Last month, Justin Bieber remixed a reggaeton-pop song, “Despacito,” by Latin stars Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee (of “Gasolina” fame). Bieber’s remix, which he sings in tepid Spanish, hit the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart last week—which makes it the first (mostly) Spanish-language single to reach the spot since “Macarena” in 1996. Never mind that Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s original is (entirely) sung in Spanish; something about what Bieber did to the track made it instantly appealing to a larger, mainstream audience. It has been tapped as a potential song of the summer and hailed as a multicultural win in Trump’s America, a sign that no matter who is in the White House and who voted for them, Latinos are on the rise. But if you’ve been paying attention, the viral success of “Despacito” is nothing new.
The Latin remix—or the crossover hit, as it was once called—has been happening for decades. Expect much, much more of it now.
“What’s pushed this historical moment with Bieber to happen has been a long time coming,” Rocío Guerrero Colomo, who heads programming for Latin America at Spotify, told TrackRecord over the phone. “The crossover is nothing new. In the Latin world, we’re used to hearing it—it’s just not as big as when Justin Bieber sings in Spanish.”
Admittedly, Bieber sings rather poorly in Spanish—he sounds like he might’ve downed a bottle of Robitussin before recording the track, and video footage of Bieber performing the song live proves that his command of the language was rather fleeting. (He sang “Dorito,” the name of an orange-dusted tortilla chip invented by an American food company, during parts of the song he didn’t know.)
But Colomo’s point is still true: The crossover has been around over half a century. “This started back in the ‘50s and ‘60s with Latino artists covering American rock music they heard on the radio for their audience,” Isabelia Herrera, the music editor of Remezcla, explained. Mexican icon Luis Miguel covered The Jackson 5’s “Blame It on the Boogie”; Selena once covered “Back on the Chain Gang” by the Pretenders; and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” has inspired multiple Spanish-language renditions in different genres. But over time, as consumer tastes and pop standards began to change, it wasn’t just Latino artists covering American hits; sometimes it was their own songs. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, Enrique Iglesias “crossed over” into the U.S. market by releasing the English-language song “Hero.” There was also a Spanish version on his sophomore album, but the English one is the song that would be considered a breakout hit.
For Latino artists, reaching across the cultural and linguistic barrier is a form of career insurance—getting Americans to know your name is to make it. But today, American artists noticing a Latin pop song and taking the time to put their signature touch on it represents an unprecedented role reversal.
“For the first time, we’ve brought the general market to us, not the other way around,” Colomo said of the current Spanish remix wave. “It’s a big moment for the Latin artists community.”
Why now? As with most things, the internet helped. Consider the Miami-based artist Fuego, who in 2015 rose to fame after releasing a Spanish-language remix of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” called “Cuando Suena el Bling.” (Fuego is now signed to his own imprint on Pitbull’s label.) It makes sense that Fuego’s cover caught on: the original Drake song was one of the biggest Top 40 hits of the year, and English and Spanish-speakers alike were probably hungry for more of the cha cha-inflected track. And when Fuego uploaded his song to SoundCloud, it was shared through social networks, rather than catching on through more traditional methods like radio play. “Yeah, I posted it on my Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook,” he told Noisey at the time. “But really, we just uploaded it on SoundCloud and a few days later, it was everywhere.” In many ways, streaming has democratized the process by which songs become popular—or at least, it involves groups of people previously left out of that process.
“Despacito” is no different. Spotify confirmed to TrackRecord that the “Despacito” remix is the first Latin song to hit No. 1 on the Spotify Global Chart. And it’s not just Bieber. “Today, there are six Spanish songs in [Spotify’s] Global Top 50, and it will just get bigger,” Colomo noted. Those six include rising Colombian pop star Maluma’s “Felices Los 4” and Enrique Iglesias’ “Subeme La Radio.”
All of this makes sense: Latin America is one of Spotify’s biggest markets, and the company told TrackRecord that Latin music is its third most popular genre by number of streams.
It’s not just that Latinos make up more of the American consumer base and are driving more Latin songs to the top of the charts: Bieber’s remix is a strong example of a Spanish-language song widely catching on with white audiences. It’s a sign that maybe one day, there won’t be a need to categorize songs as “Latin pop” or straight-up “pop” anymore. Sonically, much of Latin music right now—especially subgenres like reggaeton and bachata—fits in with the rest of today’s chart-toppers. Songs by artists like Daddy Yankee, J Balvin, Maluma, and others shimmer with the same colorful, high-energy vibrancy as tracks by Calvin Harris, Rihanna, or The Weeknd. Consumer tastes have changed, and artists—across genres and backgrounds—have taken notice.
“I think the rise in [Latin music’s] popularity is due to the fact that the consumer has changed over the past 10 to 20 years,” said Sasha Pisterman, an entertainment publicist based in L.A. “The populations of those who listen to both English and Spanish-language music—and the current young population—have grown.”
For better or worse, the Latin remix isn’t going anywhere. I say “for worse” because, as with any trend, other artists have been quick to jump on; Billy Ray Cyrus and Ed Sheeran have Latin remixes of their own songs out now.
As Latinos’ buying power increases in the music industry, we’re sure to see more of this. But Herrera, the Remezcla editor, is hopeful that at least some of it is for the right reasons.
“In some cases, it’s an industry move or label move intended to maximize sale,” she told me. “But I do believe some artists do genuinely do it to connect with their Latino listeners.”