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Friday Takeaway: Ilan Stavans on ‘Despacito’

  • Ilan Stavans, Amherst College Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture, at his Amherst home, Monday, June 5, 2017. —KEVIN GUTTING / Gazette Staff



@ilanstavans
Friday, August 11, 2017

“Despacio” in Spanish means “slowly,” and the ito in “Despacito” adds a diminutive to the word that is impossible to translate. “Softly slowly,” perhaps?

“Despacito” is the title of a record-breaking song by two Puerto Rican Reggaeton artists, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, who released the track at the beginning of 2017. But it’s a remix of the song that has been stuck at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. In the U.S., it has been número uno on the charts for weeks. It is the most streamed song of all time, with more than 4.6 billion plays. From Johannesburg to Tel-Aviv, from London to Berlin, the rest of the world has tuned in, too. Call it a Latin craze.

What makes the success of “Despacito” all the more noteworthy is that the version everyone is dancing to features Justin Bieber. The story is that Bieber came across “Despacito” during a tour in Colombia. After falling under its spell, he purportedly contacted its creators to propose a remix. It is that remix that started the universal craze.

I have been following Bieber’s career for years. Although deprived of the wholesomeness of a Justin Timberlake, Bieber is an admirable performer. His infatuation with Latin music runs deep. He tinkered with Reggaeton in his song “Sorry.” And he produced an arrangement of it with Colombian Reggaeton singer J Balvin.

But with “Despacito,” Bieber one-ups himself — he sings in Spanish. Or rather, in Spanglish, engaging in code-switching free-wheeling that, while somewhat rigid, denotes courage. He rolls his Rs like a Gringo — that is, in a charming, innocent way. This is not how it’s done, one could tell him, but to what purpose? If Bieber is rolling his Rs, let humankind do it, too. Call it social pressure. 

The effect is curious. In rather graphic terms, the song is about passionate love. The lyrics of “Despacito” are more than sexy: “I want to breathe in your neck — despacito,” for example. “I want to undress you in kisses — despacito.” And: “Until I make you scream, and you forget your last name — despacito.” (I have restrained myself from quoting more explicit lines because this is a family newspaper.)

Whether it is Bieber or Luis Fonsi or Daddy Yankee doing vocals, the message is unequivocal: loving in another language (actually, making love, in Spanish: hacer el amor) is loving in an altogether different way. Call it a translator’s prerogative.

Would “Despacito” have become a runaway hit without Bieber? Probably not. He benefits from his liaison with Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. And they do, too. The paybacks are countless. When singing, Bieber sounds cool. And with the addition of Bieber to the remix, Fonsi and Yankee sound mainstream. This type of collaboration (or ripoff, according to some) between an American pop icon and Latin stars is a cyclical phenomenon. Every decade or so, a Spanish-language song jumps out of the music “ghetto” and into the “normal” channels. Remember Ricky Martin proselytizing about “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” which felt less like a song and more like a declaration of principles at the bitter end of the last millennium? Or consider, a short while earlier, Al Gore dancing to “La Macarena.” An inconvenient truth, I’m afraid.

Latin music is a huge market. Portraying it as a ghetto is demeaning, I know. But that’s what it is: a universe within the universe. For the most part, the smaller one is self-contained. Its edges occasionally get shattered through these kinds of crossovers.

American mainstream culture thrives on pillaging the artistic manifestations of those it marginalizes. Hip-hop, for instance, started in the slums of New York City among blacks and Puerto Ricans in the 1970s. As is frequently the case with emerging subcultures, it was frowned upon. Today hip-hop is a prestigious money-making machine, its subversive edge warped by an all-out consumerism.

There’s a parallel to be made with Reggaeton, the rhythms of which, along with Latin Pop, are at the heart of “Despacito.” Reggaeton started in the 1990s in Panama City and San Juan. It was a music that surged in the inner city in response to drugs and crime. It has been accused of encouraging misogyny, a fair critique given the demeaning ways that, in some lyrics, women are treated as objects. The consensus is that, for the last decade, Reggaeton was dead, its traction seldom reaching beyond a limited Latino audience. Until Justin Bieber showed up.

It always happens this way: The underground has a way of popping up above ground. Explicitly, “Despacito” isn’t about drugs and crime, yet the two ingredients lurk in the background. Unsurprisingly, the song has been banned in countries like Malaysia, where it is deemed unfit for public consumption. The folks in Kuala Lumpur know “bad hombres” even when they show up in disguise.

Has Justin Bieber stolen an artifact from one of America’s subcultures? Is this another case of appropriation? Again, the answer is no, although theft, when it comes to art, is the sine qua non of culture. Without much ado, think of Shakespeare. Is there anything he wrote that was truly original? Nah. Still, the bard is the most original of unoriginal writers. 

America is in the midst of a probing debate on appropriation. Not long ago, there was quite the hoopla when an art piece depicting Emmett Till in his coffin, made by white artist Dana Schutz, was displayed at the Whitney Biennial. Shamefully, protesters wanted it destroyed. And now, Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, “Detroit,” is generating widespread controversy because one if its themes is police brutality against blacks. Should a non-black director be allowed to comment on such matters? Of course. Didn’t Shakespeare write “Othello” for an actor in blackface? 

“Despacito,” in the Bieber remix, is Reggaeton for dummies. Its roots are Puerto Rican, but does anyone care? No, and frankly, no one should. American mainstream culture is amnesiac. What matters, in this case, is that Bieber and the song are “cool.” Which is just another way of saying relaxed and with style.