What makes a Latino song move the needle of history?
Billboard journalist Leila Cobo recently published Decoding "Despacito," an oral history of Latin music. And these are the 19 songs that have become "timeless".
If you were to think right now about the Latino songs that have had the greatest impact on you or that you relate to a period in your life, you might find many similarities with other people.
Music has the capacity to be the soundtrack of our days while at the same time linking us to others. But until now the reason why a song became a hit not of the moment but of history was very difficult to decrypt.
Like a music archaeologist, Billboard journalist Leila Cobo has analyzed the 19 songs that have managed to cross not only countries and cultures, but also the barriers of time, and has compiled them in Decoding "Despacito" (Penguin House, 2021), an oral history of Latin music.
But why "Despacito?"
When Luis Fonsi's song with reggaetoñero Daddy Yankee came out in early 2017, it didn't take long for it to become an absolute hit. And the cherry on top was Justin Bieber, who heard Despacito while passing through a nightclub in Colombia and immediately wanted to jump on the bandwagon.
"That song ended up opening the floodgates of Latin music to the world, or the world to Latin music," Cobo told NPR. "Luis always wanted a cuatro player to play on that song. So he opens up with this Puerto Rican instrument. And then you have Fonsi, a Puerto Rican guy and a pop singer who sings in Spanish, who recruits a hardcore reggaetonero. And then he works with two producers from Colombia, who give him that reggaeton beat. That mix is what makes it so powerful," she says.
For Cobo, time plays an essential role in whether a song becomes a hit: some songs are ahead of their time and others "arrive a little late and that's why they don't succeed". But she considers that if there is one thing they all have in common, it is that they are different from the trend of the moment. They break new ground.
The book begins with José Feliciano's 1970 hit Feliz Navidad and ends with Rosalía's Malamente in 2018. And each of the songs the journalist tells us about, from the story of how Gloria Stefan's Conga was born to the slow but mature applause for Yankee's "Gasolina," was a breakthrough for Latin music.
Now, says the author, Latin music today has a great ally: streaming.
"Thanks to streaming, everyone is listening to Latino music, and you can see it as it happens, and that has been very powerful for us. Because if not, it would have been impossible to convince some people that this (music) was important. I think from a business perspective, streaming is a great ally," Cobo told Billboard.
Now, we can listen more and better, but is it more difficult today, in the 21st century, for a song to be a "hit?"
"I think it's different to have a song that's a hit now, and it goes to number one and has millions of streams, but that doesn't mean that song is a hit. I mean, it doesn't mean that in 10 years we're going to be singing it. And these 19 songs, it's been 50 years and we're still singing them. And I think that's a big difference," she concluded.
Want to know which songs they are? We'll give you a clue, the names of the performers...
José Feliciano - Los Tigres Del Norte - Julio Iglesias - Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine - Willie Colón - Juan Luis Guerra - Selena - Los Del Río - Carlos Vives - Elvis Crespo - Ricky Martin - Santana - Shakira - Daddy Yankee - Marc Anthony - Enrique Iglesias with Descemer Bueno and Gente De Zona - Luis Fonsi with Daddy Yankee - J Balvin with Willy William - Rosalía
You may have guessed them. Maybe one of them is the best of your days. But if you want to know the story behind all these historic hits, here's a helpful hint: Decoding "Despacito": An Oral History of Latin Music.