Ricky Redux

This latest Latin sensation is nothing new

Insistence on getting at the truth of Martin's sexuality might ultimately be as pointless as the exercise of classifying his music. As an 18-year-old Nuyorican girl once declared: "I don't care if he is gay; I think he's hot anyway."

Martin's good looks alone do not explain his omnisexual appeal. His music, so carefully selected and produced, first for Sony Discos and now for Sony Music, targets the widest possible demographic, whether determined by gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or age. Rather than expressing the artist's inner feelings, Martin's music epitomizes the contemporary industry by serving as both the vehicle and the primary product of a closely monitored marketing campaign.

The 1999 Ricky Martin appears to be an exercise in music as market test. In marketing, there are never any failures because all outcomes yield information. The wildly eclectic genres and vocal styles on the primarily English-language CD sound simultaneously like a bid for all audiences and an attempt to see what works and what doesn't. Released just over a year ago, Ricky Martin continues to yield hit singles, with "Shake Your Bon-Bon" still hovering in the lower half of the Billboard 100.

"Shake Your Bon-Bon," much like the second track, "Spanish Eyes," harks back to Hollywood's south-of-the-border musicals that mixed and matched aspects of distinct cultures with complete disregard for national differences across the hemisphere. In one famous example, Too Many Girls, the Cuban-born Desi Arnaz played an Argentine who played a Cuban instrument, the congas, and a U.S. sport, football. In "Bon-Bon," Martin is a presumably Mexican desperado beneath the window of a lover he proposes to take "around the world in a day." In "Spanish Eyes," things get even more confusing, as the singer meets a woman at carnival in Brazil, with whom he dances the Argentine tango, but knows only by the name "Spanish Eyes" -- and all in the opening stanza!

If signs of Latin-American national identity crisis in the lyrics seem bizarre, the mixing of musical styles is even more extreme. There is the Bryan Adams-inflected hit single with Indian instrumentation, "She's All I Ever Had" (also included in a Spanish-language version, "so as not to alienate core fans," the producers say). There's the heavy metal ballad "I Am Made of You." Hits from previous albums, "Maria" and "Cup of Life," are both included here in Spanglish trip-hop versions. The much-touted gender-bending duet with Madonna, "Be Careful (Cuidado con Mi Corazon)," has the delightful characteristic of giving Martin the high part, in falsetto, and sending Madonna into the lower range she cultivated in her vocal training for Evita.

The silence that has finally fallen after the incessant airplay of Ricky Martin's monster hit "Livin' La Vida Loca" shows that single to be a work of diabolical marketing genius. Written by the dynamically demonic duo of Desmond Child and Robi Rosa, the song draws more from Mexican than Caribbean influences, with the skateboard-tapatio-ska of Maldita Vecindad underpinning the whole groove. The Chicano punk dovetails with rockabilly swing, tapping the fleeting big-band craze. The minimal Caribbean influences, referenced by the trumpet at the close, are reinforced by the choreography in the video that emphasizes Ricky's hips, visually making a connection with the island.

The title refers to the Chicano gang life that often accompanies the track's sonic base; however, "loca" in isolation also means gay man. In one swoop, the title encompasses the most macho of Chicano subcultures while flirting with homosexual Latin life. All this the moniker for a lament over the behavior of a female lover whose craziness seems confined to a taste for French champagne and dancing naked in the rain. You pick the story.

"Livin' La Vida Loca" ties together disparate lyrical and musical strands so as to appeal to the greatest number of listeners. Teased out across the 14 tracks of Ricky Martin, these strands are as likely to leave something for everyone to hate as for everyone to love. The experiment is to see how many tracks hit how many people. The follow-up disc due out in November should reflect the marketers' findings. For now, the far-reaching impact of Martin's eclecticism seems clear.

At a Christmas party for elderly physical therapy outpatients at South Miami Hospital in 1999, caretakers instructed even numbers of Anglo and Latino revelers to write the name of a famous person on a slip of paper for a festive guessing game. "Please," asked a perky therapist first in English, then in Spanish, "try to think of someone that everyone will know. Try to think of someone universal." A few shaky hands scrawled "Clinton," but among the city's multicultural geriatric set, Ricky Martin edged out the president.

Ricky Martin is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, July 18, at America West Arena. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.

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