How Much of the New American Songbook Will Be Sung in Spanish?

What Latino music will be remembered in the mainstream when the mainstream itself is Latino.

Screenshots from the videos of Smooth and Despacito in an animated grid.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos via Arista, Universal Latin, Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for iHeart.

Is it really possible that today’s Latino musicians will be remembered primarily via the dude from Matchbox Twenty? Slate’s New American Songbook, a project dedicated to predicting which songs from the past 25 years will make an enduring impact and become “the new oldies,” reflects several of the most prominent contours of the pop cultural terrain of the past quarter-century: hip-hop’s rise as our most influential form of pop music, the triumph of late ’90s R&B girl groups, and even the persistence of rock more than 60 years after its birth. But what’s less represented is Spanish-language music. Other than a nod to the mortifying salsa-rock kitsch of Santana and Rob Thomas’ “Smooth,” the contributions of Latinos and Spanish-speaking communities are largely absent. At a time when Spanish-language music is thriving in the mainstream United States, and Latino artists are shaping the future of music consumption across the globe, how could it be that out of 30 songs, the list contains little more Spanish than a post-grunge frontman cooing “My muñequita”?

The New American Songbook

Which of today’s hits will be tomorrow’s classics?

The easy answer would be to cite too-familiar and oft-repeated myths about language barriers separating Anglo audiences from appreciating Spanish-language music. But the truth is that Spanish-language music’s continued segregation in the mainstream U.S. market also stems from long-standing preconceptions and marketing conventions Latino artists have had to navigate for decades. Spanish-language pop music might be having a moment, but as I’ve written at Remezcla, it seems Latino pop stars are only seen through the lens of crossover culture—that is, the mainstream media tends to only cover them when they make an impact on Anglo audiences, using Anglo metrics of success. No matter the decades of rich cultural and musical contributions we’ve given this country, our work typically only gets acknowledged when it becomes a global phenomenon or tops the Hot 100, even if it’s already a favorite in Latino spaces. And even then, we’re usually forced to play into clichéd representations of Latino identity—think of the stereotypes of the Latino lover or the “spicy Latina” (that muñequita, or little doll, is described as so hot she could “melt everyone”). Or we’re only regarded as one-time novelty acts (take the stadium-conquering spread of the “Macarena,” another song that narrowly missed making this list). Even Cardi B, J Balvin, and Bad Bunny’s summer smash “I Like It,” a song performed by solely Latino artists, sparked concern among fans for the hackneyed reference to Cardi as a “spicy mami, hot tamale.” These tropes are used to pander to Anglo listeners—a tactic that’s proved successful time and again.

While we’ve forged our own mechanisms of recognition (the Latin Grammys, Spanish-language radio and TV, etc.), these enterprises have also inadvertently created a pernicious segregation of markets that’s shut Latinos out of many conversations about popular music. Spanish-language music revered in Latino households doesn’t usually sound like Santana and Rob Thomas’ “Smooth,” even if that megahit may be beloved by English-speaking listeners outside the culture.

But thankfully, some of that seems to be changing, due in part to demographic shifts. There’s the oft-cited statistic that by 2044, non-Latino whites will be the minority demographic population in the U.S., which will certainly shape future institutions and the culture at large. Even more importantly, according to the Pew Research Center, Latinos already became the second-largest demographic group behind non-Latino whites, as well as the second-fastest growing ethnic group in the country, only two years ago. Members of the community are slowly becoming the gatekeepers that will determine what’s programmed on radio and playlists, what acts get major-label backing, and what gets booked at national festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza, which could shape national attitudes about Latino identity across the mainstream. Of course, inclusion doesn’t necessarily lead to transformation in the upper echelons of the music industry—but giving the keys to tastemakers and leaders who are actually invested in changing representations of Latinos will.

