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

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SAM SANDERS, HOST:

Let's go back to February 24, 1999. I can recall this night in detail because that was the night the Grammys were broadcast that year. And in terms of awards shows, those 41st Annual Grammy Awards had everything. This was the night Lauryn Hill won five Grammys, including album of the year for "The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill."

(SOUNDBITE OF TELECAST OF 41ST ANNUAL GRAMMY AWARDS)

STING: "The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill" - Lauryn Hill.

(CHEERING)

SANDERS: An album that truly got me through high school.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELECAST OF 41ST ANNUAL GRAMMY AWARDS)

LAURYN HILL: You know what? This is so amazing. I thank you, God.

SANDERS: This was also the night that Celine Dion won record of the year for "My Heart Will Go On."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HEART WILL GO ON")

CELINE DION: (Singing) Near, far, wherever you are...

SANDERS: Shania Twain and Alanis Morissette won multiple awards that night. And Aerosmith - yes, Aerosmith - they performed "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing" from the "Armageddon" soundtrack.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DON'T WANT TO MISS A THING")

AEROSMITH: (Singing) I'd miss you baby and I don't want to miss a thing.

SANDERS: This award show, it was the perfect time capsule of late '90s pop culture, but also this show offered a bit of foreshadowing of a new trend that would sweep the nation just months later into the new millennium with one Ricky Martin at the forefront. That award show in 1999, that was where Ricky really made his American debut.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICKY MARTIN SONG, "LA COPA DE LA VIDA")

SANDERS: He performed a song called "La Copa De La Vida."

LEILA COBO: He performed "The Cup Of Life."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA COPA DE LA VIDA")

RICKY MARTIN: (Singing) Here we go, ale, ale, ale.

COBO: Everybody stood up, and everybody was dancing and doing conga lines in the middle of the Grammys.

SANDERS: And like, y'all, forget about all those other performers and winners. Ricky stole the show. He starts this performance with this full band and his hips moving perfectly in these leather pants. It's a full party. Then in the middle of the song, Ricky has dozens of percussionists come down the halls of the Shrine Auditorium, banging their drums, tapping their tambourines, dancing in time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA COPA DE LA VIDA")

MARTIN: (Singing) All right, yeah.

SANDERS: There are also these dancers on stage on stilts, and Ricky, he is just in charge of it all as the music and the performers take over the entire space. It was electric.

(CHEERING)

SANDERS: And also, the leather pants.

COBO: I got to say, he looked amazing in leather pants. Come on.

SANDERS: That is Leila Cobo. She's the vice president at Billboard Magazine. She's also the author of the book "Decoding 'Despacito': An Oral History Of Latin Music." Leila says even though this performance was maybe the first time many Americans had seen Ricky, he'd been around for a while.

COBO: And in Latin America, Ricky was huge. He was a huge star. He was an artist that would sell out stadiums throughout South America and Mexico. But outside of the Spanish-speaking world, people really didn't know him.

SANDERS: And even though this performance stole the show, it was not a given that he would perform.

COBO: Tommy was very insistent that Ricky had to perform at the Grammys.

SANDERS: Tommy, as in Tommy Mottola, the high-powered record executive who helped launch careers of people like his ex-wife Mariah Carey and also Celine Dion and Destiny's Child and Jessica Simpson and Ricky Martin, among others.

COBO: And he was nominated, and the Grammys didn't want him to perform because he was Latin, and no one knew him, and he was going to...

SANDERS: Which in hindsight feels a little bit low-key - I don't know if racist is the word but not a smart decision.

COBO: I think Latin music was very discriminated against in these days.

SANDERS: Anyhoo (ph), after Tommy Mottola convinces the powers that be to give Ricky a spot at the Grammys and after Ricky's performance is so well-received, after that, Tommy says more of this.

COBO: After that performance, they said, oh, my God, this was such a hit and 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. It was all about how do we put a little bit of Latin flair 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.

