Ricky Redux

This latest Latin sensation is nothing new

On a crowded bus in Buenos Aires, a gaggle of teenage girls huddle in the back, giggling and gossiping as teenage girls everywhere do. Their exuberant youth was too much for a cynic in his early 20s, who stood clutching a pole in the aisle. He couldn't resist baiting the teenyboppers.

"We're going to the Reek-yyyy Maaar-teen concert," he squealed, mockingly. "We're going to see Reek-yyyy Maaar-teen." When the bus approached the girls' stop a few minutes later, the tallest of the group drew herself to full height and addressed the meddlesome stranger. "We are not going to see Ricky Martin," she said, attempting to recover her dignity. "We are on our way home from school."

That was a decade ago, after the 1991 release of Ricky Martin's first self-titled album that made the Puerto Rican hunk's name synonymous with faddish girl-pleasing fluff throughout Latin America. Likely much to the surprise and chagrin of the cynical bus jockey, however, the fad never faded.

Ricky Martin, the charismatic commodity.
Steve Satterwhite
Ricky Martin, the charismatic commodity.

Instead, the pop icon's appeal spread from Latin America to Europe to Asia, as his four albums for Sony Discos sold a total of 15 million copies. By the time fans caught on in so-called mainstream United States, Martin had morphed into a phenomenon that portends the future of global music and -- what amounts to nearly the same thing -- global music marketing. Ricky Martin is not simply a singer. He is a charismatic commodity, carefully crafted to engage the widest variety of possible consumers.

More than a year has passed since the glitterati of the U.S.-based music industry gave Martin a standing ovation following his performance at the Grammys in February 1999. In the ensuing months, every major magazine, newspaper and television network heralded Martin as the detonator of a new "explosion" of Latin music, piling on the usual "hot" and "spicy" adjectives reserved for Latin performers and focusing inexorably, if ecstatically, on the movement of Martin's hips.

For the breathless new English-language fans, Ricky Martin represented the hip second coming of that other Ricky, the one who used to love Lucy, and now enjoys the afterlife of Nick at Night. The reception of Ricky Martin as the new messiah of Latin pop brings back all of America's favorite Latin stereotypes.

A cover story by Time magazine admitted that claiming to "discover" the star at this point in his career "would be a little like Columbus claiming to discover Puerto Rico." Even as the media grew careful to point out Martin's long career, one that began with the boy band Menudo when the singer was 12 years old, then ran to soap operas, Broadway and his long solo career, the countless tales of how the Latin star took it to "the next level" smack of "discovery." If a record plays in Latin America, does it make a sound? "I cross over, therefore I am?"

Just when Latinos have begun to gain significant economic and political power in the United States, the constant expression of the "newness" of Latin music almost seems to yearn for the old days when quirky Cubans were a novelty on the scene with no greater impact on U.S. society than next season's drop in hemlines. If those who insist on calling Latin music a novelty diminish the clout of Latinos in the United States, objecting to Ricky Martin on the grounds that he lacks authenticity can also be troublesome. Some guardians of "real Latin music" have voiced the wishful thinking of many in predicting the prompt demise of the singer as an egregious fake. Ironically, the very stereotypes perpetuated from earlier "booms" in the 1940s and 1950s play a part in how "real" Latin music sounds today. Even more important, as Martin himself confesses when he reveals his boyhood taste for groups like Toto and Journey, Latin music is not isolated on any island, but firmly fixed in the flux of international pop.

More persistent than the question of whether Ricky Martin's music is really Latin is the question of whether the singer is really straight. Although he appeared on the cover of the gay magazine The Advocate, the star has never publicly acknowledged being gay, and he routinely makes references to his "on-again, off-again girlfriend."

Despite these assurances, belief to the contrary is pervasive. In Miami, the claim to know the star's boyfriend holds a certain cachet. On the West Coast, radio personalities circulate the purportedly open secret. Last summer, a DJ in Los Angeles remarked, after a caller complained that his girlfriend fantasizes about the Caribbean cutie, "Life is easy when you're livin' la vida jota [the queer life]." A late-night DJ from Austin, Texas, insinuated, as he introduced a song: "But it's not the women who dream about him." If the East Coast assertions smack of wishful thinking, the Southwestern accusations stink of homophobia and macho posturing.

Whatever his sexual orientation, Martin attracts gay and straight fans alike. At the Hollywood Gold's Gym, gay men pack the aerobics floor for the "Latin Groove" class, which for an entire month features choreography to "Livin' La Vida Loca." Embellishing the moves taught by the instructor with gestures scrupulously copied from Ricky Martin's video, the men give a kind of butch camp performance, blowing away their own brains with their index fingers as they interpret the lyrics, "like a bullet through your brain."

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