Saturday, November 25, 2017
Tampa Bay Music & Shows

Why you can't stop hearing 'Despacito' everywhere this summer

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You are listening to history. It has been unfolding all summer, all around you, at the gym, in your earbuds, in your sensible midsize sedan, from the tinny clock radio a couple of cubicles over. To you it might not sound like much — a dash of pop, a dash of reggaeton and a dash of Caribbean cumbia slushed up in a quenching summer cocktail — but make no mistake, what you're hearing is a sound for the ages.

Quiero respirar tu cuello despacito

Deja que te diga cosas al oído

Para que te acuerdes si no estás conmigo

Despacito ...

Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's Despacito — and specifically its remix with Justin Bieber — is so far and away the Song of Summer 2017 that it's shattering records left and right. In July it became the most-streamed song ever, its 4.8 billion plays on all platforms topping Bieber's 2015 hit Sorry. It is well on its way toward becoming YouTube's most-watched video. It propelled Daddy Yankee to No. 1 on Spotify, a first for a Latin artist. It could become the top-selling (mostly) Spanish-language single in U.S. history, and with 11 (and counting) weeks atop the charts, it stands an outside chance at the record for the longest-reigning Billboard No. 1 ever.

But the records are only part of Despacito's story. There is now no corner of the world that doesn't know Despacito. There's a salsa version of Despacito, a metal version, an orchestral version, mashups featuring Donald Trump and Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro. There are versions in Arabic, Punjabi and Portuguese. The song has reached Weird Al Territory, the point in its phenomenal lifespan where it has become so overwhelming that you can almost hear Señor Yankovic crafting his own parody (Quesarito? Judge Lance Ito? Han Shot Greedo?) between the beats.

All of this, you might be thinking, for Despacito?

On the surface, it doesn't make a ton of sense. Despacito is such a simple song, a romantic ditty backed by an acoustic guitar about a guy loving you so slowly, so passionately, that you'll forget your last name. It is sweet but lightweight, catchy but also kind of flimsy. In the thriving world of Latin pop, how could this be the song that made history?

But timing is everything, and Despacito's couldn't have been better. In one song, Fonsi and Daddy Yankee nailed so much about the state of pop music in 2017 — and specifically, how to craft an all-time summer single. Here are three ways Despacito cracked the formula for summer success.

Novelty. Despacito is a novelty in the same sense that Macarena was a novelty in 1996 — it was a danceable Spanish-language hit on mostly English radio, something American audiences weren't used to hearing. That alone helps it stand out from a lot of the '80s-inspired synth-pop, dancehall-flavored rhythms and hazy trap-hop that has dominated radio of late. But it was also novel in the literal sense. Fonsi, 39, has been a huge star in Latin pop for years, but many American fans still didn't know him. Hearing his voice alongside Bieber's — with the Canadian idol singing in Spanish, no less — felt new and exciting.

Collaboration. Collaboration between artists in different genres is known to expand a song's listenership by twofold, even threefold. It happened last year with Sia's Cheap Thrills, which took off only after reggaeton star Sean Paul hopped on a remake. First released in January, Despacito was already a huge Latin-market hit by the time the Bieber remix debuted in April; his vocals pushed it to unimaginable heights. Remixes with Major Lazer and salsa star Victor Manuelle have broadened its audience further.

Global appeal. It's head-slappingly obvious in retrospect, but shouldn't a summer single feel, y'know, like summer? Like vacations and beaches and sand between your toes? This decade has been loaded with hit summer singles with an airy, Caribbean influence — Drake's One Dance, Rihanna's Work, OMI's Cheerleader, Major Lazer's Lean On, Magic!'s Rude, Sia's Cheap Thrills, Bieber's What Do You Mean?, the list goes on. All were inspired in different ways by reggae, dancehall and reggaeton, genres with appeal around the globe. Perhaps one day a country or pop-punk or techno track will take a summer by storm, but at the moment, reaching for the beaches is the most surefire path to song-of-summer ubiquity.

Despacito leaned into all these rules, and it leaned in hard. And it may have changed the template for summers to come. A few other Latin pop collaborations are already creeping up the Billboard Hot 100, including J Balvin and Willy William's Me Gente and Wisin and Ozuna's Escapate Conmigo. And just dream ahead to 2018. Which would be a likelier song-of-summer contender, a new solo single by, say, Taylor Swift, or a collaboration between Norwegian DJ Kygo, former One Directioner Zayn Malik and reggaeton rapper Nicky Jam? A song by Rihanna featuring Migos, or a duet between Selena Gomez and Colombian singer Maluma, produced by DJ Martin Garrix?

In a post-Despacito world, anything is possible.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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