Day 6

Justin Bieber, 'Despacito' and the rise of reggaeton in North American pop

Justin Bieber has gotten a lot of credit for a remix of a Latin American hit, but music writer Petra Rivera-Rideau says Bieber has just as much to gain from the song as its Puerto Rican stars.
Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee perform onstage at the Billboard Latin Music Awards on April 27, 2017 in Coral Gables, Florida. (Sergi Alexander/Getty Images)
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by Brent Bambury

It was 30 years ago this summer that Los Lobos took their cover of "La Bamba" to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. They made history. Their version of "La Bamba" was the first Spanish-language single to reach the number one slot, and only the fifth non-English-language song ever to make it to the top.

Since then, there have only been two others. And they're both sung in Spanish.

In 1996, Los del Rio scored with "Macarena." And earlier this month, Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber muscled their way to #1 with "Despacito." That collaboration between two established Puerto Rican musicians and the Canadian pop star was supercharged. It took 97 days for this video to rack up a billion views.

"It feels amazing to know that a mostly-Spanish song is #1. Language isn't a factor. Music unites us!" Fonsi told Billboard.

     

                  

The reggaeton beat

Before "Despacito" ever got the Bieber boost, it was riding high on the Latin charts and lighting up dance floors with its cuatro Spanish guitar intro and that reggaeton beat that charges the rhythm.

Petra Rivera-Rideau, author of "Remixing Reggaeton: The Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico." (Duke University Press)
"It's not like Justin Bieber came on a kind of unknown song. This was a really, really popular song," Petra Rivera-Rideau tells me on Day 6. Rivera-Rideau is the author of Remixing Reggaeton: The Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico.

"I also think that there's a general turn in popular music, a general kind of Caribbean sound, and 'Despacito' kind of rides that wave. So to me it seemed sort of like a perfect formula for getting into the Hot 100."

And it wasn't Luis Fonsi or Daddy Yankee who envisioned a Hot 100 hit with the Bieber remix. Fonsi has said that Justin Bieber pitched the idea to them.

"Justin Bieber contacted them after hearing the song in Colombia while he was on tour," says Rivera-Rideau. "So I think that this helps complicate some of these narratives about how Latin music artists always aim to sing in English and cross over to the English market."

Bieber already knew something about reggaeton. A remix of his 2016 hit "Sorry" featured the Colombian reggaeton sensation J. Balvin.

According to Rivera-Rideau, rhythm is one of the key characteristics that defines the musical genre.

"For me it's really the beat. One element that does go through many reggaeton songs is [that] beat — like 'boom cha-boom chick, boom cha-boom chick.' And 'Sorry' really has that, particularly in the chorus. When you get to the buildup of the chorus, it's very prominent."

"And that's prominent in 'Despacito' as well."

Singer Justin Bieber performs onstage on December 2, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Mike Windle/Getty Images for iHeartMedia)

                 

From the underground to the mainstream

Rivera-Rideau is hearing reggaeton everywhere. It's in Ed Sheeran's remix of "Shape of You" featuring Puerto Rican artists Zion & Lennox, One Republic's "No Vacancy" with Sebastian Yatra of Colombia and in Zumba classes all over the globe.

"People who do Zumba may be more familiar with reggaeton than they think, because a lot of them are doing it in exercise class."

Reggaeton has a grittier pedigree than Zumba. Its roots are underground and street-level, though Rivera-Rideau says the origin of reggaeton is contested.

"There's debate about the origins," she told The Atlantic earlier this month. "Did Puerto Ricans make reggaeton or did Panamanians make reggaeton? One of the things that brings all of these things together is that many of these musics come from urban, predominantly black, working-class communities — whether they're from Kingston or Panama City or New York or San Juan."

Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee perform onstage at the Billboard Latin Music Awards on April 27, 2017 in Coral Gables, Florida. (Sergi Alexander/Getty Images)

                  

Bieber no hablo español

Initially, Justin Bieber won praise for the part of "Despacito" he sings in Spanish. Out Magazine declared Bieber's non-English singing "a highly sexual experience" and he got some good reviews from publications that know Latin music.

But Bieber may want to brush up on his Spanish before his next outing. This week, he was raked by critics for babbling his way through "Despacito"'s Spanish lyrics in a live performance. Some found it offensive.

I asked Rivera-Rideau if she though Luis Fonsi will go in the other direction, across the bridge built by "Despacito" into the English speaking pop world, like Shakira and Ricky Martin did in the 1990s.

"One big difference is that Enrique Iglesias and Ricky Martin and Shakira in the 90s started singing their songs in English. And Luis Fonsi, he hasn't done that yet."

"Maybe this will be a moment, but if we look at historical patterns, it seems that this might be a one-time thing — unless they start doing more English language songs."

Reggaeton, on the other hand, has already arrived.

"A lot of people have heard it," Rivera-Rideau says. "They just may not know that that's what they're listening to."

To hear the whole interview with Petra Rivera-Rideau,, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.