“Despacito” Could Signify A Latin Pop Resurgence Or Just Justin Bieber’s King-Making Power

It’s not every day a song sung primarily in Spanish goes to #1 in the US. It’s not even every decade. But “Despacito,” a collaboration between Puerto Rican stars Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, has done it with a late-breaking assist from Canadian pop idol Justin Bieber. The Bieber-featuring “Despacito” remix, you may have heard, is the first predominantly Spanish-language single to hit #1 in this country since Los Del Rio’s “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)” ruled the summer of 1996. It’s a lot better than “Macarena,” too — lithe and airy yet hard-hitting in a way that’s ideal for the hot summer nights that are about to unfold. The track is now by far the biggest hit ever for both Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. And considering it just logged a second week at #1, and that we are on the brink of Memorial Day weekend, it doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.

The success of “Despacito” may well open a door for other songs like it. In the wake of the “Macarena,” a wave of Latin pop stars swept through American pop radio in the late ’90s and early 2000s, with the likes of Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Enrique Iglesias, Marc Anthony, and Christina Aguilera all scoring major hits. Some of those songs were more distinctly Latin than others, but their shared presence in the pop sphere amounted to a noticeable trend that bent the sound of American radio southward. No longer cloistered off into its own world, Latin pop was part of the fabric of the mainstream. It’s easy to imagine a similar crossover moment following “Despacito.” We are about due for one, based on the usual 20-year nostalgia cycle — and how timely that representation would be considering the discord sown by our president’s campaign-trail invective against immigrants in general and Hispanics in particular.

It could happen! There has certainly been no shortage of pop stars who straddle the line between the English- and Spanish-speaking markets swinging into action this spring. Colombian pop superstar Shakira is back this week with El Dorado, her first album in three years. Cuban-American upstart Camila Cabello, formerly of Fifth Harmony, just released “Crying In The Club,” the excellent lead single from her debut solo album — this after ascending all the way to #4 with her Machine Gun Kelly collab “Bad Things.” Cabello also recently guested with Cuban-American rapper Pitbull and Colombian reggaeton star J Balvin on “Hey Ma,” a wildly popular contribution to the Fate Of The Furious soundtrack. Grammys-beloved Colombian singer-songwriter Juanes debuted atop the Latin Albums chart this week with his new visual album Mis Planes Son Amarte. And who could forget the facetious viral video in which Radiohead’s Thom Yorke appeared to sing Daddy Yankee’s 2004 reggaeton hit “Gasolina”?

Some or all of that may yet make its way into the wider consciousness, but none of it has come close to penetrating English-speaking culture to the extent of “Despacito,” and the reason why is clearly this doofus:

Leave it to Bieber — a man with so much reverence for Latino culture that he replaced his Spanish lyrics with “blah blah blah” and later sang, “I don’t know the words, so I say Dorito” — to lift “Despacito” all the way to #1. Before Bieber jumped on the remix, “Despacito” had topped out at #44, which is not at all shabby for a pair of artists who rarely crack the Hot 100 but does not exactly qualify as a smash hit. Two weeks later the song was atop the charts, having dethroned yet another Bieber-featuring track, DJ Khaled’s “I’m The One.” It was the second time Bieber has replaced himself at #1; only 11 other artists have pulled it off even once, and only the Beatles and Usher join Bieber in doing it twice. He is in rare, historic company.

“I’m The One” and “Despacito” were Bieber’s fourth and fifth #1 hits overall. “What Do You Mean,” “Sorry,” and “Love Yourself,” a trio of #1 singles from his 2015 blockbuster Purpose, also went to #1. Last summer he came close to topping the chart twice more with Major Lazer’s #2-peaking “Cold Water” and DJ Snake’s #4-peaking “Let Me Love You,” two tropically inclined EDM-lite anthems that practically functioned as Justin Bieber songs. Let me break it down a little differently: Starting with Diplo and Skrillex’s “Where Are Ü Now,” Bieber has sung on 10 official singles since 2015, and all but two of them (“Company” and Post Malone’s “Deja Vu”) rocketed to the top 10. A full half of them went to #1. The man is practically unstoppable right now. As Rolling Stone’s Brittany Spanos recently mused on Twitter, getting Bieber on your song has become the surest route to #1. Not even fellow pop monoliths Drake and Ed Sheeran can match his batting average.

How did that happen? Not many teenage heartthrobs successfully transition into surefire grownup hitmakers, so it’s not like Bieber’s profitable teeny-bopping guaranteed his recent run of success. And a few years ago, during his peerless trickle of tabloid exploits, he seemed destined to become another cautionary tale about child stardom, not the heir to Justin Timberlake’s sexy white-boy R&B throne. I’m not sure I can fully explain why Bieber became so reliably dominant on the charts, but I do have some ideas.

For one, he made himself a vessel for some of today’s most successful producers right when producers were moving into the pop spotlight, hopping on “Where Are Ü Now” in a mutually beneficial pact with Diplo and Skrillex and then filling Purpose with similarly smooth, squiggly electronic pop bangers. He’s also an undeniably great singer; his voice is a quivering beam of light, a stream of neon to be painted atop that cutting-edge easy listening production, and he deploys it with nuance and grace. He’s fully self-possessed on the mic, too, impervious to your opinion that he is a dipshit. Which means when he branches out from that EDM-lite safe zone into acoustic balladry (“Love Yourself”), hip-hop posse cuts (“I’m The One”), or reggaeton (“Despacito”), he still sounds like himself — and a suddenly more complex version of himself, at that.

