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Crest Of The Crossover

Are Heavily Hyped New Releases The Last Of The Latin Pop Wave?


July 14, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

As a little boy in Puerto Rico, Luis Fonsi would put on shows with his cousins at family parties, imitating Menudo, the original Latin pop boy band. At his Orlando high school, it was singing in a Boyz II Men style quartet with future 'N Sync member Joey Fatone that helped the shy Puerto Rican earn acceptance and attention.

When Fatone went on to pop stardom, Fonsi earned a music degree from Florida State University, then got picked up by Universal Latin, releasing two successful Latin pop albums.

Now the bilingual Fonsi, an ardent fan of American R&B, is shooting for universal acceptance with Fight the Feeling, launching his English debut this month with a video co-directed by Fatone and an opening spot on the Britney Spears tour.

''I just try to make pop music,'' Fonsi says. 'I'm not marketing myself as another Latin artist, and I don't think my music sounds Latin. What I bring is not `Hi, I'm Luis Fonsi and I'm Latin,' but 'I'm Luis Fonsi and I'm a new artist.' ''

Fonsi is following a well-worn path. The past six months have seen a wave of Latin artists going the crossover route paved in 1999 by Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias and Marc Anthony. Mexico's ''golden girl,'' Paulina Rubio, is gambling that her just-released English debut, Border Girl, will make her the first Mexican star to cross the pop frontier. Anthony recently released his second English album, Mended, and Colombian pop-rocker Shakira has garnered stateside attention with her fall 2001 English debut, Laundry Service, which has sold 2.6 million U.S. copies.

Rubio's arch-rival Thalia has three songs in English on her Latin chart-topping current album, Thalia, with an all-English album planned for the end of the year, and Dreamworks has put its substantial muscle behind Soluna, a Latina quartet. Executives at Emilio Estefan's Crescent Moon Records are currently debating the balance of English and Spanish songs on the fall debut of MSM, a sexy female dance-pop trio.

But they may be on the edge of a bubble ready to burst. Most are following the teen-pop and dance-pop formulas that bred such '90s mega successes as Spice Girls, Spears or 'N Sync, but that trend is showing signs of exhaustion.

Teen pop acts have seen a substantial drop in sales since they led the industry to record numbers in 2000. Spears sold 10.3 million and 8.9 million copies of her first two albums, but last year's Britney has stalled at 3.8 million (all sales figures are provided by Nielsen SoundScan). 'N Sync's 2000 release No Strings Attached sold 11 million copies; 2001's Celebrity sold 4.8 million.

''It's different now than it was two years ago, when all we were seeing and hearing was Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, 98°, O-Town,'' says Matt Hendrickson, music editor of Teen People. ``Kids who were 12 or 13 then have started to outgrow it and move on to other things.''


Girls may still fall for Fonsi's sweet, handsome face -- as Orlando teen impresario Lou Pearlman has said, ''the only way it's going to be over in our market is when God stops making little girls.'' But if it's hard enough for established teen-pop acts to maintain their appeal, it's that much more difficult for new artists to make a name for themselves.

''It's really tough to break into that genre,'' Hendrickson continues. ``It's so saturated.''

That hasn't stopped Latin labels from making the typical major-label mistake of following trends rather than leading them, littering the landscape with ''sure-thing'' crossover projects. Despite enormous success in Spanish, Son By 4's boy-band style crossover effort yielded only one successful single, Purest of Pain, an English version of their big hit in Spanish. The group has since split up. Anthony's syrupy, formulaic Mended has been blasted critically and has yet to make much sales or radio noise.

After being inundated with choreographed dance moves and bubbly pop songs, listeners seem to be looking for music that's more personal and expressive, whether it's Eminem and the White Stripes in English or Rabanes and Juanes in rock en español.

''I think people want something deeper right now, more than just fluff -- they want something special,'' says Jerry Blair, a former executive vice president of Columbia and Arista who was instrumental in launching Martin's crossover.

Lately, he has been concentrating mostly on alternative Latin projects like Aterciopelados and Manu Chao. And while Blair doesn't think pop will ever go away -- he also worked on Border Girl -- he thinks the Latin music most likely to succeed next will be the stuff that catches the cultural pendulum's swing back toward something genuine.

When he took his young son to a Backstreet Boys concert last year, the boy was ready to leave before the encore. ''That's why I'm working with alternative,'' Blair says. ``A band like [Cure-esque Chilean rockers] La Ley -- their lyrics are really intense, people really identify with that. It doesn't mean that Marc Anthony or Thalia can't sell a lot of records. But you feel it when something new is coming on.''

