Last year was good to Carlos Vives, the by-now legendary Colombian singer, composer, and actor. His single featuring Shakira, “La Bicicleta”, won two of the most coveted Latin Grammys, Record and Song of the Year, and was a huge hit in Latin America and around the world. Last time I checked it was approaching 900 million views on YouTube. No doubt, Vives and his partners have great hopes for “Al Filo de Tu Amor”, his super-hyped follow up. Disappointingly, though not surprisingly, the new single sticks to the exact same mediocre formula as its predecessor: it’s a danceable, toothless love ballad, accompanied by a highly polished music video, brimming with clichés, banalities, and some downright deplorable messages.
The music video for “La Bicicleta” takes us to the sunny beach towns of Barranquilla and Santa Marta in Colombia. Crowds dance in the streets, mostly gathered close to admire the stilted Vives and the nimble, hip-wiggling Shakira. There’s some perfunctory humor involving an escape from a traffic jam, and the obligatory environmentalist add-on: ride a bicycle instead of a car! There’re some icky moments, as when the sweaty Vives looms over the much younger Shakira (who is showing her backside) as he sings “that girl is a Lola” (as in Lolita). But the overall vibe is one of barefooted, good-natured fun.
For “Al Filo de Tu Amor” (“On the Edge of Your Love”), Vives and his team opted for a New York-in-winter theme and a much steamier tone. The song mentions New York City all of once, and has nothing to do with New York, but that one allusion was apparently all that was needed. Vives, wearing a fashionable army-green overcoat and, inexplicably, a backpack, chases after beautiful blond Ariadna Gutiérrez, who walks around sporting a midriff-baring top and a fur coat. Vives has said that the video is in part a homage to the popular dances of New York’s Hispanic barrios, but this seems like a stretch. Interspersed are scenes of dancers swirling around subway poles, which could be interpreted as a homage to something, but much more time is spent watching dancers at what appears to be a photo shoot for high-class prostitutes. The scenes of Vives canoodling with the twenty-three-year-old Gutiérrez are pretty chaste but still disgusting. At the end, in a show of appallingly bad taste, Vives is shown as a homeless man covered in grime, lying on the sidewalk holding a cardboard sign that says “enamorado” (“in love”). This is meant to be a metaphor for the suffering of the brokenhearted, but, well, it just looks bad.
Like “La Bicicleta”, “Al Filo de Tu Amor” is a consummate corporate product: shallow and derivative, designed to appeal to the widest possible audience. Certainly both songs are satisfying at a basic level. They are, after all, the work of world-class musicians and producers. Their rhythms, which mix reggaeton with Latin and Middle Eastern drumming, rock guitars, and Vives’ beloved vallenato accordion, are catchy and quite effective at getting the body moving. The lyrics are deliberately banal and stuffed with platitudes – “I love you just like you are/And I like you because you’re different” (from “La Bicicleta”) – sure to be everything to all people and offend no one. But even within these sterilized confines, one verse stands out.
“Listen New York”, calls Vives, “I will sing you the story of a love that ending/razing, this took it away/like a conquering Columbus”. As these last words are said, the video shows Gutiérrez blowing a kiss at Vives, who is now heartbroken because she’s gone.
It’s impossible to know how much or little thought this particular line received as the song was being penned. Once again, the lyrics of “Al Filo de Tu Amor” are decidedly unmemorable. And yet, “conquering Columbus” points to two important cultural debates still going among Latin Americans. The first is the meaning of Columbus and his conquest, the merging of “America” and Europe, of the New World and the Old. Not very long ago Columbus was a hero, one of the most celebrated men in history. But over the last three decades, especially since the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ original landfall in 1492, a thorough reappraisal of the man and his feat has been taking place. What of all the peoples enslaved and murdered? What of the civilizations destroyed? What of all the riches stolen to feed the greed of foreign kings? Is it good, then, or bad to conquer like Columbus?
The second issue is that of the way men and women deal with each other. Latin men, not that long ago, were encouraged to see themselves as vigorous stallions, and women as wild mares in need of subduing. Latin women are supposed to be sexy, and know it, and like it. They are supposed to pretend to be good Catholic girls by day, then sneak out to shake their booties by night. “She likes it”, Vives sings of Shakira in “La Bicicleta”, “when they all watch her dancing alone”. But over the last three decades the pernicious effects of such a culture have been brought to light and more openly discussed. Gender discrimination, harassment, domestic violence, and rape have forced a reevaluation of the appropriate standard of behavior for Hispanic men, long romanticized as Latin lovers. Do women want to be conquered by Columbus? Is this something to celebrate and dance to?
Carlos Vives has shown in his work to be a smart man with a deep knowledge of history. He is responsible, after all, for “Clásicos de la Provincia”, one of the most important Latin albums of the last three decades. He must then understand how a mention of Columbus in the 21st century cannot be innocent and free of baggage. He must know that he could have, if only for a brief passing moment, used this line to suggest something substantial, but he doesn’t. The commercial imperative to be insubstantial is too great. Instead, Vives sinks to the temptation of referencing himself in a song, calling New York “la tierra del olvido” (“the land of forgetting”), which is the title of one of the biggest hits of his early carrier. Unfortunately it’s Vives who seems to have forgotten a great many things.