Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Decoding 'Despacito'' tells the inside stories of Latin megahits

Spanish singer-songwriter Rosalia
Spanish singer-songwriter Rosalia in New York City. (courtesy of the artist)

I cracked Decoding "Despacito" ready for a deep dive into the roots and evolution of Latin music, expecting a heavy history full of songs I don't know but should. Then I saw the chapter titles. "Feliz Navidad." "Conga." "Macarena." "Livin' La Vida Loca." And, of course, "Despacito." These are not obscure cuts; in fact, they're some of the hugest hits of the past half-century.

By the time I finished the book, I realized that a complete history of Latin music would be even more daunting than I'd imagine. This is a genre that includes entire nations, even entire continents, worth of music: sounds from Spain, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Mexico, and the United States, just to name a few hubs. Even the common-denominator definition Cobo offers for Latin music — literally anything sung primarily in Spanish — doesn't include songs like "To All the Girls I've Loved Before," "Smooth," and "Whenever, Wherever," all of which get chapters in Decoding "Despacito."

Leila Cobo's focus is understandable; the author has been a leader of Billboard’s Latin music coverage for the past two decades. She's fascinated with songs that moved the needle for the growth of Latin music in the U.S., and her oral history makes clear that there were plenty of stories to tell about these huge hits alone.

Take "Smooth," the Santana song that became so ubiquitous, today it feels like the punchline of a joke you never get tired of hearing. The history of that song alone is worth the book's purchase price. It starts with Carlos Santana approaching Clive Davis and saying he was ready to get back on the radio again, whatever it took. Songwriter Itaal Shur crafted a pop song built on the guitarist's signature groove, then sent it to Rob Thomas, who was interested in writing for other artists. (When Thomas inquired about a lyrical theme and mentioned he just happened to be married to a Puerto Rican model, Shur knew he'd called the right guy.) When the track went to Santana to consider for a possible George Michael vocal, the guitarist pointed out that the demo singer was doing a pretty good job. Why not just use him? Knowing no one in the industry would believe the new Santana album was a hit machine unless they heard it for themselves, Davis booked the band, Thomas, and Wyclef to play his Grammys party...and the rest is (oral) history.

The oral history format has its limitations; the "Macarena" chapter, for example, never really makes clear where the song's iconic dance originated. The format is fitting, though, for a genre that's very often been multivocal, not to mention multilingual. José Feliciano sang part of "Feliz Navidad" in English, to ensure mainstream radio programmers couldn't dismiss it out of hand. Julio Iglesias challenged himself to make an English-language album, and further challenged himself in choosing a duet partner who smoked up the studio and dressed "like a gardener." (To this day, the artists can't agree on which of the two suggested the unlikely but lucrative pairing.)

Thirty years later, Justin Bieber would return the favor, in a manner of speaking, by learning Spanish for his "Despacito" guest verse. At the time that engendered some controversy, but after generations of Spanish speakers (notably, Shakira) learning English to break into the mainstream market, that historic hit marked a sort of watershed. The track still (Cobo makes a point of noting) needed Bieber to get Top 40 traction, but the fact that the white Canadian superstar went with Spanish instead of English — and that it worked, even while record executives stood ready to swap in an English verse if it didn't — indicated that "crossing over" wasn't just a one-way street any more. "Today we no longer talk about the next 'Despacito,'" Cobo writes, "but about an ongoing Latin music movement."

To be clear, Decoding "Despacito" isn't exclusively about songs you've heard while having your teeth cleaned. It also includes Daddy Yankee's 2004 "Gasolina," which barely cracked the Top 40 but established a beachhead for the later reggaeton invasion. It includes Willie Colón's 1989 "El gran varón," an epic song about "a gay Latino man who is shunned by his family and ultimately dies of AIDS," inspiring important conversations at a painful time. It includes Carlos Vives's "La tierra del olvido" (1995), which opened the door for Columbia's vallenato genre to pervade much of Latin music globally; and Los Tigres del Norte's "Contrabando y traición," which married Mexico's corrido tradition to tales of the drug wars and in so doing, spawned an entire sub-genre of popular entertainment.

The stories in Decoding "Despacito" are stories of ingenious craft applied to the tantalizing prize of stardom that spans languages and locations, and in that they're also reminders of how tightly wrapped Latin music has been with remix culture. Gloria Estefan explains how an intended Pablo Flores remix of "Conga," intended for near-simultaneous release with the single, ended up being so inspired that Estefan and her collaborators incorporated elements (including the brilliant opening flourish) into the main track. Cobo points out that at one point, three different versions of "Macarena" were in the Hot 100, presaging the way that songs like "Despacito" would make canny use of variant mixes to saturate the market. (Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road," which unseated "Despacito" for longest run at number one, used this trick to even greater effect.)

The book ends with Rosalía's "Malamente," an indie hit that made the singer-songwriter the Grammys' first-ever Best New Artist nominee to sing entirely in Spanish. By the time of that song's 2018 release, many boundaries had been broken, but there was still a glass ceiling: incredibly, among the top 50 Billboard-charting Hot Latin Songs of 2016, there were precisely zero by female artists. The streaming era, Cobo argues, helped crack that ceiling by allowing artists to build fanbases outside of the traditional industry gatekeepers; Rosalía, like her fan Billie Eilish, represents an entirely new paradigm for young women in music. She crosses boundaries, she builds her songs from the elements of disparate genres, and she rocks a distinctive style that contributes to her reputation as a trailblazer rather than a trend-chaser.

"'Latin' music," writes Cobo, "had finally, truly become global."

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June 17: Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour by Rickie Lee Jones

June 24: Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music by Eric Weisbard

July 1: An Oral History of Tupac Shakur by Sheldon Pearce

July 8: The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (Second Edition) by Jessica Hopper

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