It’s a curious rule of the British public and charts that we don’t care much about Latin music – its rhythms and stars remain strange to us when we’ll embrace (and try to absorb) almost anything else. But very occasionally, our aloofness slips. In the USA, “Livin’ La Vida Loca” punched through from Latin charts to pop ones and began a small explosion of interest in Latin music. And even here we felt the shockwave: “Livin’ La Vida Loca” is the first of a handful of Latin – at a stretch – number ones in 1999. But it matched an uptick of interest outside pop – that summer my office ditched the usual team-building paintball for a compulsory salsa dance class. An experiment, like Ricky Martin as the UK’s Number One, that was raucously entertaining but still never repeated.
As Hot Latin 100 #1s review blog Bilbo’s Laptop points out, “Livin’ La Vida Loca” owes as much to third-wave ska as it does to most Latin pop: it’s a stylistic hotpot, far keener on hustling you out of your seat than on sounding authentic. The closest 1999 comparison might be Shania Twain’s global smashes, which rammed the barriers between country and pop by making loud, brash, funny pop songs with a country twist and sensibility. It’s no coincidence that Shania’s breakout tracks (Mutt Lange) and Ricky’s Latin raid on the world’s charts (Desmond Child) were both produced by guys with a hard rock pedigree – men who knew how to take fringe music mainstream and get the world’s fists pumping.
But if the recipe isn’t Latin, the flavouring is over-familiar. From line one – “she’s into superstition” -“Livin’ La Vida Loca”’s storyline is a damburst of stereotypes – a mysterious, hot-blooded Latin woman who whirls into your life and turns it over. British perceptions of Latin America are drawn from a menu of clichés – sensuality and danger, but also sophistication and authenticity. Though, of course, these same ideas are projected onto any passing non-European other, it’s really only the clothes and rhythms that change. “Livin’ La Vida Loca” bundles it all up and sells it back, amped up and cartoonishly exaggerated. As with Blondie’s “Maria”, a saving grace is the knowing glee with which Ricky Martin relates what’s going on – he spins deliriously along in the wake of the vida loca, documenting but also mocking its whirlwind effect on men.
And the other thing that sells this song is its breathless, gonzo commitment. The content may be a little lazy: Martin is not. Every word is an emphasis – “She! Will! Wear! You! Out!” – every instrumental break digitally packed with incident, darting between horn blasts and surf rock guitar riffs like a conjuror spinning plates. “Livin’ La Vida Loca” starts off jaunty, then improves all through, levelling up with each shouted “Come on!” until the gasping coda, with what sounds very much like an “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” quote. Martin had an established Spanish-language career, but he knows this is his shot at the Anglophone, global big time and he and his producers are determined to grab it, and they work as hard as anyone has to bring us on board too.