By Franklin Soults
"America has no true culture of its own," a Nigerian acquaintance of mine informed me just before Thanksgiving, smiling with friendly disdain. If there were anything that could prove him wrong, you'd think it would have been Thanksgiving weekend--a particularly American quasi-religious observance open to all creeds, celebrating the abundance that's so intertwined with those mythic Puritan ideals of faith and tolerance, and full of unique customs that seem natural to us but strange to outsiders: the procession of consumer icons in the Macy's Thanksgiving parade, the turkey (a bird generally ignored from Brasilia to Beijing) topped with berries from a New England bog, the bright ritualized violence of the NFL. Even the mass-culture prime-time "holiday specials" are big slices of apple-pie-and-cornpone Amuricanism.
Funny thing is, only one of the stars who hosted one of these extravaganzas was actually Amurican. Holding their own next to Garth Brooks were Canadian-born Nashville smash Shania Twain, French-Canadian titan Celine Dion, and Puerto Rican pinup Ricky Martin. Admittedly, I didn't watch any of them shake their bonbons for long, but none of the athletic displays I caught seemed more or less native than any other. The world has been bombarded by vapid American pop culture for generations, and now the world is beaming it back at us, suggesting that there was nothing distinctly American about it in the first place. Not even Thanksgiving is sacred. My Nigerian friend may have been right, but not in the way he thinks: turkey is now eaten the world over.
At the moment, the taste is for dark meat. Poised between lilting New Age chanteuse and power diva, Dion remains somewhat unique on the world stage (though her TV show marked the beginning of a temporary semiretirement), but Martin almost instantly created a trend. If the increasing confusion between worldwide and American pop culture could make this Menudo and General Hospital alum a stateside superstar, then it can do the same for sensitive Latino puffballs Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias. Even as you read, that's exactly what's happening.
Of course, their success also has a lot to do with something much simpler: the explosion of the Latino market in the past decade. Thanks to high birthrates and (largely legal) immigration, the U.S. Latino population has grown an astounding 38 percent since 1990, a rate of increase that will make Latinos the nation's dominant minority by as early as 2002. Stats like these have been trumpeted in cover stories by magazines from Hispanic Business to Time, and their impact can be viewed on the streets of most major U.S. cities every day. But the new pop stars also show how that population is being gringoized even as it makes its presence felt as never before. SoundScan reported a 21 percent jump in Latin music sales last year, but Latin acts aren't playing "Babalu" anymore.
The new Latin music is in reality a Latin-Anglo hybrid, and it's been evolving for years, if not decades. Tune into a couple hours of mainstream Spanish-language radio or put on any half-decent Latin pop compilation--Mundo Romantico, assembled this year by Latin Beat magazine, is a disarmingly durable example--and you'll hear Anglo pop formulas applied to baroque, melodramatic balladry and cheesy lite house or salsa, combinations that take the romanticism of Latin culture as it is recognized and stereotyped the world over and polish it till it glitters like a disco ball. What Ricky Martin has proved is that the deracinated style has become so sophisticated it can now incorporate American country, rock, and R & B into the mix (hip-hop should be next). "Livin' la Vida Loca," the opening cut and huge breakthrough single from Ricky Martin, pulled this off better than anything I've yet heard. With its big beat and bright production, Latin passion and Anglo rectitude, the hit covered every base demanded by young record buyers from Beijing to Brasilia.
Or to be more precise, young female record buyers. It's girls that Martin appeals to most--the audience at a recent stadium concert I attended was about 90 percent female--and it's girls that Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias are aiming for with their anglophone debuts, Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias. Exotic yet cuddly is a deadly combination; pubescent females clamoring for that hormonally satisfying dialectic ushered in America's first alien pop attack--the mid-60s British Invasion spearheaded by the Beatles, which similarly delivered us back our own culture with just the right foreign twist. Even our own Backstreet Boys, who range from sweet and blond to dark and dangerous (the sole Latino member, Howie, claims on the band's Web site that his nickname is "Latin Lover") are workin' it. Their deracinated R & B was, in a way, the first American pop that was American and not-American at once, breaking huge all over Europe before selling diddly here. But there's still no one more exotic and cuddly at once than a genuine Latin pop star, his accent bespeaking his vulnerability in a strange land, his chili pepper bursting with hot seed.
More even than Martin, Anthony and Iglesias are blowing kisses straight at your niece or kid sister. And in some ways, they're better equipped to hit their mark than Martin is. For starters, former salsero and actor Anthony has vocal gifts that reveal Martin for the soap opera hack he is. From breath control to emotional shading, the New Yorican demonstrates the same earnest emotional precision on his English-speaking debut that helped him take the salsa world by storm in 1993.
Probably more important, the 31-year-old has sussed out current American teen tastes with the accuracy of a bloodhound. His latest single, "I Need to Know," which made the Billboard top three and went gold, injects a bracing touch of rootsy Puerto Rican bolero into a Backstreet Boys-style dance cut; the album opener, "When I Dream at Night," could be a vehicle for Madonna. But for every one of his hip dance numbers there are two or three turgid pop ballads that can't bear the weight of their mawkish lyrics. (Random sample: "As I look into your eyes / I see all the reasons why / My life's worth a thousand skies.") In these numbers his technical exactitude becomes the enemy, making each breathy, overbearingly earnest phrase sound all the more phony. Of course, forced vapid turgidity worked well enough for Mme. Dion, but for a guy it may still present the barrier it did for Julio Iglesias, who only got over in this country with older women.
That won't be an issue for the other Iglesias, Julio's son Enrique. Born in Spain and raised in Miami, the 24-year-old has already bettered his dad in more ways than hunk. If he offers the same unbelievable promise of gentle love and hard commitment as Julio--he boasted in TV Guide recently about the sanctity of his premarital virginity--he knows enough to escape it in his music, stoking the Latin fires as his father never dared, slipping into a sensual head voice or swooning along with the flamenco guitars. The payoff has been an oedipal fantasy come true: Though he has only been making albums since 1995, sales of his three previous discs, all multiplatinum, have outstripped any comparable period in Julio's career. And whereas papa took twenty years to make it big in America, Enrique is poised to do it in about four.
Enrique Iglesias is also far less insipid than most boy-pop product, though some might say that makes it more insidious. Variously reminiscent of the Gypsy Kings' Iberian worldbeat, Kevin Welch's New Age country, Chris Isaak's cocktail crooning, and Bono's barrel-chested soul belting, the disc incorporates Anglo-American styles more subtly than Ricky Martin and far more uniformly than Marc Anthony--though Iglesias flattens the complexities of the most arresting song on his album, Bruce Springsteen's lovely and odd "Sad Eyes." But promises like "I Have Always Loved You" and "I'm Your Man" are a harmless security blanket for young women striking out into the emotional terrain of adult passion: he might swear to always be there, but no need to reciprocate--not with him, and not with any of the cuddly exotics of 1999. The Beatles hung onto their historical moment by growing up fast along with their audience. Chances are Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias (and Ricky Martin, and for that matter the Backstreet Boys) will just grow old.