Spanish Class

The very first time I heard the only certified history-changing organic rock masterpiece in this end-of-every thing decade, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," it barely made me blink. But the first time I heard the splashy throw away singles by Latino Ken doll Ricky Martin and Latina actress-out-of-her-depth Jennifer Lopez, I instantly got something of the bright, bold jolt that pop epiphanies are made of. Earnest roquero Chris Perez is ostensibly something else entirely, but when I put on his debut album a couple of weeks later, the cheese-jolt was just as sudden and intense. Que pasó? The ska-meets-country-meets-Latin-pop combo platter of "Livin' La Vida Loca," a hysterical ode to a femme fatale who could be Macarena herself; the simmering Latin r&b of "If You Had My Love," especially in its video version with the totally uncalled-for Latin dance break saying it loud, she's brown and she's proud; the pop-rock romantic overkill of Perez's Resurrection, pulling the bones of Love and Blonde on Blonde out of the grave like relics of Catholic saints—these re cords weren't tiny acorns ready to sprout mighty oaks, they were falling coconuts, landing sharp lumps on my head.

In fact, with Martin and Lopez, you could practically hear the collective clunk of coconuts raining all across the land. Martin's eponymous English-language debut album sold 3 million copies in its first month, a figure astounding enough to justify the ubiquitous cover stories from Time to TV Guide. Bronx-born beauty Jennifer Lopez hasn't scored as big yet, but that's not to say she hasn't gone far: On the 6 debuted in the Billboard top 10, and "If You Had My Love" bumped "Livin' La Vida Loca" down to No. 2 on the singles chart (both are platinum, natch). As for Chris Perez, well, if classic rock programmers weren't so impenetrable to the gamma rays of fashion, then this Corpus Christi Tex-rocker would stand a chance of joining his hermanos in the limelight on the wild strength of his first work since the murder of his wife, Selena.

But, I repeat, Qué pasó? Yes, "it's a Latin trip," as the Latin Play boys sing on their fine new album Dose, but they're also wrong, you don't have to be Latino to get it. Partly, it has to do with cultural attractions that need no translation—especially a Caribbean-based tradition of sexual ostentation that had been exploited by Latinos and stereotyped by gringos ("boinking coconuts," really now) for decades before the physically stunning Martin and Lopez stormed the charts.

Sexiness is not the whole enchilada, either—if it were, then Tia Carrere would have become an instant superstar too. Martin, Perez, and, to a lesser extent, Lopez make the sexiness signify by also luxuriating in the flip side of the Hot Latin cliché: the overripe, overwrought romanticism that has long been Hispanic music's gift to international pop. Here, at the end of everything, there exists an 'N-Synchronicity between American and international tastes like we haven't known since the height of disco, and that connection has helped make Latin pop's ardent excess más simpático. Still, as any foray into the sensibility demonstrates, it's ultimately a stretch for stiff Northern ears. Crucially, neither Martin, Lopez, nor Perez serves it straight up—they tease it into forms recognizable by a Stateside audience that still sees everything in plain shades of black and white, with no distinct room for brown (yet).

What's more, the trick never feels forced. Even the Puerto Rican–born Martin sounds perfectly at home with ska horns, country guitar, U2 and Eagles rips, whatever long time producer Robi Rosa and cohorts from Desmond Childand Dianne Warren on down throw him. So he's the embodiment of la vida loca, and at the same time, its helpless blond-boy victim: "That girl's gonna make me fall...and her skin's the color mocha." Of course, this Menudo grad grew up exposed to American pop like any jet-setter, professing in interviews a preference for the tonsil-tearing pyrotechnics of '70s and '80s arena rockers, especially Journey. True to this claim, his sole vocal expression on Ricky Martin is exertion, whether softened to signify barely contained longing or heightened to signify a banzai assault on the enemy. This leaden technique stays afloat only because the wily Rosa and Co. back off from the over-the-top dancebeat-and-ballads of Mar tin's last Spanish-language album, Vuelve, allowing breathing room for Beatlesy sitars, Bono-isms, and sever al collaborative changes of pace, including one with Madonna. Her nuanced, effortless duet shows up Martin as a simp, but let's face it, most everything does.

Ironically, it's Jennifer Lopez's ultimate un-simpishness that stalls On the 6. Her biggest Hollywood break came when she was chosen for the sentimental-Tejano-superstar title role of the 1998 biopic Selena, but despite her considerable acting skills, the 29-year-old can barely meet with the romantic challenges of her duet with Marc Anthony or her Janet Jackson –style fluffball "Talk About Us." In stead, like her Nuyorican foresister Lisa Lisa, it's when she digs into straight r&b that Lopez comes to life—especially upbeat club tracks like Puffy Combs's "Too Late" or the salsafied freestyle blowout "Let's Get Loud." Even so, no Nuyorican I've heard has ever flexed her stylistic heritage so freely—a sign of today's looser, juicier market and perhaps Lopez's integrity in living up to her album title, a reference to the train that used to take her from the Bronx to the bright lights of Manhattan and back.

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