What's Behind The Success Of 'Despacito'?

Aug 1, 2017
Originally published on August 2, 2017 12:46 pm

We've all heard it — on the radio, on the streets, in the grocery store. The song "Despacito" by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee been streamed over 4.6 billion times, and has kept its number one spot on Billboard's Hot 100 since before the official start of summer. Fonsi, the song's singer and songwriter, says he's ecstatic that the No. 1 in the world is in Spanish.

"The whole world is singing in Spanish," he says. "We have everybody Googling, 'What does Despacito mean?'"

"Despacito" was originally released in January of this year and quickly began climbing the global charts to become an international hit. When Justin Bieber jumped on the song's remix this spring, it gave "Despacito" the boost it needed to hit No. 1 in the US.

The song has also brought up conversations about the power of crossover culture. Fonsi is far from the first Latin artist to cross into the mainstream, though his predecessors typically did so in English.

"'Despacito' was just the song that exploded through the door," Fonsi says. "But I give a lot of credit to amazing artists who have done these kinds of fusions in the past, like Ricky [Martin], Enrique [Iglesias] and Shakira."

"Despacito" also broke records this summer as the most-streamed song in history. Jesus Lopez, President and CEO of Universal Music Latin Entertainment, says that streaming has played a big role in the song's success, partly because it makes more information available about how many times a given track is played.

"Before, you cannot see how the market was working because of the piracy. On the charts you only saw the official sales," Lopez says. "Now you can see all the consumption of the music on the charts."

Rocio Guerrero, Spotify's Head of Latin Culture, says that "Despacito" is one of a growing number of cross-cultural team-ups she's seen lately, including collaborations between Romeo Santos and Drake, and J Balvin and Pharrell.

"I think 'Despacito' creates even more buzz about something that was already happening," Guerrero says. "This is something that didn't happen overnight — we've been working really hard for many years to push the Latin culture to the forefront of the music business."

Given the Unites States' current political climate, however, Fonsi says he thinks it's significant that "Despacito" is in Spanish.

"The timing is quite perfect, you know, in this environment we live in," he says. "I don't want to turn this song into a political environment, because it's not. It's a great song to make us feel good. But in the times that we live, where some people want to divide and want to build walls — we're going through a lot of change, so it's quite lovely that a Spanish song is No. 1 right now."

Not only is the song in Spanish — it's in the style of reggaeton, a genre born in Puerto Rico that mixes hip-hop with Jamaican dancehall music.

Petra Rivera-Rideau, assistant professor of American Studies at Wellesley College and author of Remixing Reggaeton: The Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico, says that reggaeton "has endured a lot of attempts to get rid of it." The music, she says, was created in working-communities where many identified as black and/or close to Afro-diasporic culture.

"The communities that were associated with [reggaeton] culture were also communities that were stigmatized by the Puerto Rican government," Rivera-Rideau says. "They were targets of anti-crime initiatives in the mid-1990s that represented [them] as chaotic, perpetrators of violence, tied to drugs and all kinds of stereotypes. So reggaeton became a cultural symbol of these establishments. They were looking at reggaeton as emblematic of all the ills and problems of this community."

Rivera-Rideau says this moment is significant: Reggaeton has become a worldwide genre, with increasing numbers of pop artists drawing from its sounds. It's a position many wouldn't have ever thought possible for reggaeton back in the 1990s.

Isabelia Herrera, music editor of the online Latino culture website Remezcla, says "Despacito" represents an exceptionally visible moment in pop and Latin music. So when Justin Bieber messed up the song's Spanish lyrics at a show in May, tensions in the Latino community grew.

"There is this viral video of him singing it in a nightclub in New York and him replacing the lyrics with 'Dorito, burrito,' — all this weird and uncomfortable imagery that is associated with Latinidad," she explains. "I don't care if he messes up the lyrics by accident — it's more about using these tropes and mocking the language itself."

Although the song has helped increase media representation of Latinos, Herrera says, she doesn't think it will address the real issues this community is facing.

"We continue to tell ourselves these feel-good stories about representing Latinos in music and culture because we are so starved for visibility," she says. "And we use these pop culture moments to celebrate these remarkable feats of how far we've come. But I don't think it changes the political situation of Latinos in the United States."