SANDERS: That right song was "Livin' La Vida Loca," and that mad rush became the so-called Latin explosion. For a few years, beginning in the late '90s, Latino artists like Ricky and Enrique Iglesias...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAILAMOS")

ENRIQUE IGLESIAS: (Singing in Spanish).

SANDERS: ...J.Lo...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GET LOUD")

JENNIFER LOPEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

SANDERS: ...And Shakira and Marc Anthony...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIMELO")

MARC ANTHONY: (Singing in Spanish).

SANDERS: ...They would rule the Billboard charts with songs in a style that were a little bit Latin, a lot of pop and engineered to crossover.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIMELO")

ANTHONY: (Singing in Spanish). Tell me, baby girl, 'cause I need to know.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: And you're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders.

ANDREA GUTIERREZ, BYLINE: And I'm Andrea Gutierrez, a producer on the show.

SANDERS: And we're going to host this episode, Andrea, together.

GUTIERREZ: Here we are. We're doing it.

SANDERS: So excited.

GUTIERREZ: So for the last few weeks, we've been looking at great crossover moments in music history - "Soul Train" in the '70s, Janet Jackson in the '80s. And now we're going to look at a great moment in crossover that seems, well, a little off 20 years later - the Latin explosion.

SANDERS: I mean, even the name Latin explosion.

GUTIERREZ: It felt a little bit like the Taco Bell chihuahua come to life in human musical form.

SANDERS: Cute, successful, but weird (laughter).

GUTIERREZ: Yes, absolutely - for better and for worse.

SANDERS: Yeah. So Andrea and I are going to look back on that Latin explosion this episode and talk about whether it worked.

GUTIERREZ: And just how offensive some of it was in hindsight.

SANDERS: But first, we're going to break down the song that really, truly kicked it off.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVAN'S "FLICKER")

GUTIERREZ: You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Andrea Gutierrez.

SANDERS: And I'm Sam Sanders. And we want to take some time right now to talk about the one and only "Livin' La Vida Loca."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVIN' LA VIDA LOCA")

MARTIN: (Singing) Upside, inside out, she's livin' la vida loca. She'll push and pull you...

SANDERS: So after the Grammys in '99 and that performance, Ricky Martin finds himself in a very interesting position.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: He is world famous and unknown at the same time.

COBO: The great story about Ricky was they decided to do this, quote-unquote, "crossover" with him. This is when Tommy Mottola was running Sony and Columbia. And they saw the potential in this artist who spoke English, you know? He knew both languages. So they tried to...

SANDERS: And he could sing well in both languages.

COBO: He could...

SANDERS: Yeah.

COBO: ...Sing well in both languages, and they had already kind of tested his international appeal with "The Cup Of Life."

GUTIERREZ: So the goal is to make more songs that felt Latin but were also very pop - and pop for American audiences.

DRACO ROSA: Well, the mandate was, you know, it had to pop with some authenticity.

GUTIERREZ: Draco Rosa was one of the songwriters on "Livin' La Vida Loca."

ROSA: You know, push to be honest, push to be as real as possible, but make sure it's pop, that it's, you know, commercially right.

SANDERS: Draco and Ricky, they actually go way back. They both were members of the Spanish-language Latino boy band called Menudo in their younger years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLARIDAD")

MENUDO: (Singing in Spanish).

SANDERS: But after his time in the group, Draco began making experimental rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VAGABUNDO")

ROSA: (Singing in Spanish).

GUTIERREZ: So when he and Ricky and others are told to come up with a hit, his influences are maybe not what you'd expect.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVIN' LA VIDA LOCA")

ROSA: (Singing) Upside, inside out - you know, just, like, channeling Morrison.

GUTIERREZ: Jim Morrison of The Doors.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAK ON THROUGH")

JIM MORRISON: (Singing) Break on through to the other side. Break on through to the other...

GUTIERREZ: And there was more.

ROSA: I mean, there's elements of big band, you know, and a little surf - you know, a little bit of surf guitar.

GUTIERREZ: Fun fact - Paul McCartney's longtime guitarist played the guitar solo on the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVIN' LA VIDA LOCA")

MARTIN: (Singing) She'll make you take your clothes off...

