"Despacito" at the Grammys and the New Latin Boom

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For Puerto Rico, 2017 was the year of “Despacito” and Hurricane María. “Despacito” was a worldwide musical hit that put Puerto Rico back on the map, so to speak, after several years of going unnoticed in the cultural sphere at a global scale. Hurricane María was the most devastating storm to ever hit our land, causing havoc on everything: housing, health care, education, economics, food consumption, mental health, and civilian safety, just to name a few. It is possible to argue that 2017 was the best year for Puerto Rico at the same time that it was the worst year for Puerto Rico.

If you do not like “Latin” pop music, or have lived under a rock, the mega-success of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” in 2017 might not register to you as something worthy enough of being “the best year for Puerto Rico.” I do not mind that opinion at all. I myself have mixed feelings about the global success of this song. Do not get me wrong, the original version of the song is very infectious, as the youth call it, “a bop,” and the video is quite fun. Yet, due to Justin Bieber becoming involved after the fact with a remix, the mainstream media grossly shifted the focus of the song—from Puerto Rican life, music and culture—to Bieber’s white Canadian presence trying its hand at the Spanish language. 

Once the remix was released, the U.S. media was quick to heap accolades on Bieber for bringing “Latin” music back to the mainstream while failing to recognize the fact that two pillars of contemporary Puerto Rican sonic culture had already experienced transnational successes in their 20+ year careers. Fonsi had collaborated with English-speaking artists before and Daddy Yankee had already been in the U.S. mainstream with “Gasolina.” Some even suggested that Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee had approached Bieber first, when it was Bieber who called them up after hearing the song while in Colombia. Such a suggestion served to completely erase the arduous labor of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s long-standing music careers as well as the already achieved success of the song in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the rest of the world.

What has been unsurprising, yet still disappointing, is the mainstream treatment of this song. Most gratingly, the manner Puerto Rico continues to be stereotyped as the tropical paradise where you can take things, as the song affirms, despacito. Puerto Ricans can never take things despacito, though. Especially when considering the economic crisis they were facing at the time of the song’s release—a crisis that was worsened by Hurricane María. After the hurricane, there was no “Despacito” that could save us. Puerto Ricans had to work hard and suffer the consequences of the destruction and consequent U.S. negligence; a destruction and negligence still present, five months after the fact. And yet, the mainstream outlets made this out to be “a new Latin boom,” devoid of any kind of nuanced understanding of Puerto Rico’s history and rich musical culture. Then again, the mainstream media has never been good with nuance.

 The video location of “Despacito” before and after Hurricane María

The video location of “Despacito” before and after Hurricane María

This non-nuanced “new Latin boom” discourse gained even more traction when the Grammy nominations were announced. Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee had already swept their categories during the Latin Grammys, celebrated in November 2017, which was expected. However, the extra success of the Spanglish remix allowed for them to be nominated at the Anglo Grammys, though they did not win any awards. Furthermore, they were called up to perform the song in all its sexually-charged, fantastical, and paradisiacal glory at the ceremony last month.

While I did not watch the ceremony, I was watching the E! Red Carpet pre-show before I had to leave my home that Sunday and was astounded at their wholly unoriginal commentary. They claimed “Despacito” was bringing “flavor” and “spice” to U.S. radio stations as part of the “new Latin boom” that includes J. Balvin’s “Mi Gente” remix with Beyoncé, Camila Cabello’s “Havana” with Young Thug, and Luis Fonsi’s “Échame la Culpa” with Demi Lovato. As a Latina, an Afro-Latina at that, the discourse of “spice” and “flavor” when it comes to Spanish-language music and performance is nothing new, but it has become a perpetual characterization of Latinx culture that is dangerous and violent to us because it Otherizes Latinidad, fetishizes it, and transforms it into something that is supposed to be consumed—in every sense of the word—instead of admired and respected.

 Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi perform at this years Grammys

Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi perform at this years Grammys

What is also hurtful about these songs, and the moment that we are living in right now being referred to as “the new Latin boom,” is that there is nothing new about them, and their popularity or relevance only decline in the fickle eyes of English-language mainstream media in the United States. Latinxs in the United States and Spanish speakers in Latin America and the Caribbean will continue to listen to and support these songs and genres. We did not need E! News, the Grammys, or Justin Bieber to make these songs and artists successful and we will not need them in the future.

“Latin” music is not new. There was music in several languages traveling to and from Latin America and the Caribbean before the twentieth century even began. Moreover, the artists and songs that were part of the “Latin booms” of the 1960s and 1990s are iconic. A lot of these artists are still working and thriving, despite not being on mainstream English language award shows, radio stations, and media. So, while the popularity and visibility of Latinx, Latin American, and Caribbean artists in mainstream U.S. media might decline, or bust, in the coming year (especially since Korean pop is giving it a run for its money and having two different non-Anglo cultures being popular at the same time is UNTHINKABLE to the American media) the popularity, visibility, and cultural value of this music in Latinx communities, Latin America and the Caribbean will continue unchanged.

Bethzabeth (Beth) Colón Pizzini, born and raised in Puerto Rico, is a third year PhD student in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Latina/o Studies with a History minor from Northwestern University. Her research interests include race, class, gender, sexuality, and space in Puerto Rico; Afro-Puerto Rican youth music and aesthetics; Afro-Puerto Rican women’s subjectivity and activism through art; and Afro-Puerto Rican cultural and community politics.