Two facts: The most streamed singer anywhere on the planet on the Internet last year was Bad Bunny. And his album, YHLQMDLG, was the most downloaded. In any language. The year of the pandemic was also the year when Spanish dominated the world of music.
Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, 27, a Puerto Rican singer better known as Bad Bunny, had more than 8.3 billion streams in 2020, according to Spotify. He was far ahead of the next four: Drake, J.Balvin, rapper Juice WRLD and The Weekend, who performed at the Super Bowl. And his album YHLQMDLG – which he described as “the reggaeton album that reggaeton deserved” – was downloaded by more than 3.3 billion listeners, more than the albums After Hours by The Weekend, Hollywood’s Bleeding by Post Malone, Fine Line by Harry Styles and Future Nostalgia by Dua Lipa.
(Note to the Royal Academy of Spanish Language: When are you going to add the word streaming to your dictionary? The word streaming is much more clear and easy to understand in this digital era than the contrived definition I found in a telephone company document: “It is the technology that allows the transmission of audio and video archives in a continuous flow through a wired or wireless Internet connection.” Yes, streaming is better, short and precise even though it sounds like Spanglish.)
Bad Bunny’s album is titled YHLQMDLG, the first letters of the Spanish words for “I do whatever I want.” And that’s what the singer does. His lyrics are direct, defiant, often hammer-like. He does not try to adorn it with grammatical flourishes or euphemisms, and they are hyper-sexual. But he has the irreplaceable value of reflecting the language, the rhythms and the attitude of the people around him. After listening to a Bad Bunny song, you have the sense that he did not hold back anything. He is what he is. “Because if it’s about whether there is something special, there’s definitely something special,” he said about Caribbean Spanish during an interview with The New York Times.
He hit the charts in 2016 with the song Soy Peor, and when he appears on U.S. television he’s not asked to sing in English. At this year’s Grammys, he sang DáKITI even though the words in Spanish– Ahí donde no has llegaó sabes que yo te llevaré- meant nothing to most of the audience.
Singers no longer have to perform in English to triumph around the world. Spanish is enough. And that is an important change.
“We are proving that we are good musicians,” the Colombian singer Camilo, who was recently invited to sing his Spanish language song Ropa Cara on NBC’s famed Tonight Show, told me in an interview. “Today Latin music is a fundamental part of pop culture and sound. It’s increasingly less unusual that a song all in Spanish, a Latin song, is number one around the world. I feel very fortunate to be a singer and songwriter making music at this point in history.”
The current success of Camilo and Bad Bunny, among many others, in the U.S. market and the rest of the world was no accident. Latin artists have spent decades pushing to create their own spaces and promoting their rhythms and stories in their own language. I am from a generation where artists like Gloria and Emilio Estefan and Ricky Martin, to mention just three, succeeded crossing over to mainstream en Inglés. That’s how the road was opened. And now we’re not surprised to watch Shakira, J. Balvin and Jennifer López sing in English and Spanish at the Super Bowl. Or to see Romeo Santos fill Yankee Stadium in 2019 for a bachata concert that brought more revenue than a U2 concert in the same place. Or hearing a duet with Rosalía and Billie Eilish singing Lo Vas a Olvidar – You’re going to forget it. Unforgettable.
The change has come slowly. The catchy hit Despacito (Slowly) by Luis Fonzi and Daddy Yankee was the third-most listened song on Spotify in 2017. It became a cultural reference point. But the same song in English, with Justin Bieber, was in second place. A lot has changed in four years.
What’s new now is that Bad Bunny’s songs, for example, are all but impossible to translate into English. (“Ante’ tu me pichaba’, ahora yo picheo…Una malcriá’ como Nairobi” is part of the lyrics of Yo Perreo Sola.) And what’s important is that there’s no attempt to smooth it over, to Anglicize it and make it more accessible to the global market.
Like with Bad Bunny, Rosalía y Camilo, among many others, their words don’t have to be translated for their songs to be a hit and be streamed by the billions. “We are raising our heads with pride, celebrating our roots, celebrating what we really are, what we like, the way we see the world,” Camilo told me. It is not necessary to use “a language that is not yours to be able to fit into the global. In truth, there’s nothing more global than the local, the honest and sincere.”
In the time of reguetón and perreo, Spanish is setting the pace.
No more masks.