The Mainstreaming of Latin Pop
Despacito and Demographics
This may be the summer of sad rappers, but like most people, I’m still trying to get the infectious rhythm of Despacito out of my head. No songs this year is as catchy or ubiquitous.
Despacito is that rare tune that doesn’t get annoying with age¹. Part of the reason may be that it’s so unlike other American Music. The hit track by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Beiber represents a growing trend in pop music, the mainstreaming of Latin sounds.
As others have noted² with a mix of fear and excitement, America is becoming a more diverse country. One of the more fun consequences of this is that our music is getting more diverse too. Below is a chart of the US Hispanic population since 1970.
And here is a chart of all songs by Hispanic musicians to crack the Billboard Hot-100 since 2000.
The curve isn’t as straight, but the trend is the same. Ever year, more Hispanic artists make tracks that are loved by everyone.
Language and Lyrics
Of course, there have been other waves of Latin-American pop before. From Richie Valens in the 1950s to Santana in the 70s, and all the way through to the latin boom of the early 2000s, where artists like Jenifer Lopez, Mark Antony, Enrique Iglesias, and Ricky Martin made us forget about the macarena.
What separates Despacito from hits by those older artists is that this song was sung mostly in Spanish². Even Shakira — she whose hips don’t lie — had to record her songs in English to crack the charts in the United States.
Nevertheless, if we plot the total number of Spanish-language tracks per year, we see a major bump in 2017.
One data point doesn’t make a trend. Still, if we look at the demographics of Spanish speakers in the USA, it makes sense that Spanish songs would become more popular.
Heredity and Hit-making
Something that many forget about the demographics of Hispanics in America is that most are native born and many are very young.
A full 25% of children in the United States are of Latin descent³, making hispanic children a huge and growing market.
One company that understands this well is Disney. For years, Disney has cultivated Hispanic youth, growing them into the pop stars of tomorrow. This venerable list⁴ includes breakout stars such as Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, and Ariana Grande, who has Italian roots but has clearly been influenced by Latin music. Together they hold 6 of the tops songs on the Billboard Hot-100 right now⁵, as well as 2 of the top 3⁶ (or 3 of the top 20) instagram accounts.
This new pop trinity dominates both social media and the charts. If we include Carbi B (who stands in a league of her own and is also bringing back latin sounds⁷), we have many of the most popular musicians in America.
The Return of Reggaeton
Something many Americans don’t know about the hitmakers behind Despacito is that they’ve been cranking out bangers for years. For Daddy Yankee, Despacito isn’t even his first crossover success. Back in 2004, he released Gasolina, the song that brought reggaeton from Puerto Rico to the mainland.
If we plot the number of regaetton songs that broke into the Hot-100 per year, we see a steady number in the low single digits.
However, there appear to be two small peaks in the data. One occurs in 2006 during the Gasolina era. We see the other in 2017, the year of Despacito. It’s too early to tell, but the halo effect of Despacito may be creating a small Reggaeton revival.
Latin artists have always been a cornerstone of American pop music. The chart below shows the most popular Hispanic artists of the past 20 years, organized by the number of weeks that their songs spent on the Billboard Hot-100
As we can see, Selena, Demi, and Cardi B, are quickly catching up to the top artists of the last two decades. Other stars such as Camila Cabello are also on the way up.
Given the demographic trends in the United States, we should expect to see Latin music and Latin people take an even more prominent place in our music and in our culture.
All code and data associated with this article can be found at https://github.com/taubergm/latin_music_data