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1999 was the year of the Latin Explosion. Ricky. Enrique. J. Lo. But the high-gloss boom went bust -- with lessons for the next wave.

August 15, 2004|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

Mexican pop singer Paulina Rubio can't be bothered with questions about her crossover career, launched in 2002 with her first English- language album, "Border Girl." She's between English records now. This is her year to be Latina again.

"Pau-Latina," her new Spanish album, is not too subtly titled to reassert her Latin roots. She's focusing single-mindedly and monolingually on rehearsals for her upcoming tour and planned appearance on next month's Latin Grammy telecast.

The star gets testy when questions veer off topic.

Did fans ever resent her switching to English?

"What?" she asks bluntly, with the impolite Spanish "┬┐Que?"

Did people criticize her going after the Anglo market?

"No," she says. "I don't think people would criticize you for working at the Los Angeles Times instead of El Heraldo de Mexico. On the contrary, your colleagues admire you because you have bettered yourself. And that's what happens with me."

Can she share anything about her follow-up English album, due next year?

"Look, let's talk about my Spanish album," insists Rubio, in Los Angeles recently for rehearsals. "The truth is, I'd like to talk to you about my plans this year. It's premature to speak about a record I haven't even started recording yet."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 27, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Shakira's date -- An article in the Aug. 15 Calendar section quoted professor George Lipsitz of UC Santa Cruz as saying that the singer Shakira was dating the son of former Argentine President Carlos Menem. Lipsitz misspoke and meant to say that it was the son of former Argentine President Fernando de la Rua.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 29, 2004 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Shakira's date -- An article Aug. 15 quoted professor George Lipsitz of UC Santa Cruz as saying that the singer Shakira was dating the son of former Argentine President Carlos Menem. Lipsitz meant to say that it was the son of former Argentine President Fernando de la Rua.

Rubio has good reason to stress the Spanish side of her crossover career these days. "Border Girl," her bid to conquer the U.S. pop market, fell short of sales expectations, marking the beginning of the end of the so-called Latin Explosion. She needs to reinforce her Latin fan base or risk losing it all.

It's a marketing tightrope navigated by all the artists who shot to stardom in the U.S. as part of the so-called boom of 1999. Five years and a millennium later, only memories remain of the pop culture phenomenon that promised to change the face of America.

It began with Puerto Rican heartthrob Ricky Martin smiling and shimmying his way to the top of the pop charts with the sinuous "Livin' la Vida Loca," a sensual smash hit that came to symbolize the frenzied cultural breakthrough of a long-marginalized minority.

By itself, it might have been forgotten as just another Latino novelty, in the oddball tradition of Ray Barretto's "El Watusi" (1963) or Los del Rio's "Macarena" (1996). But Ricky wasn't alone that year. There were J. Lo and Marc Anthony, two native Nuyoricans from Latino barrios. There was Miami's Enrique Iglesias, privileged son of the suave Spanish pop star. There was Carlos Santana and then Christina Aguilera.

And in the wings, studying her English, was Shakira, the Lebanese Colombian who would soon seduce the world with her belly dance and her charming accent.

Never before had so many Latinos spent so much time at the top of the pop charts in a single year.

For one short and much-hyped stretch, crossover became the expected, not the exception, in pop music. Suddenly, Latinos were hot and cool at the same time, with new prospects emerging as well in film, literature and the arts. Throughout 1999, breathless stories about the Latino cultural coup appeared in national magazines and local newspapers, even in places like Atlanta and Kansas City.

Pundits predicted the Latinization of America had begun.

But it never happened. Instead, the Latin boom imploded. Latin pop stars vanished from the Top 10. Journalists rushed off to cover the next trend. The Latin music industry, once drunk with heady expectations, went into a doozy of a tailspin.

It's what Los Angeles concert promoter Martin Fleischmann now calls the "Latin Es-plat!" In hindsight, the crash looks like the real explosion of a rocket that breaks apart halfway into orbit, falling helter-skelter back to Earth in random pieces.

The Latin Explosion, as it turned out, was a marketing mirage. Its architects took conventional catchy pop, poured a little salsa on it and called it hip. But it no more represented Latin music than Harry Belafonte's 1957 Top 10 hit "Banana Boat (Day-O)" represented real Jamaican music.

Not only did the boom's stars prove to be mere comets, but the flash and bang of the carefully manufactured pop boom blinded the public to what's really worthwhile in Latin music -- organic, cross-cultural sounds that continue to evolve under the mass media's radar. It also grossly distorted our expectations of the long-term impact of Latinos on American culture.

That impact won't be felt like a big bang but rather like the shifting of continental plates. Every now and then, pop culture will get a sudden shaking from the push of a growing Latino population, now the nation's largest minority. And over time, the cultural landscape could look radically different.

Today, the disappearance of Latino stars from the U.S. pop firmament seems more stunning than their ascent.

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