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The Boston Phoenix Latin Kings

Mark Anthony and Enrique Iglesias follow in Ricky's footsteps

By Franklin Soults

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  "America has no true culture of its own," scoffed a Nigerian acquaintance of mine recently, smiling with friendly disdain. If anything could prove him wrong, you might think it would have been the long Thanksgiving weekend that just passed. Not only is it a particularly American time of quasi-religious observance open to all creeds (excepting the understandably grudging resistance of Native Americans) and celebrating the plenty that's so intertwined with those mythic Puritan ideals of faith and tolerance, it's also full of unique customs that to us seem so natural and to outsiders so strange, just as all "true culture" does. There's the procession of consumer icons in Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade; the bright, ritualized violence of American football; the eating of turkey -- a bird generally ignored from Brasilia to Beijing -- topped with a New England crop of bog-bred cranberries. Even the mass-entertainment spectacles on prime time have always been brash, zany blasts of Americanism.

But this year, these apple-pie-and-corn-pone specials experienced a millennial shift of sorts. Country megastars Garth Brooks and Shania Twain appeared on their own televised extravaganzas, as you might expect -- yet so did certified foreigners Celine Dion and Ricky Martin. What's more, none of these four seemed more or less native than any other. I admit I didn't watch any of them shake their bonbons for long -- I was visiting relatives over the holiday -- but as my hosts and I surfed past the various specials, the flashes of athletic bombast I briefly caught seemed indistinguishable from one another. Maybe my Nigerian friend was right after all. Whether we know it or not, we now eat turkey the world over.

Which means it's long past time to cut up the bird. Celine Dion is something like a heavy Old World recipe for stuffing: looks light as a feather but really soaks up the juice fast. Ricky Martin, on the other hand, is like the bird itself: dark meat hidden under light, all covered with plumage and strutting with attitude that can't quite mask the fact that he was born semi-flightless and dumb. And yet, the new uniformity of our worldwide pop culture has made something special of this turkey's career, as well as the careers of two sensitive Latino boys who are now following in his footsteps -- Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias. Whereas Dion steers the middle course between lilting new-age chanteuse and power-ballad überdiva, this trio's genuine genre straddling demonstrates the Americanization of international pop -- and maybe vice versa -- as no superstar gringo could possibly hope to.

Of course, the success of all three also has a lot to do with something much simpler: the explosion of the US Latino market over the past 10 years. Thanks to a high birth and (largely legal) immigration rate, the Latino population in this country has grown an astounding 38 percent since 1990, an increase that will soon make Hispanics the nation's dominant minority, surpassing blacks by 2002 or 2005, depending on who you ask. Statistics like these have been trumpeted in cover stories from Hispanic Business to Time, and their impact can be viewed on the streets of most major US cities every day. But listen up and these new Latin pop stars will also remind you how America's Latino population is becoming gringo-ized even as it makes its presence felt in the culture as never before. SoundScan reported a 21 percent jump in Latin music sales just last year, but as Martin, Iglesias, and Anthony prove, Latin acts aren't playing "Babal" anymore.

In fact, they have been honing something new for years, if not decades. Tune into a couple hours of mainstream Hispanic radio, a couple episodes of the cable staple Sábado Gigante, or any half-decent Latin-pop compilation -- Mundo Romántico (Right Stuff), put together this year by Latin Beat magazine, is a disarmingly durable example -- and you'll hear a combo of Anglo pop formulas set to baroque, melodramatic balladry and cheesy lite house or salsa tracks, a combo that takes Latin culture as it is recognized and stereotyped the world over and polishes it till it glitters like a disco ball. This deracinating style has now reached a point of sophistication where it can swallow most of American pop -- country, mainstream rock, R&B, someday maybe even hip-hop -- in its relentless quest for bigger sales and one-size-fits-all formulas. "Livin' La Vida Loca," the opening cut and huge breakthrough single from Ricky Martin (C2/Columbia), pulled off this task better than anything I've yet heard. With its grit and polish, big beat and bright production, Latin passion and Anglo rectitude, the hit covered every base demanded by young record buyers from Beijing to Brasilia -- and, you bet, that territory now includes young record buyers in Boston, too.

