Globalization- a scary word for traditionalists. For music lovers? It’s new and exciting territory.
The new global sound of pop is a wonderful hodge-podge of different genres and styles, evolving over the last couple of years, along with the rise of social media viral hits and easy accessibility over platforms like Spotify, Youtube, and now Tik Tok.
A rapidly growing segment is the rise of Latin American and Spanish-language artists on the global charts. How are they changing pop? How are they creating something new?
The local-global phenomenon has the extraordinary ability to connect a specific local culture to the broader mainstream culture. “Think globally, act locally” is usually referred to in environmental efforts or ethnography studies, however, it’s become a new way of communication between groups that are spread apart in physical distance, yet brought together over a certain common goal. In music, we see local-global play out in various ways, some of which include the Korean cultural wave of K-Pop and Spanish-language artists being featured on major U.S. record labels.
For example, we can pinpoint the time in which the potential internet ‘virality’ of a song transcended language- PSY’s Gangnam Style. The catchy electropop banger took the world by storm back in 2012. Gangnam refers to a luxurious neighborhood in South Korea, the Gangnam district, known for its classy residents. Psy pokes fun at the ‘wannabes‘ in Gangnam; this attitude is local in its ability to mean something to Koreans who are familiar with the Gangnam lifestyle but extends farther into global as many others can relate to the lyrics with their own version- Beverly Hills, the Upper East Side, or London’s Knightsbridge. Similarly, fans of K-pop display this idea of the local-global phenomenon. Huge K-pop group fan clubs exist in Mexico City, Brazil, and all over the world. These fans are usually not fluent in the Korean language, yet they’re extremely loyal fans who pay big bucks for concerts, merch, and meet & greets.
Exceptional storytelling propels art into the local-global phenomenon. Hip hop lovers turn to Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. Kendrick’s lyrics focus on his experiences in Compton’s gangs, the paradox of being a good kid but having to face the reality of how our environments can make up who we are. The album pinpoints Lamar’s native city and “the kid that’s trying to escape that influence… [and] has always been pulled back in”. These core themes are so strong that a fan in Japan can understand the broader themes that Lamar raps about, even without fully immersing themselves in Compton life.
How is the pop genre changing?
The pop genre is constantly evolving- more than what we could’ve imagined in such a short period of time. Elements of trap, hip hop, and electro are amalgamated in songs, making it difficult to constrict the song into solely one genre. Percussive sections draw from trap as well as Latin rhythms and reggaton. The 808s are reminiscent of 80s hip hop. Electro and dubstep remnants exist in song build-ups. Funk and disco come alive in the textures of newer songs like Doja Cat’s Say So.
After the rise of Gangnam Style and Despacito (because we can’t forget Despacito), artists have expressed more of this idea of local-global, where their style and language is specific to their locality, whether it’s singing in their native language or singing about their city or community. These themes are amplified to a global audience due to the force of social media, which pushes, modifies, and remixes- all in a number of hours.
Let’s talk about how artists changing the game
The rising artists that are influencing the global sound of pop include the likes of Bad Bunny, Anitta, and Rosalía. But before we dive into how these artists are pioneering new sounds into our cultural mainstream, let’s look back to the early 2000s, where the U.S. was getting a taste of Latinx culture.
Early influencers on this global pop sound were JLo, Ricky Martin, Cristina Aguilera, Enrique Iglesias, and Shakira in the United States. These artists sang in both English and Spanish in the early 2000s, as they successfully penetrated the U.S. English-language market. Puerto-Rican born Ricky Martin became popular in Latin America when he debuted his career with teen boy band, Menudo. With his performance of La Copa de la Vida at the 41st Emmy Awards, he catapulted the movement of Latin music in the American mainstream. Ricky Martin’s Livin’ La Vida Loca spent 5 weeks at the Billboard number 1 spot in 1999- an English-language pop song with strong Latin brass and swing style.
One of the biggest Latin artists to have commercial success in both the Spanish-language and English-language market is none other than “crossover queen”, Shakira. Colombian-born Shakira debuted in the music scene with Spanish-language albums such as Magia (1991) and Dónde Están los Ladrones? (1998). Yet, her rise to fame came with Laundry Service (2001), her fifth album in English. With her alternative rock beginnings, Shakira also incorporated her Lebanese roots with belly dancing. In 2014, she described her sound as “A little bit of rock, a little bit of folk, a little reggae and naturally some dance”.
BAD BUNNY – Puerto Rico
El Conejo Malo, Bad Bunny, is a Puerto Rican trap reggaton artist who sings primarily in Spanish. His sophomore album Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana (I do what I want) was released earlier this year in February and it solidifies his fusion style as an artist who writes about partying at the club, missing your ex, and political corruption. His fans admire how he breaks traditional rules and restrictions- both in music and real life.
Benito, a.k.a. Bad Bunny, is not afraid to speak out and regularly uses his platform to make statements. During the protests in Puerto Rico, Bad Bunny released a song with Residente called Afilando los Cuchillos (Sharpening the Knives). The resistance track calls out the government’s corruption, specifically Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s leaked response to Hurricane Maria. For his performance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, he chose to wear a pink suit blazer over a shirt that read “Mataron a Alexa, (They killed Alexa, not a man in a skirt), referring to the murder of a trans woman in Puerto Rico, where the local news outlets wrote that a man in a skirt was killed.
