I recently asked the general public (aka: twitter and my closest friends) who they considered to be the most successful Latino crossover act and the responses were distinctly split between Shakira and Ricky Martin. The options were vast: Shakira, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, Thalia, Paulina Rubio, Enrique Iglesias, and even Laura Pausini tried. There was so much talent and getting it recognized was no easy feat even though the iron was “hot”.
THE OG – Selena Quintanilla
Selena. I always wonder where Selena would be if she had not met her fate in the hands of her horrible fan-club president. After multiple successful albums, Selena was denied the request to record an English language album by her label even after recording English language music from 1992 to 1994. Selena defiantly signed with a different label to record her English language debut. In 1994 Selena released her last Spanish album, Amor Prohibido, but stated she was still working on her English tracks. Unfortunately, Dreaming of You had to be released posthumously, but achieved critical and commercial acclaim. It was inspiring. She was truly a star, and her success was taken away.
After Selena’s album was released the crossover attempts remained still until the men creeped in to take over in 1999.
Chronologically, the men made their debuts years before a woman was brought into the bilingual market. Why? I’m not sure but based on current political climate I would dare to say that men just got opportunities women did not. Or, were women afraid to compete with Selena’s legacy?
Ricky Martin initially started the fire that became the Latin craze within the English-American market when he released his successful crossover hit, Livin’ la Vida Locain 1999, The number one hit introduced the American masses to a type of artist that had been releasing Spanish albums with talent and language to spare. His debut English language album, Ricky Martin, was a huge success that sold over 15 million copies worldwide and debuted at number one on the American charts and sold a whooping 661,000 copies its first week. The album featured four singles that were each successful in their own right.
This success was just the beginning.
Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias were soon to follow with their English-language releases. Marc Anthony released his self-titled English debut in September of 1999. Lead by the infectious first single, I Need to Know, Marc brought his Puerto Rican flair to the English language. Known for his passionate vocal delivery, the album was met with fanfare and critical acclaim. Debuting at number 8 and eventually selling over 3 million copies in the US alone. Marc saw subsequent success with singles You Sang to Meand My Baby You. Known for his huge salsa productions and sweeping ballads, Marc found a niche delivering emotive ballads as singles.
Following soon after Ricky Martin, Latin crooner Enrique Iglesias who is the son of Latin icon Julio Iglesias, released his first English-language album, Enrique, in November of 1999. Introduced by Bailamos, Enrique saw success with subsequent singles Rhythm Divine, Be With You and Could I Have This Kiss Forever (a duet with Whitney). The album wasn’t as successful as Ricky’s was but still managed to sell over a million copies in the US and 10 million worldwide.
**Ricky’s sophomore English-language album followed in 2000. His record label, Columbia, was truly striking the iron while it was hot. She Bangs, which later became known as an utter disaster and viral internet sensation when William Hung covered it on American Idol, was a successful first single peaking at number 12. The album sold over 1.6 million in the US and over 8 million worldwide. Nobody Wants to be Lonely (featuring Christina Aguilera) was released as a successful second single.**
Then came the women…
After seeing success after success, the American market was introduced Shakira. Though I was a fan of the music released by the men, by the time Laundry Service and Whenever, Wherever reached my purview in 2001, I was emotionally involved with Shakira. I had so much invested in this being a success. I remember staying home on a Friday night during freshman year of high school to watch the debut of the music video to Whenever, Wherever. The song was the perfect introduction to the American market and Shakira was on the way to an international success. Laundry Service, to this day, remains one of my favorite albums, largely in part of the artist integrity Shakira had while building her debut English language debut (please refer to this post). The album was a success. After being released in November of 2001, in America alone the album sold over 3 million copies and featured the singles Underneath Your Clothes, The One, Objection (Tango) and Poem to a Horse. It’s sold over 18 million copies worldwide, making it the most successful album released by a Latin artist out of this bunch.
