The plucks of the cuatro stopped, all background music faded away and the crowd braced for the entrance of Justin’s vocals.
“Des … pa … cito.”
Everyone screamed the titular line in unison. Then, silence from the crowd.
I was at a typical suite party, where drunken Yalies were either trying to talk over the deafening music or dancing to it. It was fascinating to see how everyone ceased what they were doing and united to scream that one word. What was even more fascinating was the collective silence that followed because no one knew any of the other words.
The “Despacito” remix is undoubtedly the biggest hit of 2017. No matter where you go, as long as the place has a sound system, chances are that the song will come on — perhaps even multiple times. It not only has broken records, but has also been praised for breaking cultural barriers as the first primarily Spanish song to top the American Billboard since “Macarena” in 1996.
But has “Despacito” broken cultural barriers? Does its popularity truly reflect America’s increased tolerance and appreciation for Latin American culture?
Perhaps the song’s widespread success does reflect America’s growing taste for foreign music, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the song is “breaking cultural barriers.” When I think about the times when I’ve heard “Despacito” blasting on speakers, like at the suite party, I notice that virtually no one knew the lyrics. I understand that not knowing the lyrics to a song doesn’t necessarily mean not knowing its story — I myself can’t remember lyrics simply because of my bad memory — but how likely is it that Americans actually have taken the effort to learn about the culture behind “Despacito?” After all, these are the same people who have expected the rest of the world to learn their language.
Moreover, not knowing the song’s lyrics can lead to instances of cultural appropriation, as Justin Bieber himself has proven on multiple occasions. During a nightclub appearance, he forgot the lyrics and decided to sing, “I don’t know the words, so I say burrito,” instead. Perhaps for him, “Despacito” is the musical equivalent of a burrito he orders at his local Chipotle.
But the problem here is bigger than Justin’s inability to sing the song live, and it is even bigger than his invention of culturally appropriative lyrics. The problem here is that Justin is representative of the larger population that listens to “Despacito.” He represents their superficial understanding of the song and thus a superficial, perhaps even nonexistent, understanding of the cultural context behind it. Learning this context is important because when we look into the genre under which “Despacito” falls, we realize that it is not just another hit single and that there is so much more at stake.
“Despacito” is a fusion between pop and reggaeton, a genre with hip-hop, Latin American and Caribbean influences. Despite its widespread success today, reggaeton has a not-so-pretty history. According to Petra Rivera-Rideau, a professor at Wellesley College, reggaeton originated in urban, predominantly black, working-class communities who used it to talk about the inequalities and injustices they faced. Since then, reggaeton has evolved and has become infamous for its lyrics that encourage drug use, sex and violence; recent critics have especially attacked the genre’s portrayal of women as faceless, fragmented bodies used to satiate male desire.
At face value, the lyrics of “Despacito” are not as crude as those that characterize pure reggaeton, but they are nonetheless sexual and objectify women. The song is about a man making love slowly to a woman — hence the title “Despacito,” which means “Slowly.” And the words, which many people don’t know, following the titular line vividly describe this process: “Quiero desnudarte a besos despacito / Firmo en las paredes de tu laberinto / Y hacer de tu cuerpo todo un manuscrito,” which translates to, “I want to undress you with my kisses, slowly / I sign the walls of your labyrinth / And make your whole body a manuscript.” In other words, the man wants to strip down the woman, make his marks on her and turn her into something defined by those marks. This is exactly the type of objectification that pervades the genre of reggaeton.
“Despacito,” therefore, is not just another foreign song with a catchy beat; it carries with it a heavy burden. It comes from a genre born out of racial struggles, the history of which has become tainted by misogyny and other vices. That is what drunken Yalies, Justin Bieber and non–Spanish-speaking listeners need to recognize and understand. Of course, we can still enjoy the musical masterpiece that is “Despacito,” but don’t we want to know exactly what we are dancing to? Perhaps then, we should at least learn the lyrics.
Rocky Lam is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .