Published Feb 01, 2000The days of not being able to go into a clothing store or turn on a radio without hearing "Living La Vida Loca" or "If You Had My Love" are finally on the wane, but the media's apparent new found love of Latino culture is still blossoming. Buckets of ink is being spilled as entertainment reporters gush over the veritable explosion of Latino music and culture in the United States. Which would be great and long overdue, except that this coverage isn't really about Latino culture - it's about Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez. The most remarkable thing about Martin and Lopez, aside from their phenomenal chart success, is not that they're Latino. As far as their media exposure is concerned, they're only incidentally and conveniently Latino - Martin's and Lopez's music barely belongs in the Latin section of any shop. Lopez sings breathily over smooth R&B grooves, while Martin is really a Spice Boy with bulging pecs and frothy Eurodisco arrangements. But Latin music? It's not even "La Bamba."
The real trend is fawning and drooling over young, beautiful people, who happen to have olive complexions.
The so-called Latin explosion, with Martin and Lopez as its prom king and queen, is largely just an effect of the entertainment media doing what it does - it needs trends or else it would disappear in a vortex of celebrity puff profiles and free advertising for upcoming blockbusters. No, the real trend is an extension of the oldest media habit in the book - fawning and drooling over young, beautiful people. This time, they happen to have olive complexions.
It's funny how dubious media-hyped trends of late have involved Jennifer Lopez - last year, she became the media-appointed spokesmodel for womanly hips as the press went into a lather over the allegedly vast acreage of her much-celebrated butt. Hello? That's full-figured? Where does that leave Sophia Loren?
Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez are the Latino Will Smith - safe, easily accessible and non-threatening.
One shouldn't deny the iconic status of Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez among the U.S.'s Latino population, nor their significance as Latino crossovers - it would be a lot to expect someone like, say, Rosie Perez to be the first Latino crossover superstar. But for the rest of the country, Martin and Lopez have become the Latino Will Smith - safe, easily accessible and non-threatening to mainstream culture.
America has a long-standing fear and ambivalence concerning its rapidly growing Latino population. In California, where Latinos are now estimated to be the largest single ethnic group, rampant racism, hysterical rhetoric over illegal immigration and repressive political measures all seem designed to be a daily reminder of their undesirability. And they continue to be grossly underrepresented in popular culture - even in TV's most multicultural show, The Simpsons , the only recurring Latino characters are Dr. Nick Rivera and the Bumblebee Man. And the media, comprised as it largely is of college-educated liberals, can't help but feel somewhat guilty about portraying Latinos wearing gang colours and personifying the insecurities of white America's diminishing majority, but they find it easy to celebrate Latinos when they're squeaky clean (but sexy!), stylishly dressed and singing songs that don't sound foreign to home-grown (read: white) radio formats.
The irony is that there really is a Latin music explosion of sorts happening around the world, but it comes with two serious media knocks against it - it's being propelled by senior citizens, for one, and from Cuba, the other. Buena Vista Social Club has sold approximately two million copies worldwide without the benefit of airplay, and Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo and Ruben Gonzalez are revered the world over. But for them to become the face of a Latin explosion in American is too much to expect, especially when the great American Latino music of Los Lobos and the Latin Playboys rarely rates a mention, especially as it draws more deeply from its Latin roots. Another hoary media tradition - ageism - helps explain the lack of interest the entertainment media has shown in the Afro-Cuban All Stars, but in ignoring the real groundswell in these music traditions, the media also shows how profoundly uninterested in Latin music and culture it really is.