Latin music is incredibly, wonderfully varied. Between the desert of northern Mexico and the highest peaks of the Andes, the tropical jungles and the Caribbean islands and the great cities along the River Plate and the diaspora in the North, Latin music is not one thing but many. But you wouldn’t know that from listening to the most popular Latin songs, the ones that get the most views and the most downloads, the ones that get played over and over on the radio.
The top hits all sound kind of the same, some sort of reggaeton/pop/salsa/cumbia mix by a well-known performer or, quite often, by a team-up of well-known performers. Their music videos all look kind of the same too, with their aerial views of poor neighborhoods or luxurious skyscrapers, their quick cuts between said well-known performers mugging for the camera and “regular people” happily dancing in the streets, and, most predictably of all, busty, beautiful, mostly undressed women displaying their bodies for the world to see.
It shouldn’t shock anyone that the main hook of popular music in Latin America is sex, or that the female body is the emblematic symbol of sex. This has been going on for a long time, and whether it’s a good or a bad thing is a really important and interesting discussion that I don’t want to get into right now. Let’s grant the sex and the large breasts and all the rest.
Take a look at Billboard’s list of top Latin singles for the week of June 3, 2017. Here’s the top 10:
- “Despacito” by Luis Fonzi and Daddy Yankee, featuring Justin Bieber
- “Chantaje” by Shakira, featuring Maluma
- “Felices los 4” by Maluma
- “El Amante” by Nicky Jam
- “Me Enamoré” by Shakira
- “Súbeme la Radio” by Enrique Iglesias, feat. Descemer Bueno, Zion, and Lennox
- “Adiós Amor” by Christian Nadal
- “Reggaeton Lento (Bailemos)” by CNCO
- “Escápate Conmigo” by Wisin, featuring Ozuna
- “Ahora Dice” by Chris Jeday, feat. J Balvin, Ozuna, and Arcangel
Each one of these songs is a corporate product, the result of months of work not only by the writers and musicians who came up with it, but by producers and recording professionals and studio executives and marketers and on and on. They all are trying to get the massive, mostly young, audience of pop-music consumers what it wants, and at the same time telling it what it should want. The audience wants this stuff, so the music industry keeps churning it out, making the new generation of listeners want the same thing, and on and on. What’s the chicken and what’s the egg?, yet another interesting discussion that I’ll skip over for the time being.
Two of the songs on the list, “Súbeme la Radio” and “Adiós Amor”, are love songs, or actually more like lost-love songs, in which forlorn men reveal their suffering after the object of their desire has gone away. They are just the latest examples in a long history of men abandoned by heartless women. In “Súbeme la Radio”, Enrique Iglesias and his buddies beg the beloved to return: “I’m lonely and desperate/ in search of your love./ I truly ask you/ come back to me”. In the only piece in the Top 10 with roots in Mexican music, “Adiós Amor”, Christian Nadal bemoans his unhappy fate: “How it hurts me to lose you/ I’ll just have to forget you/ because you failed me”.
The official music videos attached to these songs, though, are not much interested in telling love stories. They limit themselves to extensive shots of beautiful women out in the world, running to the bus or lurking in the back of a bar, almost always in slow motion, the better to be admired. Longing for love, then, is not much more than longing for the girl with the hot body who used to belong to me but now belongs to another. There’s no difference between longing for love and longing for sex.
The rest of the songs on the list are sex songs. Not euphemistically or subtly or playfully about sex, but openly, explicitly, unapologetically about sex. Again, this isn’t new in Latin music, though the graphic descriptions of intimate acts in the lyrics owe a lot to hip-hop and rap and have come to dominate the top of the charts only in the last twenty years or so. “I want you to show my mouth your favorite places”, says the worldwide mega smash “Despacito”, “Let me go over your danger zones/ until I make you scream”. “I love how firm you are/ how deftly you move”, rap the members of CNCO in “Reggaeton Lento (Bailemos)”, “move, move, move”. Same with Maluma in “Felices los 4”: “Feel the impact/ the boom-boom that burns your body”. Shakira, the only woman on the list, is a little more coy, but just a little. “I’m a masochist/ selfish with my body”, she taunts in “Chantaje”. “I’d like to have ten children with you”, she offers in “Me Enamoré”, “let’s start with a couple/ I’m just saying/ in case you want to practice”.