Reggaton music was pioneered in Puerto Rico by greats like Daddy Yankee, Nicky Jam, and Wisin & Yandel. In a Youtube Music Artist Spotlight, Benito talks about many of his fans don’t speak Spanish but like his music, “How do you explain how your music got to that person?”. In a time where it’s much easier to stumble across global artists on Youtube and Spotify, listeners are gravitating to music outside their own culture and language. He always calls out his resilient home island of in his tracks like BENDICIONES, “Que Dios proteja… A Puerto Rico de huracane’ y temblore’/Yo tengo fe de que vendrán día’ mejore'” (God protect Puerto Rico from hurricanes and earthquakes/I have faith that better days will come).
Bad Bunny exemplifies new-school reggaton through his creative expression of multifaceted themes. Artists like Colombian J Balvin have paved the way in this sphere of new reggaton artists that push boundaries and break free from imposed stereotypes. J Balvin hopes to continue singing entirely in Spanish although he is fluent in English, and sings about every day life, not the violent history of Colombia that others focus on. Both Bad Bunny and J Balvin creatively express themselves not only through creating music, but having fun with fashion and eclectic aesthetics, sometimes even painting their nails and breaking societal gender norms. This new reggaton celebrates being authentically yourself in the 21st century.
ANITTA – Brazil
Brazilian artist Anitta rose to stardom by showcasing a genre of music specific to the country’s favela communities. Funk Carioca emerged from the low-income neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro and was looked down upon by people who saw this music as “thug” or immoral music. Recently, the music genre faced backlash from groups who want to criminalize it, as its lyrics can glorify violence and drug consumption. However, funk carioca is the cultural expression of marginalized Brazilians, harkening back to the criminal connotations of now nationally cherished samba. Now with Anitta’s commercial success, Brazilian funk is a music genre that has skyrocketed into global focus.
The song that pushed Anitta into the national spotlight was Show das Poderosas, a pop song with dubstep beats. The lyrics in Portuguese rally up powerful women who aren’t afraid of making others uncomfortable, pushing jealous haters aside, and dancing with confidence. These themes of women empowerment drew in many Brazilian fans and consequently has drawn in fans from around the world. Anitta is a major Brazilian artist to promote education and empowerment for young girls, and even modifies her wardrobe for her performances geared towards younger audiences. In the Netflix documentary series, Vai Anitta, she talks about taking classes to learn English and Spanish, and tries to inspire other young girls to learn in order to open up more opportunity.
Anitta has now collaborated with big artists like Brazilian MPB sweetheart Caetano Veloso, Alesso, and Snoop Dogg. She reached No. 2 on the Latin Pop charts with J Balvin’s Machika, a reggaton song, which grew an increased interest from the Spanish-language market. Anitta sings in English and Spanish on tracks like Paradinha, Medicina, and Downtown- mixing funk beats, reggaton, and pop. A natural entrepreneur, she connects with thousands of fans in all three languages on social media. This type of cultural crossover is impressive, especially with an artist from a Portuguese-speaking country in a continent that is mainly Spanish speaking.
ROSALÍA – Spain
Rosalía has amassed listeners across the world that are getting a taste of Spanish culture through her music. She studied flamenco at the Superior School of Music of Catalonia and worked with flamenco artists, like Raül Refree who would help create her first studio album, Los Ángeles. She won Latin Grammys for Best Urban Fusion/Performance and Best Alternative Song for Malamente rose to global fame after releasing El Mal Querer, her college thesis, in 2018.
With elements of hip-hop and traditional Spanish flamenco, Rosalía creates an ‘urban fusion’ sound that mixes trap beats with flamenco melodies. This fusion carries through to her music videos, visuals, as well as her dance performances, that often blend hip hop and flamenco moves. Rosalía was featured on J Balvin’s Con Altura, a reggaton pop hit that blew up in 2019. She sings “Llevo a Camarón en la guantera (de la Isla)” which might confuse a listener who is not familiar with classic flamenco artist Camarón de la Isla. Milionària is the musician’s first number one song in Spain with lyrics in Catalan. The Spaniard received backlash from language purists for using Spanish words mixed into Catalan, like using “cumpleanys” instead of “aniversari“, yet it’s powerful for a global star to incorporate and share this language.
It goes without saying that music is so powerful that it transcends culture and language, especially in the time of social media, where we strive to connect with others through creative expression.
Spanish-language artists have always been in the industry, it’s just that now we have the power of social media for these artists to gain both higher visibility and to become more accessible to potential new fans. These artists, like Bad Bunny, are unapologetically singing in their native language and pushing boundaries on style as well as politics. They signify the power of writing to one’s experience, contextualized in their local communities and environments. The local cultural environments are then expanded to a global audience and interpreted by fans with various life experiences.
This Hispanic Heritage Month, I’m celebrating the pioneers and the newcomers who are shaking things up in industries that have been oversaturated with much of the same- the same beats, the same clothes in a sea of the same skin tones and body shapes.
Culture is meant to be remixed and transformed, always continual construction and movement. Creative innovators are those who push our culture forward. And don’t you want to be the one calling the shots instead of following them?