Nov 14

RICKY MARTIN – “Livin’ La Vida Loca”

Popular54 comments • 5,612 views

#830, 17th July 1999

vidaloca 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.



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  1. 1
    JLucas on 11 Nov 2014 #

    Such was the impact of this single that I always remember it as Ricky Martin’s chart debut, which in fact wasn’t the case at all – it was his third top forty hit. Nevertheless, it cast a long shadow over his anglophone career*, of the major pop figures who emerged in the Latin boom, he was the one whose star burned brightest, but most briefly. I feel like he never quite shook off the air of novelty in the way that the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Enrique Iglesias did. Follow-ups like ‘Shake Your Bon-Bon’ and ‘She Bangs’ can’t have helped matters. He did release a couple of more serious songs – I have a major soft spot for Private Emotion to this day, although I can’t stomach Christina Aguilera on anything, so ‘Nobody Wants To be Lonely’ is pretty much a write-off – but they’re largely forgotten. If you have a hit this big and this gimmicky, you need to take a sharp left turn pretty quickly to avoid it becoming an albatross, and that’s something poor old Ricky never quite managed to do.

    Great track though, and I agree that he brings the perfect amount of energy to it, and plays it *just* straight enough (no double-meaning intended) to keep it from slipping into Los Del Rio territory.

    *He has a far longer and more established career in Latin America of course, going back to his time in Menudo and enduring, I believe, to this day.


  2. 2
    eternal dirge on 11 Nov 2014 #

    Automatic 9 from me, if not a 10. It’s just brilliantly constructed and delivered with the right mixture of drollness and enthusiasm (a trick only a Proper Pop Star can manage). Sure, he never topped it, but hell, he never needed to. I’m more grateful that he never wore out his welcome and burned brightly for those three and a bit minutes.

  3. 3
    AMZ1981 on 11 Nov 2014 #

    This was the first three week runner of the year and indeed the only three weeker within a period of almost twelve months (in fact I remember mid weeks were at one point suggesting it would get a non consecutive fourth).

  4. 4
    Matt DC on 11 Nov 2014 #

    Funny how there are two cod-Latin number ones coming up in quick succession (admittedly they are in reality about as Latin as I am) – I’m not sure anyone even noted that at the time.

  5. 5
    Tom on 12 Nov 2014 #

    I think it was mentioned at the time! But of the two conejitos, there was a suspicion – not wholly baseless I think – that one would adopt any style whatsoever if it would get them a number one, and the other is an even more obvious novelty hit than Livin’ La Vida Loca.

  6. 6
    flahr on 12 Nov 2014 #

    My favourite thing about this (rather wonderful) single is the fact that the title is in lyrics AS WELL AS its translation into English! That is a mark of top quality songcraft in my book. [8]

  7. 7
    thefatgit on 12 Nov 2014 #

    I know very little about latin music, so Ricky Martin was something new, even refreshing to my ears. Sure it’s pop, in this most pop of Popular years, but I hate to say it…grown up pop, as opposed to the tween pop of S Club 7 and Steps. Not necessarily better, but at 33 years old in 1999, I appreciated something different from…what we’ve seen already.

    LLVL is one of those songs that dares you to dislike it. Ricky delivers his lines like he “knows” this is his big crossover hit. He must have had belief in spades that this was his “Billie Jean”, this was his “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”. Seems a shame then that he never managed to top this one. (8)

  8. 8
    swanstep on 12 Nov 2014 #

    Going against the grain slightly here, I’ve always found LTVL to be actively unpleasant to listen to, an automatic channel-changer either on radio or tv… The 178 farking BPM and the loud-loud-LOUD wall of percussion and horns drives me insane like a bullet through the brain… On one level, of course, it’s a work of musical and production genius, expressing and embodying exactly what the lyrics are talking about: a woman that’s too much for You, whom you should run a mile to avoid; except it makes me want to run a mile to avoid the track. I think it’s LLVL’s second-handness that makes it hard to take: divas from Betty Davis to Beyonce have as their basic stance that they’re awesome and way too much woman for You, but I can take that from *them* whereas hearing about that kind of domination secondhand repels. Or something.

    I know LLVL has quality and was a fully-deserved world-wide smash, but it just creeps me out and produces an instant flight response. It and Barenaked Ladies ‘One Week’ are My Personal Hell soundtrack (so if I’m ever in Guantanamo and anyone needs to make me talk….):
    7 (objectively, qua programmer for Posterity FM, but subjectively, I’d pay large sums not to hear this again, so 1)

  9. 9
    Patrick Mexico on 12 Nov 2014 #

    This is a bloody marvelous record.

    Yes, it’s stagey, yes, it trades in a million Latin American cliches (at least it’s from the source rather than from Watford – bad bunny alert), and yes, given what we now know about Ricky, it’s sometimes very uncomfortable to listen to – like his producers tried to mould him into an unambiguously heterosexual lothario and are using these personal tensions to laugh behind the back of someone who seems a thoroughly alright and decent fella whose charity work is perhaps more prominent than his music these days. (although there WAS the dancing with George W Bush at his inauguration…. but in future years he’d vehemently state he made a mistake.)