SANDERS: In Leila Cobo's book, "Decoding 'Despacito,'" there's a whole chapter on the influences behind "Livin' La Vida Loca." And a lot of the songwriters, they told her that they were trying to channel Vegas...

GUTIERREZ: Wow.

SANDERS: ...And the Rat Pack and lounge acts.

GUTIERREZ: Wow - lounge acts.

SANDERS: Like, I know, seriously. One writer even said that they were trying to make Ricky Martin - hear me out, Andrea - the Latin Elvis...

GUTIERREZ: (Laughter).

SANDERS: ...And of course, with a sprinkle of Morrison as well.

ROSA: Just Morrison, man - Morrison, Morrison.

GUTIERREZ: But maybe the wildest part of the "Livin' La Vida Loca" story - at least according to the version that songwriters told Leila - is the Spanglish title of the song. It kind of came at the end of the writing process.

SANDERS: So Desmond Child is one of the writers of "Livin' La Vida Loca," and he was trying to think of Spanish words that American English speakers would actually know. And he told Leila, quote, "what does everybody know? El Pollo Loco. There's a Pollo Loco everywhere."

GUTIERREZ: Of course. I'm from Southern California. They're everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: El Pollo Loco's got a new thing - Pollo Bowl.

SANDERS: He's talking about the fast-food chain. That, says Desmond, is where the loca came from - from a chicken chain.

GUTIERREZ: I know. Get your money, El Pollo Loco.

SANDERS: (Laughter) So this shouldn't work, but it works. And then comes more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: So Ricky Martin takes off. He is a big deal, a big hit. And after that, what does Tommy Mottola do? This is the record executive who got Ricky Martin that spot in the Grammys and helped guide his American rollout. After that, Mottola is like, let's keep it up, right? Who else we got?

COBO: Exactly. And so Ricky comes out. He's such a big success. But by then, they were already working on Shakira. They were already working on Marc Anthony. They were already working on J.Lo, who was going to release an album in English.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU HAD MY LOVE")

LOPEZ: (Singing) If you had my love and I gave you all my trust, would you comfort me?

COBO: You know, she was Latin. Her roots were Latin, and there was going to be some capitalizing on that. So all these things were already in motion. And after Ricky came Shakira, with extraordinary success, I must say.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHAKIRA SONG, "WHENEVER, WHEREVER")

COBO: I think Shakira was a great crossover because, you know, Ricky was Puerto Rican. It's another country, but it's part of the U.S. in a way. Shakira was Colombian.

SANDERS: And Shakira was not speaking English before. Like, she was only speaking Spanish before the crossover. She had to learn English just to make the American album, right?

COBO: Exactly, she did.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHENEVER, WHEREVER")

SHAKIRA: (Singing) Whenever, wherever, we're meant to be together. I'll be there, and you'll be near.

COBO: Kudos to her because she speaks English extremely well. And she writes it extremely well. But, yes, she had to learn it.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. So then Tommy Mottola, is it fair to say that he is the father of the Latin explosion if there is one?

COBO: I think it's fair to say that without Tommy, it wouldn't have had - it wouldn't have been this huge. Yes. I don't know that I would use that 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.

SANDERS: Yeah. It was all about pushing the radio, pushing the video. You know, I want to talk about Tommy Mottola and how much he articulated clearly wanting a crossover, wanting to bring Latin music, Spanish-language music, to English-speaking audiences. Is there a problem in hindsight in wanting to crossover so bad? Some might say, looking back on this Latin explosion, why do this for these white, American listeners who might not get it? Why water it down for folks that can't respect it in its totality? I think it's a larger question about, like, crossover. Looking back on it now, 20 years later, is crossover in that way as admirable of a goal?

COBO: It's changed hugely. And today you see artists like Bad Bunny, who has sung very little in English...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YONAGUNI")

BAD BUNNY: (Singing in Spanish).

COBO: ...And J Balvin - Ozuna also...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNA LOCURA")

OZUNA: (Singing in Spanish).

