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.

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."

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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