To be more precise, it includes young female record buyers in Boston. Although they never dwell on it in their interviews or liner notes, it's girls whom Ricky appeals to most, and girls whom Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias are aiming to catch with their Anglophone debuts, Marc Anthony (Columbia) and Enrique Iglesias (Interscope). (Guess homonymous album titles are a must for foreign types.) Each album speaks to the abiding truth that girls have a deep natural interest in any male pop star with exotic but cuddly appeal. This truth helped fuel the Beatles' first transatlantic trip to America 35 years ago, and it makes the Backstreet Boys such perfect pin-ups today (in case you missed it, BB run the gamut from cute 'n' blond to dark 'n' rebellious -- one is even a certified Latino). Without girls clamoring for that hormonally satisfying dialectic, we might never have had that first alien invasion of Brits feeding us back our own culture with a twist. Likewise, the current reign of pubescent pop almost demands that Latin artists should have their say at the pop pulpit next: who else is more exotic and cuddly at once? It makes sense that the first in line would be the likes of Julio, Marc, and Ricky -- each boasting a gringo connection, each backed by an established fan base and a well-financed attack plan.

The difference is, if Ricky Martin knows what the little girls want, Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias have bet their careers on catering to it exclusively. Whereas Ricky Martin swings away wildly, trying to bash whatever pop piñatas it can find, Marc Anthony and Julio Iglesias just blow kisses aimed straight at your niece or kid sister. And in a way, both Anthony and Iglesias are better equipped to strike their mark than is Martin. For starters, Anthony's vocal technique is so far beyond Martin's abilities, it shows up that vida loca lover as the soap-opera hack he rightfully should have remained. From breath control to emotional shading, Anthony demonstrates the kind of earnest emotional exactitude that helped him take the salsa world by storm in 1993; since then, according to his press bio, he has "sold more records throughout the world than any other salsa singer."

At his most convincing, the salsero-turned-actor-turned-pop-star-wanna-be also latches onto current American teen tastes. His latest single, "I Need To Know," has gone gold and now holds the #3 spot in Billboard, probably for the way it injects a bracing touch of rootsy Puerto Rican bolero into an R&B workout à la Backstreet Boys. There are other dance numbers here that groove with near equal assurance: the Madonna-like opener, "When I Dream at Night"; the dreamy upbeat meditation "You Sang to Me"; the salsa-soaked "That's Okay." But for every one of these, there are two or three turgid pop ballads that would make Celine Dion proud, none of which can bear the weight of their mawkish English lyrics (random sample: "As I look into your eyes/I see the reason why/My life's worth a thousand skies"). The clincher is Anthony's overbearing sincerity. With each vapid phrase, he hangs his perfect breath control in the balance, making the music sound all the more forced and phony.

Iglesias isn't quite as skillful a singer or successful a performer, but he might go farther in the long run anyway. Born in Spain and raised in Miami, he is the 24-year-old scion of Julio Iglesias -- the first and biggest Latin pop internationalist of all. Every bit his dad's equal in the hunk department, he has been making albums only since 1997, yet his three multi-platinum discs have outsold any comparable period of recordings in Julio's career. For all his demure decorum -- when Enrique rocks out, he adds some flamenco flourish to his soft-rock sound -- his new album demonstrates a youthful, contemporary touch that escaped his dad even when he was serenading all the girls he loved before at the top of the American pop charts. If Enrique offers the same reassuring 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 slip often into head voice and swoon along with his strumming Spanish guitars, stoking the Latin fires the way dad never dared.

Reminiscent of the Gipsy Kings' Iberian world beat, Kevin Welch's new-age country, Chris Isaak's cocktail crooning, even Bono's barrel-chested soul belting, Iglesias's music is far less insipid than Anthony's, but some listeners might find him more insidious. True, he doesn't seem up to the emotional complexities of the most arresting song on his album, Bruce Springsteen's lovely and odd "Sad Eyes." But promises that "I Have Always Loved You" and "I'm Your Man" strike me as a harmless emotional safety blanket for pubescent girls striking out into the emotional terrain of adult passion. He might promise he'll always be there, but they needn't reciprocate. A little too late for Thanksgiving, Iglesias's sure-fire pop hybrid has already snagged a spot on an upcoming NBC Christmas special. I'm sure that packs of 14-year-old girls nationwide will huddle around the hearth to watch, but some of them will surely find their eyes wandering to the window, strangely drawn by the dark, cold sheen of the beckoning street. The Beatles hung onto their historical moment by growing up fast along with their audience. All you can bet on with Marc Anthony and Julio Iglesias -- or for that matter, the Backstreet Boys and Ricky Martin -- is that they will grow old.

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