How the success of 'Livin' La Vida Loca' may have undermined Latin pop : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Latino artists like Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira ruled the pop charts. But who was that so-called "Latin Explosion" actually for, and what were the business considerations behind it? In the third part of our series exploring crossover in pop music, we examine how this supposed boom turned out to be more of a marketing creation, which evaporated when digital streaming entered the picture. You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at samsanders@npr.org.

1999's 'Latin Explosion' chased crossover hits. Today, Latino artists don't need them

1999's 'Latin Explosion' chased crossover hits. Today, Latino artists don't need them

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In the third part of our series exploring crossover in pop music, we reexamine the so-called "Latin explosion" of the '90s: what it was supposed to be for audiences across the U.S., and what it actually came to represent. Blake Cale for NPR hide caption

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Blake Cale for NPR

In the third part of our series exploring crossover in pop music, we reexamine the so-called "Latin explosion" of the '90s: what it was supposed to be for audiences across the U.S., and what it actually came to represent.

Blake Cale for NPR

1999 was a big year at the Grammy Awards. Lauryn Hill won five Grammys, including for album of the year. Celene Dion won record of the year. Shania Twain and Alanis Morissette won multiple awards. Even Aerosmith performed "I Don't Want To Miss a Thing" from the Armageddon film soundtrack. It was a perfect '90s time capsule.

But the most memorable part of that ceremony was Ricky Martin's electric performance of "La Copa De La Vida." It can only be described as a massive party — percussionists parading through the audience, banging on drums and tapping tambourines, dancers gyrating all over the stage on stilts. At the center of it all was Martin, his hips moving constantly, singing and beckoning to the crowd. This was the first time many Americans who had mainly listened to mainstream pop had ever seen or heard of him. It would not be the last.

"He was an artist that would sell out stadiums throughout South America and Mexico," says Leila Cobo, vice president at Billboard and author of Decoding Despacito: An Oral History of Latin Music. "But outside of the Spanish-speaking world, people really didn't know him."

Though Martin was already at work on his first English-language album, the success of this performance led him to record another song destined to become a hit: "Livin' La Vida Loca."

In the third part of our series exploring crossover in pop music, we reexamine the so-called "Latin explosion" of the late '90s: what it was supposed to be for audiences across the U.S., and what it actually came to represent. Sony music executive Tommy Mottola is often credited with driving this "crossover success" — launching the careers of Ricky Martin, Shakira, Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez. What were the business considerations that built these careers, and how did the streaming revolution upend the multi-genre landscape of Latin music? We'll reconsider this music moment with Cobo, "Livin La Vida" songwriter Draco Rosa and journalist Jennifer Mota.


On Ricky Martin's success and his crossover appeal

Leila Cobo: Ricky is such a big example of the way Latin music was regarded in this country and in the world for so many years. You have an artist who used to be in Menudo — all of that. ... Ricky already had a solo career, and in Latin America, Ricky was huge. ... The great story about Ricky was that [music executives] decided to do this 'crossover' with him.

Ricky Martin performs "The Cup of Life" at the 1999 Grammy Awards.

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After that performance, they said, "Oh my God, this was such a hit. We need a similar song. We need something like this, something that's kind of up-tempo, kind of universal." And they went into this mad rush to find the song and they wrote "Livin' La Vida Loca." And it was all about, how do we put a little bit of a Latin flair [in it]? In a song that's in English, what kind of title do we give it that's Latin, but that everyone is going to understand, even if it's in English. How do we make it Latin without being too Latin, right? Because we want it to be a global hit. There were all these little considerations, and I think they struck just the right tone, and it's having the right song and the right artist ... because if anyone else had sung it, I don't know that it would have worked.

Draco Rosa ("Livin' La Vida Loca" songwriter): The mandate was, you know, I had [to write] pop with some authenticity. ... Push to be honest, push to be as real as possible. But make sure it's pop. That it's, you know, commercially — that there's a potential. ...

I was channeling [Jim] Morrison. I mean, there's elements of big band ... a little bit of surf guitar.

Cobo: I think it's fair to say that without Tommy [Mottola], it wouldn't have been this huge. I don't know that I would use the term the "father" of the Latin Explosion, but I would say that without him, it would not have had this impact. He was the president of the biggest record label in the world, and he put all the resources behind this music and he really advocated for it and he pushed it globally. And you need that push, especially back then. When you needed radio, when you needed key television shows, or else nothing would have happened. I mean, now you have streaming, but back then you didn't.

The problem with branding the '90s "Latin Explosion"

Jennifer Mota (multimedia journalist and columnist): It's always the "spicy Latino." There's always red involved. ... It was the branding of Latinidad — of, like, what the Anglo market considered or was acceptable as Latino.

This is what makes me cringe and laugh about the term[s] "Latin Boom" and "Latin Explosion." When I first started in the industry, I just didn't understand what it was that made me feel so uncomfortable. It's like, if it's really a Latin boom, like we've been Latin booming since the '60s, '50s — like, we've always existed. ... Marketing wise, it was something that people started paying attention to, like, "OK, Latin America is pretty huge. We can profit off of it." But who gets to have that visibility? Who are the people we want in our spaces?

Cobo: [In the early 2000s,] it winds down. It was so frustrating. ... Suddenly, music started to go digital, here in the States. But in Latin America, that never happened, because Latin America had a million issues. It was really hard to download music legally. We didn't have an iTunes store. People didn't have credit cards to download massively. So this whole kind of digital moment, we lost it in Latin America, and as a result, all the record labels lost tons of money. There was rampant piracy. People were downloading music for free. And so the industry was very decimated in Latin America. And what this does at the end of the day is, it affects talent development in Latin America, which is the big breeding ground for this music that eventually becomes so big.

On how the idea of crossover has changed today

Cobo: It's changed hugely. Today, you see artists like Bad Bunny, who has sung very little in English. And J Balvin, Ozuna also — even Daddy Yankee has done a few bilingual songs, but his success is in Spanish. So today, it's not necessary. Because you have all these streaming services, and it democratizes the experience. You don't have to wait for radio to play a song to discover it.

Mota: Latin isn't a genre. That's part of that education that people constantly, especially Latinos, have to work on in these spaces. ... Because that's where some of the disconnect is.

There's a lot of people that create alternative rock. There's people that do rap en español, R&B en español. When we talk about R&B en español, it's had such a hard time finding a space because systematically it was really hard to categorize.

I like to think of platforms like Spotify, YouTube — any digital streaming platform — as something that really saves music for marginalized communities. ... I feel like there is this big conversation about whether or not streaming has been good or bad for artists, but coming from a space where I've seen it do so much good for marginalized and ostracized artists and communities, I'm here for it.

This episode was adapted for the web by Anjuli Sastry. It was produced for broadcast by Andrea Gutierrez, Anjuli Sastry and Liam McBain. It was edited by Jordana Hochman. Engineering support came from Leo del Aguila, Peter Ellena, Kwesi Lee and Neil Tevault. Research assistance came from Nicolette Khan, Candice Vo Kortkamp and Barclay Walsh. Special thanks Daoud Tyler-Ameen and Jacob Ganz from NPR Music, and to Felix Contreras and Anamaria Sayre of the Alt.Latino podcast. You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at samsanders@npr.org.