ENCORE: Justin Bieber, 'Despacito' and the rise of reggaeton in North American pop
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.
This month, the video topped three billion views — beating out "Gagnam Style" and "See You Again" to become the most-watched video of all time on YouTube.
The song is currently at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the 13th week running.
"It feels amazing to know that a mostly-Spanish song is #1. Language isn't a factor. Music unites us!" Fonsi told Billboard in May.
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.
"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."
Despacito #1 in the world. Thank you—@justinbieber
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."
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."
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.
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.
This interview first aired on Day 6 in May 2017.