COBO: ...Even Daddy Yankee. 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 this song to discover it. But back then, you did.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

COBO: And so you had Spanish-language radio. And those of us who were Latin and who were into Latin music and were going to Latin concerts, you know, I would go see Vicente Fernandez or Celia Cruz.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA VIDA ES UN CARNAVAL")

CELIA CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish).

COBO: And there were 20,000 people in there. The place was sold out. Everybody was singing in Spanish. And you would say, oh, my God, why isn't anybody talking about this?

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

COBO: Why is everybody talking about some alternative, little artist who is selling clubs? And here I am going to arenas. And there's 20,000 people. And no one...

SANDERS: Yeah.

COBO: ...Is talking about it simply because it's in another language.

SANDERS: Yeah.

COBO: So I understand the need of some artists and some executives to say, you know what? We want the world to hear this.

SANDERS: Yeah.

COBO: And the only way to do that is by singing in another language, so let's do it.

SANDERS: Yeah. No. I mean - yeah.

COBO: Some people feel comfortable doing that, some people don't. A lot of artists chose not to do it.

SANDERS: Which ones chose not to do it?

COBO: For example, Mana, the big, Mexican rock band.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLAVADO EN UN BAR")

MANA: (Singing in Spanish).

COBO: And I have this very fresh in my mind because I had them in a panel. And Fher said that. Someone asked him about singing in English. And he said, you know, I was never interested. I didn't want to do it. We felt that our essence as Mana was going to be compromised if we sang in a language that wasn't ours and that they don't speak well.

SANDERS: Do you think, looking back, that any of the artists involved in that big crossover moment of Latin explosion in the late '90s, do you think any of them are second-guessing or regretting the crossover...

COBO: Gosh, that's a good question.

SANDERS: ...And saying, oh, I wouldn't have wanted to do it like that, you know? Like - I don't know. I've always wondered, is Ricky Martin still in love with "Livin' La Vida Loca"?

COBO: I don't want to dare speak for Ricky or for Shakira.

SANDERS: Nor do I. Nor do I.

(LAUGHTER)

COBO: But I have to think that they do love those songs because after all, those were the songs that carried them all over the world.

SANDERS: Yeah.

COBO: You know, I think - I sometimes think, wow, what it must feel like to have a song that's so global.

SANDERS: Yeah.

COBO: And I'll mention another song that's not from that time, "Despacito" with Luis Fonsi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESPACITO")

LUIS FONSI: (Singing in Spanish).

COBO: I asked Luis when I spoke to him for the book, I said, don't you get fed up singing this song or hearing it? It's still - he said, absolutely not. He said, it's like I owe so much to this song. I can't be fed up with it. I can't be ungrateful to it. And I would imagine that they feel the same way. I can tell you that Shakira loves "Whenever, Wherever" (laughter).

SANDERS: OK, good, good. Because I do, too. And I would be hurt if she didn't like that song as well.

COBO: (Laughter) Yes.

SANDERS: (Laughter) OK. You know, speaking of Shakira, she's kind of on the tail end of the Latin explosion wave because she's breaking out in, like, the early 2000s. After her big moment, what happens to Latin music, Spanish-language music, in America in that first decade of the 2000s?

COBO: You know what happens? It goes - it winds down. It was so frustrating. Everything seemed to retract a little bit.

SANDERS: How did you feel watching that happen as someone who loves this music and covers this industry?

COBO: Well, it was frustrating. And there's many things at play that went into that. You suddenly had - music started to go digital - right? - here in the States. But in Latin America, that never happened because Latin America had a million issues. So it was really hard to download music legally. We didn't have an iTunes store.

SANDERS: Yeah.