''The whole teen pop market, you can equate to rap, has softened to a point,'' says Mark Hogan, vice president of marketing for Trans-World Entertainment, which owns Spec's outlets in Florida. ``It's about having new and distinctive acts who can regenerate a genre.''

Maribel Schumacher, a respected Latin-music industry veteran who launched Spain's first independent label, pioneered Latin rock in the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s and set up Warner Latina's South American operations, is gambling that alternative will be the next big thing for her recently launched management company, Transparent Talent.

Her hopes are pinned largely on research showing that the young Americans who drive pop culture are increasingly Latino. According to the U.S. Census and research firms, 20 percent of people under 25 in the United States are Hispanic, and the ratio will be 30 percent in five years.

Schumacher believes those young, bicultural, bilingual Latinos will inform the next pop wave, one she thinks will be edgier than either traditional Latin music or its most recent American predecessor -- and right in step with the Teen People readers who love alternative and dance music, R&B and hip-hop. One of her first clients is Miami rock band Volumen Cero, whose alternative sound is equal parts Britain's New Order and Argentina's Soda Stereo.

''There's a movement of young urban Latin artists that's developing a new sound based on what's really hip today and their own roots,'' she says. ``It's going to be a hybrid that has a very urban American edge, and it's going to cross over because the kids themselves are mainstream. It won't cross over from the outside.''


Pop has been edged out of the charts by rock, hip-hop and even bluegrass. The musical success story of 2001 was the Grammy-winning soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou, which has sold 5.5 million copies. The week of June 29, there was only one pure-pop album in Billboard's top 10: the collection Totally Hits 2002. There were three rock CDs, two rap, two R&B, one country and one bluegrass.

One of the most buzzed-about developments in the Anglo market is the resurgence of garage-style rock 'n' roll. With their alienated sneers and angry guitars, acts like the Strokes, White Stripes, the Vines and the Hives are providing an antidote for listeners overdosed on sugary sounds.

They may have Spanish-speaking compatriots. Even in the more conservative Latin market, there are signs the pop zeitgeist is swinging toward more original music. Soulful Colombian fusion-rocker Juanes' first album garnered three Latin Grammy Awards. His second has been No. 2 on Billboard's Latin sales charts since its release a month ago and has broken into the top 10 on the radio chart. Albums from La Ley, poetic Spanish singer-songwriter Alejandro Sanz, raucous Panamanian dancehall-rockers Rabanes and Cuban rappers Orishas -- all artists whom commercial wisdom would have consigned to the margins a few years ago -- are showing up on the sales and even the radio charts.

Manu Chao's eclectic Latin world beat album, Proxima Estacion Esperanza, has sold more than two million copies worldwide. The industry buzz is all about progressive fusion artists like Cabas, who blends Lenny Kravitz-style rock with the vallenato pop popularized by Colombia's Carlos Vives.


Still, there's always room for singular talent. Paulina Rubio's savvy blend of Latin flavor and trendy techno-pop -- and her kittenish sex appeal -- are catching the attention of those who think ranchera is a taco sauce. Border Girl sold 56,000 units its first week. The single Don't Say Goodbye landed in the middle of Billboard's Top 100 radio chart, and the video is being played on MTV's trend-setting teen show TRL.

After all, crossover dreams are forever. Rubio seems optimistic that she can follow the success of 2000's multimillion-selling Paulina into El Norte. ''I believe in a world with no borders,'' she says in English that has improved considerably since last year. ``I believe in mixing our cultures. I'm the spicy condiment, the first Mexican to do a crossover.''

And the charismatic Shakira, who broke ground as a Latina rockera and writes her own songs, has seen Laundry Service put her into the American galaxy of stars.

But as Schumacher points out, the American marketplace constantly demands new styles, whether in music or fashion. That makes the time right for alternative with a new accent.

''Pop culture needs novelty all the time; that's just the nature of a capitalist society,'' she says. ``You go to the Gap, and if you don't see new pants every two weeks you stop going to the Gap. Ricky Martin or Enrique Iglesias or Shakira or Marc Anthony first hit in Spanish, and went from there to the mainstream. And now the mainstream is looking for something new. It's all cyclical. The pop model is going to swing back down, and a more urban model is going to rise.''

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