Given this uninhibited attitude, it’s surprising how little sex there’s to be seen in the music videos. Almost never will you see actual kissing or fondling or writhing bodies. What you will see, over and over, is men singing while women display themselves for them. Sometimes they dance. Shakira has made a career of shaking her ass while men ogle her. The second half of the video for “Chantaje” involves her going into a men’s bathroom and dancing provocatively while a man spies through the keyhole.
But most often they walk, they strut, they prance, and they do it in slow motion. There’s former Miss Universe Zuleyka Rivera walking through the alleys of La Perla, Puerto Rico in the video for “Despacito”, in slow motion. There’s actress and model Natalia Barulich in bra and panties walking away from Maluma in “Felices los 4”, in slow motion. A girl walks in slow motion though a bowling alley in “Reggaeton Lento (Bailemos)”, while a dozen guys check her out. There’s a lot of slow motion walking in the underground parking lot in “Escápate Conmigo”, and some twenty girls walk in slow motion towards the camera beside a bouncing muscle car in “Ahora Dice”. Perhaps trying something different, Shakira walks in slow motion while dribbling a basketball in “Me Enamoré” (though neither the song not the video have anything to do with basketball).
There’s no mistaking the message of all this unhurried sashaying: sexuality is about female beauty and male enjoyment of that beauty. Women’s lips, their breasts, their legs, their hips, their skin, that’s what sex is about. Nowhere is there mention of the man’s body, his chest, his muscles, his legs. Not even Shakira will go there, commenting only on his “round mouth” and “little beard” in “Me Enamoré”.
This is the great problem with Latin pop (as long, of course, as you don’t think that the sex itself is the problem): almost twenty years into the 21st century, sex is still male sex, sex from the man’s perspective. Admittedly, there’s much talk about female enjoyment of sex. “I want to eat you”, says “Escápate Conmigo”, “you’re going to love it/ you know you always have a great time with me”. “I know you’re going to call me”, says Nicky Jam in “El Amante”, “when your skin yearns for me”. When Chris Jeday and his posse want their lover to return, they entice her with memories of great sex of the past: “Only I have been able to come to you/ Your body knows how to rise up/ and when your legs tremble/ I say nothing”.
But the idea of female sexual desire does not go hand in hand with female power or independence. For every promise of physical ecstasy, there’s a reminder of who, in the end, is in charge. “I can’t stand it/ when someone else says they own you”, moans Nicky Jam in “El Amante”. “I want to be there/ when he finds out that I own you”. The members of CNCO promise their girl a good time, but make sure that she knows “this happens till I say so”. In “Chantaje” Shakira reassures her lover: “they say that I make and unmake/ that I go out at night and leave you to suffer/ that I call the shots in this relationship/ don’t believe that propaganda”.
Only Maluma tries to create a true equivalence between the male and the female side of the story. “Felices los 4” is a song that glorifies infidelity, but at least it doesn’t fall into the typical Latin attitude of applauding men who cheat while demonizing the women who follow suit. “You may think that this hurts me”, he tells his beloved, “I don’t think about what you do/ if we have something and we love each other”. In the video, a couple played by Wilmer Valderrama and Natalia Barulich have a freewheeling marriage in which both sides get to play, and she chooses Maluma the bartender for the night. The singer displays his own body as much as that of the woman’s, especially in a steamy shower scene that is as close as any of these videos gets at showing actual sex. And, beneath the glitz and the impossibly beautiful bodies, there’s an understanding of the basic sameness of the sexes and a commitment to find happiness and satisfaction for all: “And if you spend time with someone else/ we’ll all be happy/ all four of us/ we’ll just make more room”.
This, despite all of its problematic aspects, is progress, the kind of progress that allows for all the things we love about Latin music to remain – joy and dancing and sex, sex, sex – but gets rid of the indefensible obsession with male power and desire at the expense of female agency. This is progress, gradual, but still progress. A culture moving forward, in slow motion.