COBO: 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. And so when those markets are hurting, and when there's not money to invest in them, and when there's not money to sign, then everything suffers. And I think that was part of the problem, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: Thanks again to Leila Cobo. Her book is called "Decoding 'Despacito': An Oral History Of Latin Music." All right, listeners, stay with us. Coming up, Andrea takes over to share her lingering criticisms of the Latin explosion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GUTIERREZ: Andrea here again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GUTIERREZ: So I was in high school in southern California when "Livin' La Vida Loca" dropped. And I wish I could tell you that I loved the song, that it meant something to me, that I felt a sense of pride seeing a fellow Latino blow up like that. But I found that song totally cringe. I did not like it. The Spanglish felt forced. And the whole media blitz around it - I mean, really, the entire Latin explosion - it was embarrassing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: His Latin rhythms have ignited the music mainstream.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Does he speak English or - I mean, just going sure and yes?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: It looks to me like you have some kind of gaucho outfit on.

(LAUGHTER)

GUTIERREZ: When I thought about Latin music, I thought about the stuff I also grew up on, like my dad's Santana albums. I mean, do you even understand the beauty of hearing "Black Magic Woman" on the radio directly followed by "Oye Como Va," just like on the album, as God intended it?

(SOUNDBITE OF SANTANA SONG, "OYE COMO VA")

GUTIERREZ: Wasn't that also the Latin explosion? Even that phrase, Latin explosion, I couldn't shake the feeling of being marketed to, like someone had captured lightning in a bottle. But that bottle was market-tested and focus-grouped to death. And I wondered, who is this for? Guillermo Gomez-Pena, a performance artist, he put something into words I didn't quite yet understand at 18 from his commentary for NPR in 2000.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GUILLERMO GOMEZ-PENA: What if this new Latino boom reflects accurately the superficial values and aspirations of a new band Latino community, much more eager to belong to the larger U.S.A., and much more willing to leave behind the unspoken pains of racism, the tribulations of immigration. We are the dot-com Latinos.

GUTIERREZ: To use a present-day term, is this how we wanted to be perceived?

JENNIFER MOTA: It's always, like, oh, the, quote-unquote, "spicy Latina," you know? There's always red involved (laughter).

GUTIERREZ: That is Jennifer Mota. She is a multimedia creative, journalist and columnist.

MOTA: The big, black, curled waves, you know, or the long, black, straight hair. It was the branding of Latinidad of, like, what the Anglo market considered or was acceptable, like, as Latino.

GUTIERREZ: And Jennifer, She also has some issues with the way people talk about this late '90s explosion.

MOTA: This is what makes me, like, cringe and laugh about - it's what I - it's the relationship I have with the term Latin boom and Latin explosion, because when I first started in the industry, I just didn't understand, like, what was it that it made me feel so uncomfortable. And if it's really a Latin boom, like, we've been Latin booming since, like, '60s, '50s (laughter). Like, we've always existed. I like to really categorize it as a digital boom, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GUTIERREZ: 1999, it wasn't just the end of the millennium, it was also a major turning point for the entire music industry. The '90s saw massive consolidation of record companies, and then a shift to digital music. And the pop music of that Latin explosion - it didn't come from nowhere.

MOTA: Most of these genres are Black-rooted. Like, that's something that's been a huge topic and a huge frustration for so many Black communities. But I definitely see that, quote-unquote, "Latin explosion" of 1999 as, one, something that was part of a digital boom, but also, like, 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 gets - who are the people we want in our spaces?

GUTIERREZ: What followed for the Latin music industry and for the artists has set the course to reshape how all of us consume music today.

So what does it mean when people say Latin music? This is, like, a term in the industry. You're talking about, like, pop music and different genres, like reggaeton. But when we talk about Latin music, how would you define that? What do you mean?

MOTA: I look at Latin music as an umbrella term that is supposed to embody the various of sounds that are created and are home-grown to different countries in Latin America. So I'm thinking bachata, merengue, salsa. I'm thinking, you know, rancho norteno (ph). I'm thinking, like, any song that is made in Latin America. And I feel like today, somehow, when somebody says Latin or sometimes when people coming from Anglo mentions Latin, they're thinking of, like, pop reggaeton.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MI GENTE FT. BEYONCE")

J BALVIN: (Singing in Spanish).

BEYONCE: (Singing in Spanish).