Despite what the song may or may not mean for the visibility of these issues, Jesus Lopez says it is boosting business. "Right now, everybody knocks on our doors to make collaborations with the Latin artists," he says.

And after 11 weeks, "Despacito" shows no signs of giving up the No. 1 spot.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's on the radio blaring out of cars and on the streets. It's even playing in grocery stores.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESPACITO")

LUIS FONSI AND DADDY YANKEE: (Singing in Spanish).

SHAPIRO: "Despacito" by Puerto Rican musicians Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee with Justin Bieber. The song has been streamed more than 4.6 billion times worldwide. It's been number one on Billboard's Hot 100 for 11 weeks now. NPR's Jessica Diaz-Hurtado reports the song is saying something about how global music is changing.

JESSICA DIAZ-HURTADO, BYLINE: "Despacito" was released in January of this year, climbing the global charts pretty fast. When Justin Bieber jumped on the song with a remix partly in English, it gave Luis Fonsi's song the boost it needed.

LUIS FONSI: The whole world is singing in Spanish. You know, we have everybody just kind of googling what does despacito mean?

DIAZ-HURTADO: It means slowly. And it sparked conversations on the power of crossover culture, when an artist crosses into the mainstream and this time, without translating the lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESPACITO")

LUIS FONSI AND DADDY YANKEE: (Singing in Spanish).

DIAZ-HURTADO: Fonsi points out that he's not the first artist to do this.

FONSI: "Despacito" was just the song that just exploded through the door. But I give a lot of credit to amazing artists who have done these kind of fusions in the past like Ricky, like Enrique, like Shakira.

DIAZ-HURTADO: As in Martin, Iglesias and, well, Shakira. But before YouTube and Spotify, it was kind of hard to track exactly how popular those crossovers were, says Jesus Lopez, chairman and CEO of Universal Music Latin America and Iberian Peninsula.

JESUS LOPEZ: Before, you cannot see how the market was working there because the piracy. Now you can see the consumption of the music on the charts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESPACITO")

LUIS FONSI AND DADDY YANKEE: (Singing in Spanish).

DIAZ-HURTADO: "Despacito" was actually a big deal before the Justin Bieber remix. Isabelia Herrera, music editor of the online Latino cultural website Remezcla, says that when a video began circulating of Bieber messing up the words at a show in May, fans got mad.

ISABELIA HERRERA: There's this viral video that went around of him singing it in a nightclub in New York and replacing the lyrics with I don't know the words, so I sing Dorito, burrito.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUSTIN BIEBER: I don't know the words so I sing poquito, I don't know the words so I sing Dorito...

HERRERA: Very weird, uncomfortable imagery that is, like, associated with Latinidad. I don't care if he messes up the lyric by accident. It's more about, like, using these tropes and mocking the language itself.

DIAZ-HURTADO: She says that this moment was a painful indication that Latinos in the U.S. still face some real issues.

HERRERA: We continue to tell ourselves these, like, feel-good stories about representation of Latinos in music and culture because we are so starved for visibility. And we use these moments, these pop-culture moments, to, like, celebrate these remarkable feats for how far we've come. But I don't think that it necessarily changes the political situation of Latinos in the United States.

DIAZ-HURTADO: But it's making money, says Jesus Lopez of Universal Music.

LOPEZ: Right now everybody knocks on our doors to make more collaborations with Latin artists. The Anglo producer, the Anglo artist open their eyes and see how important became the Latino artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESPACITO")

LUIS FONSI AND DADDY YANKEE: (Singing in Spanish).

DIAZ-HURTADO: All analysis aside, Luis Fonsi is beyond happy that his collaboration with Daddy Yankee is having this kind of impact.

FONSI: The timing is quite (laughter) - it's quite perfect, you know, in sort of this environment that we live in. And I don't want to turn this song into a political environment because it's not. It's just a - it's a great song to just make us feel good. But in the times that we live that, you know, some people want to divide and we want to build walls and, you know, we're going through sort of a lot of change, it's quite lovely that a Spanish song is number one right now.

DIAZ-HURTADO: And after 11 weeks, "Despacito" shows no signs of giving up the top spot on the charts. Jessica Diaz-Hurtado, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.