Tower taco bowls as Ed Sheeran serenades you to “put that body on him,” while the rest of us bop to “Chantaje.”

 

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