MOTA: AJ Kallejero, he's lead global at YouTube Music. He says this all the time. Latin isn't a genre, you know? And that's part of that education that people constantly - especially Latinos in this space - have to work on in these spaces when you are the only Latino or Spanish-speaking person that understands the culture because that's where some of the disconnect is, you know? There's a lot of people that create alternative rock. There's people that do rap in Espanol, R&B in Espanol. When we talk about R&B in Espanol, it's had such a hard time finding a space because systematically, it was really hard to categorize R&B in Espanol.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TU AMOR")

ANMILY BROWN: (Singing in Spanish).

MOTA: And something as simple as the Latin trap movement - there was just that big confusion of R&B and Espanol being Latin trap. You know, Latin trap isn't supposed to be romantic. It's literally a reflection of what trap in U.S. spaces means. It's about violence. It's about the 'hood. It's about the trap. It's about reflecting the societies that these rappers are coming from. So I feel like, in terms of categorizing, there has been a lot of conflict.

GUTIERREZ: You know, another thing that really stands out to me about the Latin explosion in the '90s is, it came at the end of an era for the music industry. I started college in 2000, and it felt like we went from buying CDs to pirating music overnight.

MOTA: That's wild.

GUTIERREZ: So, like, obviously, the music industry and the way people find music has changed a lot in the last 20 years when it comes to Latin music, Latinx artists, the music industry in Latin America. And I know those are all separate things. But they're interconnected.

MOTA: No, yeah.

GUTIERREZ: What has that shift looked like?

MOTA: So I feel like - you know, to your point, I like to really think of platforms like Spotify, YouTube, any digital streaming platform as something that really saved music for marginalized communities. And literally, like, right now, there's this huge fight against queer and female liberation right now in the Dominican Republic politically. And right now, we have someone like Tokischa, who is pro-sexual liberation. She speaks about sex super open.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LINDA")

TOKISCHA AND ROSALIA: (Singing in Spanish).

MOTA: If we didn't have YouTube, if we didn't have digital streaming platforms, a lot of these communities wouldn't feel seen, wouldn't be heard. So literally, when you go to these parties or sometimes even clubs, like, they're literally playing YouTube. So...

GUTIERREZ: In the clubs they're playing YouTube?

MOTA: I've been to clubs where they play YouTube videos (laughter).

GUTIERREZ: Wow.

MOTA: And you know, 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. Like, you know, these artists don't have to depend on big labels, especially artists in the Dominican Republic, who can't get a visa as easy as other artists...

GUTIERREZ: Yeah.

MOTA: ...In a different country. For so long, Dominican dembow and our movement was so stuck in the rotation of just making - just doing shows to make money within the country. And now we have an alpha who's literally doing a show in Madison Square Garden with no promotion, no marketing. Like, that speaks volumes to the power of streaming, to the power of organic growth that that comes from it, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEMBOW, VOL. 1 (MEGA MIX)")

DJ LIL YANKEE: (Rapping in Spanish).

MOTA: I feel like all of the Black artists I follow - and it's not because I'm here in the Dominican Republic - is just like so much of Dominican dembow is - it's Black. It's Black music. It equates to Black joy.

GUTIERREZ: You know, so much of the Latin explosion of the late '90s was obsessed with the crossover hit. Have the changes in the industry since then and the ways people consume music now, do they change the need or desire to make a pop hit in the U.S. that's, like, palatable or understandable to white American audiences, English-speaking audiences?

MOTA: I think it's a business. I think its strategy and business at this point. Since the 1990, quote-unquote, "explosion" - right? - Latinx explosion, we've seen so many different collaborations. We've seen - you know, one of the most recent but not so recent, I think of Romeo Santos and Drake.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ODIO")

ROMEO SANTOS: (Singing in Spanish).

MOTA: Like, that was so big. We see a Drake that adapted to Romeo Santos' genero, to bachata. And he was the first bachatero to do that, to bring a rapper. And it wasn't the first time he did that either.

