Kornhaber: How do you think about Latin pop’s relationship with American pop historically? Have there been discrete waves of interaction, is it a sporadic thing, or is there always an ongoing crossover?
Rivera-Rideau: This is a really complicated question because of how we define Latin music. There are a lot of Latin-music aesthetics that have made it into pop music that we may not recognize as Latin: certain chord progressions, rhythms, instrumentation. As well there are artists who aren’t necessarily marketed as Latin music artists, but are of Latino descent. But it’s the language, or a certain kind of guitar sound like the one that opens up “Despacito,” that are really associated with a lot of stereotypical notions of Latino culture.
We do have these moments when Latin music does cross over. Certainly the ’90s was a big moment. “Macarena” was in 1996, then you have Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez in the later ’90s and early 2000s. You could also think way back to the 1940s to mambo music, of Afro-Cuban origin, as another term that encompasses a pretty diverse style of music. At that time, certain artists with a very specific style crossed over. Pérez Prado was a mambo orchestra leader had top-10 hits; Desi Arnaz, who was a musician in addition to being an actor, was influenced by mambo.
Kornhaber: How is Justin’s Spanish?
Rivera-Rideau: It was a lot better than I thought it was gonna be. I’ve read mixed reviews, though. Some people think his Spanish is pretty good, and a lot of people are making fun of it. One of the threads that goes across the discussions is how interesting and surprising it is that he did it in Spanish at all. Especially because he did have this Latin remix of “Sorry” in which he still sings in English, and that follows the bilingual remix format that we’re seeing in a lot of pop songs.
Kornhaber: What should people check out next if they’re intrigued by the sound of “Despacito”?
Rivera-Rideau: People always talk about reggaeton as if it’s monolithic because of the ubiquitous beat. But it’s a really diverse genre of music. One might want to look at some of Daddy Yankee’s older stuff: “Gasolina” was on a larger album, Barrio Fino, which was groundbreaking in terms of integrating reggaeton into the Latin mainstream. I really like Tego Calderón, who integrates salsa and other Puerto Rican traditions. Also Ivy Queen: Reggaeton is a genre in which most artists are men, but Ivy Queen has had a long career beginning in underground.
Then there are these new groups of artists coming out, like Maluma and J Balvin, from Colombia, who have this sort of romantic reggaeton going on. I’m partial to the older stuff, but I’m sure that’s generational.
The success of “Despacito” makes me really excited to see what’s going to happen next. When I was writing my dissertation, a lot of people were telling me to hurry up because nobody’s going to be listening to this music by the time the book comes out. But people are still listening to it. There are some who are really upset because reggaeton has become very commercialized. But on the other hand it’s an interesting moment to think about how this genre has moved from being so maligned, marginalized, and censored to now being the No. 1 song on the English-language pop charts.