It’s weird to think of Justin Bieber as some kind of generational phenomenon, but the numbers don’t lie. He boasts both a devoted culture of Beliebers and an increasingly broad appeal, and his hot streak seems likely to endure long after “Despacito” cools off. He and his handlers have been extremely savvy about his song selections, and given his recent success rate, he’s likely going to have his choice of material for the foreseeable future. Depending on how long he can keep this up, the world may have to concede that pop stars of Bieber’s stature are almost as rare as non-English #1s.

Harry Styles
CREDIT: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

CHART WATCH

Harry Styles becomes the second One Direction alum to debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart this week, recording 230,000 equivalent units and 193,000 in pure sales of his self-titled debut album — notably beating Zayn Malik’s opening numbers for last year’s Mind Of Mine, not that anyone is keeping track. In fact, per Billboard, it’s the best first-week sales total for a UK male in the US since the dawn of the SoundScan era in 1991, besting Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour. Smith’s album went on to be a mainstay of the top 10; will Styles follow suit? Billboard also points out that 1D joins Destiny’s Child, the Beatles, and Blind Faith have seen multiple members release #1 solo albums.

Zac Brown Band follow Styles with a #2 debut for Welcome Home on the strength of 146,000 units/139,000 sales, a strong opening bow but a significant downturn from Jekyll + Hyde’s 228,000 units/214,000 sales two years ago. Kendrick Lamar, Chris Stapleton, and Guardians Of The Galaxy are next at 3-4-5. Then comes Paramore’s After Laughter, entering at #6 with 67,000 units/53,000 sales, a big drop-off from their self-titled LP’s 106,000-strong #1 debut in 2014. The ever-reliable Drake, Ed Sheeran, and Bruno Mars linger near the bottom of the top 10, while Machine Gun Kelly’s Bloom nabs 57,000 units/38,000 sales for a #8 debut.

We’ve already mentioned that “Despacito” stays on top of the Hot 100 for a second straight week. Holding strong below it are Bruno Mars’ #2 “That’s What I Like” and DJ Khaled’s #3 “I’m The One,” featuring Bieber, Quavo, Chance The Rapper, and Lil Wayne. Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” and Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” are at #4 and #5, respectively, meaning the whole top 5 comprises former #1 songs. The Chainsmokers extend their run of consecutive weeks with a song in the top 10 to 55 — second only to Katy Perry’s 69-week streak in 2010-11 — thanks to Coldplay collab “Something Just Like This” at #6, while the 7-8-9 spots are occupied by Future’s “Mask Off,” Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO TOUR Llif3,” and Zedd and Alessia Cara’s “Stay.” And rounding out the top 10 is Miley Cyrus, who rises to #10 with “Malibu” to claim her first top-10 hit since “Wrecking Ball” in 2013.

POP FIVE

Katy Perry – “Swish Swish” (Feat. Nicki Minaj)
More like brick brick, amirite? (For real, though, this just makes me wish I was listening to “Truffle Butter.”)

Camila Cabello – “Crying In The Club”
Girl is really going for it! And if the intense fan community responsible for all these retweets puts their minds to it, they’ll have this multi-part epic in the top 10 in no time, like “Bad Things” before it.

Liam Payne – “Strip That Down” (Feat. Quavo)
We can’t all be Justin Timberlake. Some of us have to be JC Chasez.

John Legend – “Surefire”
John Legend: still reliably woke and easy to enjoy.

Bebe Rexha – “The Way I Are (Dance With Somebody)” (Feat. Lil Wayne)
SPIN’s Jordan Sargent wrote a whole blog post this week about why this song — which artlessly combines Timbaland’s “The Way I Are” and Whitney Houston’s “Dance With Somebody” — should be illegal, calling it “an ugly Frankenstein of lazy songwriting that leans so heavily on your memories that you begin to feel like you’re being crushed.” It’s hard to improve upon that assessment.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • On Tuesday Ariana Grande arrived in her hometown of Boca Raton following the terrorist attack that left 22 dead at her concert at Manchester Arena the night before. She was greeted by her family and boyfriend Mac Miller. [Daily Mail]
  • After Future’s show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, a loud noise during loadout was mistaken for a gunshot and the ensuing stampede of concertgoers led to some minor injuries. [Twitter]
  • Diddy shared the first trailer for Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story. [YouTube]
  • Niall Horan reportedly worked with Shania Twain on his new album. [TV3]
  • Kacy Hill’s debut album Like A Woman (due 6/30 via G.O.O.D. Music / Def Jam) will be executive produced by Kanye West. [Pigeons & Planes]
  • At Hangout fest Diplo played a new song, “Know No Better,” featuring Camila Cabello, Travis Scott, and Quavo. [Instagram]
  • Zedd and Alessia Cara did “Stay” on The Voice. [YouTube]
  • Hailee Steinfeld, OneRepublic, TLC, and Lady Antebellum performed on the Dancing With The Stars Season 24 finale. [Direct Lyrics]
  • Also on Dancing With The Stars, Normani Kordei said a new Fifth Harmony single is coming next month. [Twitter]
  • DJ Khaled is teasing a song with Rihanna. [Instagram]
  • Bastille performed a mash-up cover of Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lorde, Beyoncé, Florence & The Machine, and Snoop Dogg on BBC Radio 1. [YouTube]

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