That’s not to say there will be a utopia for Spanish-language music in this country 25 years from now, or even that Latinos themselves share a monolithic understanding of what music is worth celebrating. We remain a community of difference, defined by distinct languages, cultures, and races. But it might mean that the hegemonic predisposition to treat Latino identity as a novelty or a token will gradually erode, as we take control of the marketing practices around our identities and create new avenues for artistic exploration—both above and underground.

Beyond demographics, the actual nature of Spanish-language pop music is undergoing a reckoning, and it’s going to change the way we think about what songs are enshrined as classics. Reggaeton has experienced a massive transformation since its birth in the 1990s, when it was a much-maligned genre pioneered by black Panamanians and Puerto Ricans. It’s no longer the stigmatized music of the underclass, and its sonic transformation over the past few years—with saccharine, romantic lyrics and palatable pop beats, which many feel is an erasure of the genre’s political roots—has cemented it as the accessible and dominant form of pop music across Latin America. Even if it’s through dembow-lite excursions with familiar Anglo pop stars such as “Despacito” (a song that was itself ushered into the Anglo mainstream by Justin Bieber), the genre’s continued ascent since its surge in popularity in the mid-’00s all but guarantees that reggaeton will soundtrack weddings, family celebrations, road trips, and beyond. Certainly, we can expect Spanish-language radio to maintain oldies stations that keep traditional genres like norteños, banda, salsa, bolero, bachata, and merengue in their rotation, and the inroads made by stalwarts like Héctor Lavoe, Jenni Rivera, Celia Cruz, and Antony Santos will continue to be celebrated. But as more and more pop stars and conventional balladeers hop on the pop-dembow wave (for better or worse), it seems assured that reggaeton will continue to establish itself as the music that defined a generation.

The future of other genres is less certain. It remains an open question whether Spanish-language trap, which has ignited a controversial revolution in the Latino music industry, will fizzle out. And while movements like rock en español, once hailed as a defiant alternative to the pop-driven Spanish-language music industry, have become stale, with fans aging into their own segment of the market, that shouldn’t stop the Caifanes and Maná hits of today from finding a resting home on oldies radio 25 years from now.

Meanwhile, the recent tidal wave of bilingual hits—both via collaborations with Anglo pop stars and in individual compositions by Latino artists—isn’t likely to crest anytime soon. Though we’ll likely remember this as the era when major labels attempted to replicate smashes like “Despacito” by pairing Latino stars with Anglo ones for Frankenstein collabs, this could easily become a gimmick that will begin to grate on listeners if it’s not done organically.

After all, more bilingual music is a natural reflection of differences in language use across generations in Latino communities. As the Pew Research Center reported in 2012, Latinos are fairly evenly split between those who listen mostly to English-language music and those who listen to mostly Spanish-language music, and 27 percent of Latinos say they listen to music in both languages equally. With bilingual songs of the summer like “Despacito” and “I Like It” easily summiting the Billboard charts, long-held assumptions about Anglo listeners’ refusal to consume music in other languages are getting a reality check. In this complex global music climate, in which listeners are increasingly language-agnostic, we’ll likely see more of these bilingual productions receive support from labels and their counterparts in the Latino, mainstream U.S., and global markets, ensuring that we’ll be singing along in multiple languages for years to come.

To be sure, the work is far from over, and there are many possible futures for Latino artists. A truly unexpected fate would be one that finds Latino artists free from pigeonholing and stereotyping, incorporated into the musical landscape in an ongoing, dynamic way. Or better yet, a commitment to equity for black Latino artists, who are often left behind by a music industry that runs on colorism.

In an increasingly globalized world, and in an increasingly Latino country, we are bound to create more and more of the songs that will be belted at stadiums and blasted from car radios. Whether we are able to take charge of our own musical identities and to present them as more than clichéd commodities, or to overcome constant neglect from Anglo media and entertainment platforms, on the other hand, remains to be seen. One thing’s for sure: We need fewer feel-good narratives of cultural exchange and respect, and more opportunities to be seen on our own terms—not filtered through the lens of Justin Bieber and Rob Thomas.