I'm not surprised that we have, you know, bands like Aventura literally recreating a storytelling style like 2Pac, like Biggie; something that we didn't see in bachata before, right? And this is - this becomes very attractive to those that are growing up in Uptown that aren't necessarily Latinos, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VOLVI")

SANTOS: (Singing in Spanish).

GUTIERREZ: Where do you see Latin music heading today? And are you hopeful that it recognizes and supports all Latinx artists?

MOTA: I feel like, OK, thank God for streaming. I'm looking - I feel like a streaming cheerleader right now...

(LAUGHTER)

MOTA: ...'Cause I'm just like, shoutout to streaming. You giving us visibility.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GUTIERREZ: Thanks again to journalist Jennifer Mota. You can find her work at many outlets. Follow her on Twitter at @jennifermotaval.

SANDERS: Andrea, we are reaching the end of this episode. How you feeling?

GUTIERREZ: You know, it's been a journey (laughter) learning so much.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

GUTIERREZ: But, man, you know, Jennifer...

SANDERS: Yeah.

GUTIERREZ: ...She talks about visibility. And I have to say, visibility is not everything.

SANDERS: It's not everything. I mean, I will say personally, I'm still stuck on El Pollo Loco. I'm a be stuck on that for the rest of my life.

GUTIERREZ: (Laughter).

SANDERS: But larger point to make, I think, is, like, the story of a Latin explosion and what came next, it's kind of a tech story. Like, if the Latin explosion of the late '90s is one of the last gasps of a dying traditional music industry, where a handful of executives control so much and can write the story, then I feel like the story of the dominance of Latin music now is a story of what happens when entire industries are democratized by the internet. And that gives a lot more visibility to Latin music and Latin artists.

And that story, you know, it sounds amazing on first read, but when you look at how streaming works, we know that a bunch of these artists end up getting, like, pennies for hundreds or thousands or more of streams. This market is democratized. These marginalized voices are visible, but it doesn't make the market fair.

GUTIERREZ: Yeah. I mean, it's not fair, but also, like, what is the alternative now, especially after this pandemic year - in this pandemic were technically still in? I mean, artists haven't been able to tour. That's how they make so much of their money these days - like, live performances. And that leaves artists with those pennies from streaming. Industry will always find a way to control the means of production.

SANDERS: Uh oh. You took it to a place with that (laughter). I think what you're saying is, ain't nobody ever going to get as rich as Ricky Martin did that quick ever again doing music. It's not going to happen.

GUTIERREZ: No, I think it - and if it does, it's going to be something new. It's going to be something - maybe we don't see it yet. Maybe it's under way. I don't know.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GUTIERREZ: This episode is the third of our three-episode series on major moments in pop music crossovers. If you haven't already listened to the other episodes, go back in your feed and find them. There's the one about "Soul Train," another about the Janet Jackson album "Control." I cannot recommend them enough.

SANDERS: This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was lovingly produced and co-hosted by Andrea Gutierrez. Fellow producers were Anjuli Sastry and Liam McBain. Our fearless editor, per usual, was Jordana Hochman. For this one, we had engineering support from Leo del Aguila, Peter Ellena, Kwesi Lee and Neil Tevault.

GUTIERREZ: Our researchers were Nicolette Khan, Candice Vo Kortkamp and Barclay Walsh. I want to give a huge special thanks and shoutout to Felix Contreras and Anamaria Sayre of NPR's Alt.Latino podcast. Their help and insight has been invaluable in working on this episode and researching it. And of course, I recommend listening to their podcast as well. Honestly, I get so many music recommendations from them. So go listen to it.

SANDERS: Yes. And listeners, as always, thank you for listening to us. Take care. Go find some good music and dance to it. I'm Sam Sanders.

GUTIERREZ: And I'm Andrea Gutierrez. Talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVAN'S "FLICKER")

SANDERS: I'm going to let my last word, Andrea, be the horn line from "Suavemente."

GUTIERREZ: (Laughter).

SANDERS: (Imitates horn).

GUTIERREZ: You would. You would.

SANDERS: That's the best song. It gets back...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUAVEMENTE")

ELVIS CRESPO: (Singing in Spanish).

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