In April of 2002 it was Paulina Rubio’s turn to gain notoriety as a crossover superstar. Her debut English language single, Don’t Say Goodbye was followed by the album Border Girl. I vividly remember wanting this single and album to tank. I didn’t want anyone eclipsing Shakira’s success. Stan culture was as real back then as it is now. Though I was secretly wanting her to fail, it was difficult for me not to be captivated by Don’t Say Goodbye and a lot of the tracks featured on the album. This was the first time the crossover machine started to falter. Was it oversaturation? I’m not sure. Don’t Say Goodbye was moderately successful but didn’t gain the traction the previously mentioned artist’s singles got. Universal Records tried though. The released two other singles which were bilingual features on the album. Both songs were successful in her native Spanish tongue. Though the album did receive positive critical reviews, it only sold 500,000 copies in the United States and sold close to a million copies worldwide.
**In May of 2002, Marc Anthony released Mended, his sophomore English language album. Plagued by the release of Tragedy in the fall of 2001 (September 2001 to be exact), the album faced multiple push-backs for its release date. Finally finding its way with I Need You, a smoldering and needy ballad, the album was released and peaked at number 3 on the US charts. It sold over 500,000 copies, a far cry from the three million of his debut.**
At this point, one could think that the success stories may have started to end.
Laura Pausini, considerably one of the strongest vocalists in the Spanish and Italian (yes, Italian) market had her try in the English market with From the Inside. From the Inside was released in November of 2002 after Surrender was released as its first single. Surrender is an excellent pop song and is still quite enjoyable today, 15 years after its release. The song and album did nothing in the English market. The song itself peaked at number one on the dance chart, while the album only peaked at number 15 on the heatseekers chart. This was with a major label backing, Atlantic. They did release other singles from the album, but the adult-contemporary sound which is common to most Laura Pausini’s work didn’t translate into success in the English market.
Frankly, when Thalia announced that it was her turn to gain exposure in the American market I was excited. I had fallen deep in love with the pop-stylings of her albums and truly enjoyed her persona. In July of 2003 Thalia released I Want You, a blazing pop song that truly brought such a light-hearted and fun mood which was on par with her prior releases. The song also featured a huge name on the record, the ubiquitous Fat Joe. The song was an actual success in the United States peaking at 22 on the charts and finding success on the Latin charts as well. The album is a different story. Though I still stand as a fan of most of the songs on the album, the majority of it is uninspired versions of songs that were popular at the time. The songs didn’t fit her voice, and she was difficult to understand at times. This was the first time that I truly saw how a crossover may not work. Though I was a fan of the artwork, a Rolling Stone writer stated that the artwork reminded them of a Fred Segal photo shoot while the music was trend hoping and was largely riding on the hope that copies of other successful songs would bring Thalia success. The album sold less than 200,000 copies in the United States. Subsequent singles after I want You were not successful in the English language; however, Cerca De Ti (Closer to You) did peak at number one on the Latin charts. Thalia maintains that she is proud of this album and the success it did achieve.
This was an exciting time in music. It was so fun to see many of the people I loved who sang in my native tongue create albums and succeed in the English/American market. To this day, Shakira remains a global super star. She’s released multiple successful English albums; however, finds the most success when she releases something in Spanish. Ricky released subsequent successful Spanish language albums and is now a popular fixture on the news since coming out as gay and taking numerous shirtless pictures. Marc remains a force to be reckoned with in the Latin market, while Paulina sees some of her success waning at the moment. Thalia remains a superstar in many respects. She released a clothing/home-goods line at Macys and has released many wonderful Spanish language albums. Laura Pausini still remains a success in her native Italy and in the Latin market as well.
Since this eruption, the trend has only intensified. Last year Despacito, a collaboration between Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi, took the music world by storm. In July 2018, Billboard reported that Latin music’s consumption in the United States increased 15% between the first half of 2016 and the first half of 2018, directly relating it with the success of Despacito during 2017.
A capstone to the multiple explorations into my love of Spanish music during Hispanic Heritage Month. I hope you’ve read, enjoyed and go on to listen to these amazing records.
Please listen to the playlist below featuring many of these songs that still sound so good today, almost 15 years later.