Español Sung Here

Crossing over—who's doing it, who's not

Latin/Anglo Crossover is what Latin American artists have always dreamt of and what American artists are starting to realize they need to pull big sales numbers out of a shrinking market. Crossover success means jackpots in both concert tickets and CD sales, so expanding a fan base across genres, countries, and languages just makes sense for today's artists. But it takes more than just throwing in a few words of español here and there, lots more.

Take Ricky Martin, for example. While it seemed like his star was born in just one three-minute Grammy performance in 1999 when he went from hot Latin crooner to, well, hot Latin crooner, Martin had been prepping that performance for years. He had toured since he was 13, acted on General Hospital, worked with world-class producers and songwriters, spent countless hours on his abs, and, oh yeah, he had enormous talent. Shakira is another who has found crossover heaven, recording in both Spanish and English, winning both MTV Music Awards and Latin Grammys, and again, her "overnight success" came after years of effort and enormous talent. Conversely, it has taken Cuban-born Gloria Estefan, a major star in the English-language market, decades before she has been able to record in her native Spanish.

So, who's on the verge of following Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, and Shakira into crossover heaven, and who's doomed to ethnocentric hell? Here's our list.

 

Who: Pitbull
Destination: Crossover heaven
Why: For starters, well-done and catchy music. Rapper Pitbull plays the Cuban card just enough to let people know that he's proud, but not so much that it's a turn-off. Pitbull is based in Miami, still the Latin music Mecca for the U.S. producers, songwriters, session musicians, A&R guys...almost everyone in the business goes through Miami at some point. Pitbull's, um, rabid Miami fan base keeps him on stage 24/7 when he's at home, and that let's everyone know he is the hot, hot guy these days.

 

Who: Sean "P. Diddy" Combs
Destination: Ethnocentric hell
Why: P. Diddy is trying all the right things, poor guy. He's showing up on MTV Tres (formerly MTV en Español) with a lifestyle special that shows him, his ghetto fabulous mom, and his assortment of kids, all living the ultra high life. He's throwing out the odd hola or two and placing his picture in People en Español, but somehow his "Look how rich I am, don't you want to buy my CD?" shtick just doesn't translate.

 

Who: Frankie J
Destination: Crossover heaven
Why: Of everyone on this list, Frankie, the ex-lead singer of the Kumbia Kings, has the most range. Smooth ballads, pumping party tunes, Spanish, English, cumbias, reggaetón, hip hop, R&B—Frankie J can swing it all. The question now is, Will he do any one of them well enough to build a solid fan base, or will he do each of them just enough to keep him going as a minor-major? The smart money says this Houston-based artist will be a crossover king, even if for no other reason than he was clever enough to get out from under producer A.B. Quintanilla's thumb. Which brings us to our next entry...

 

Who: A.B. Quintanilla
Destination: Ethnocentric hell
Why: Quintanilla was supposedly the writing and producing force behind his sister Selena's burgeoning crossover success. At the time of her death, he was also starting to produce other artists, but he somehow failed to become the Tejano version of Emilio Estefan. Instead he rejoined Kumbia Kings, earning a Grammy nomination for his effort, and then it all went sour. There were rumors he was leaving the Kumbia Kings to form a new group, and rumors that he would stay. Whatever. Fans got bored once he started making headlines on the gossip pages instead of with his music. And now the unquestionably talented Quintanilla is stuck in the Tejano-cumbia netherworld, apparently happy to be a big fish in a small, small pond.

 

Who: Calle 13
Destination: Crossover heaven
Why: They make infectious, smart, fun music with just a tinge of sass—hip hop gone Latin. You don't have to be a reggaetón fan to understand Calle 13's extremely danceable and slightly familiar music. There's a sprinkling of English in 13's lyrics, just enough to trick the ears, like "Ponte hyper" and "Que importa si te gusta Coldplay?" Plus they're doing all the right cross-promotion, like teaming up with Nelly Furtado for a live concert in the streets of New York City for MTV Tres' launch party. Which brings us to...

 

Who: Nelly Furtado
Destination: Crossover heaven
Why: Furtado is from Canada, but her parents are Portuguese transplants. And as part of her recent image overhaul, Furtado apparently decided to cross the language barrier: She's started singing in Spanish, including the already mentioned MTV Tres launch. Furtado seemed right at home on stage with Calle 13, never stumbling on the Spanish lyrics, her hips finding a perfect dancehall swing. This crossover should be very, very easy.

 

Who: Paulina Rubio
Destination: Crossover heaven
Why: Known as "la niña dorada" or "the golden girl" in her native Mexico, Rubio is drop-dead sexy and comfortable enough with her body to show off most of it at every opportunity. Even with all that, her Border Girl CD of this year didn't quite catapult her into Shakira's rarified orbit. Rubio has to figure out that merely translating the lyrics from Spanish to English doesn't guarantee a hit song. (Case in point: "The Last Goodbye" was a translation of her banda hit "El ultimo adiós." "Adiós" was a funky, fun grove; "Goodbye" was a clumsy, non-musical dud. And Americans just don't get banda music, anyway—it sounds too much like a circus.) Also, while nobody cares if she can speak English, she does need to be able to sing it. Rubio's still too lispy from time to time. So why is she on the "crossover heaven" list? Because she is both enormously talented and not easily dissuaded.

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