    However every line counts, not a drop of energy’s wasted in this song – he smashes this out of the ballpark. It’s almost TOO good at what it does, almost TOO efficient, and because of this I’m surprised it’s received such a warm response from the commenters so far (was expecting it to be similarly divisive to the Mr. Vain/No Limit era hits.)

    I hardly ever play LLVL these days – not out of any post-modern embarrassment or fatigue from the passing of the time – but in the same reason you wouldn’t want to eat your mum’s terrific Christmas dinner (without sprouts) every day.

    A definite 9.

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    Ronnie on 12 Nov 2014 #

    Listening to this for the first time in many years, I note that the horns sound unconvincing and fake to me, but the guitar and bass are on fuckin’ point. You mention ska, I’d also add Smash Mouth and the lounge revivalists as groups that seemed to be drawing on a lot of the same influences, had the same retro 60’s vibe. I think I even hear some of Deee-Lite’s spacey sound effects in there.

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    lmm on 12 Nov 2014 #

    #7 have to disagree with “grown-up”. This found the same young audience as Boom Boom Boom Boom, and for the same reasons – it’s a cartoon Latin America, detailed but superficial at the same time. It’s a fun song, but if anything the brazen simplicity of Steps/S-Club appeals more as an adult than this.

  12. 12
    Patrick Mexico on 12 Nov 2014 #

    Blimey, it’s now 40th on the all time reader scores, either side of Jumpin’ Jack Flash and the Tears of a Clown. And the best-rated 90s number 1!

    Tonight there’s been a jailbreak, somewhere in the corner shop :-/

    Though Ricky must be quaking in his boots at the next 14 contenders for his throne.. ;)

  13. 13
    Shiny Dave on 12 Nov 2014 #

    As absolutely committed to its idea as almost anything we’ll see on here. Whether you like the idea behind this or not – and the more I think about it, the more uneasy I get about it – this is stonking popcraft. And I don’t think “closeted gay man reeling off a bunch of exotic Latin stereotypes” is in the Dreadlock Holiday class of “this actually ruins the song,” although having said that I’m not entirely certain about that, so I’ll sit out the marking on this one!

    I was *genuinely* shocked to find that – if Wikipedia is accurate – this never featured on any official version of the arcade/console dance game Dance Dance Revolution/Dancing Stage (which was just emerging as a Japanese sensation, and getting a gradual European roll-out, when “Livin’ La Vida Loca” came out). It could almost have been custom-built for it; the relentless 178bpm beat, as noted by #8, is certainly a good fit with many of the Konami original songs in those games. The licensed songs were invariably a lot slower and easier – heck, cod-R&B Boyzone not-bunny “So Good” headlined the first PS1 European version. One of the other European releases featured a rather less frenetic 2000 bunny…

    Tom mentions the Latin popular culture phase more broadly; I would argue that some of this stuck in the form of the prevalence of Latin dances in Strictly, which started a few years after this. (I’d presume this has been used on the show at least once, probably several times by now!) This might very well be because of that sensuality/danger/sophistication mix Tom mentions, as all three of those qualities feel appropriate for a show that’s trying to combine serious competition, family viewing, and enough smouldering hotness to draw a harder-to-reach young crowd.

  14. 14
    Shiny Dave on 12 Nov 2014 #

    I also note that there was a broadening trend – perhaps driven by Hispanic migration, although the dog-whistle xenophobia in response to that is prevalent enough in middle America to make me doubt this! – towards Latin music in the US at this point.


    Hilarious in retrospect: “Colombian star {bunnied until 2001}, often likened to Alanis Morissette”

  15. 15
    JLucas on 12 Nov 2014 #

    Hmmm. I’m sure #9 and #13 are well-meant comments, but I’m not totally comfortable with the idea that LLVL might be a problematic record because Ricky Martin was in the closet in 1999.

    Gay entertainers had a much tougher road in the 90s than they do now, but it feels a little too close to the idea that gay Hollywood actors can’t – or perhaps shouldn’t – play straight leading men. It’d be lovely to hear a song like LLVL as an uncompromising expression of a gay romance, but sadly that was never going to fly in 1999, and as a leading figure in Latin pop music, why shouldn’t Martin have fronted this track?

    Also – while I’m not going to go so far as to claim this was an intentional way for the writers to fudge the issue – Martin does sing the song exclusively in the third person (“SHE’LL make YOU… etc), and there’s no reason a gay man couldn’t do that.

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    Cumbrian on 12 Nov 2014 #

    The twang’s the thang. I’m a sucker for Duane Eddy-esque guitar, so was always predisposed to this track but it goes beyond that – Ricky sells it with exuberance that comes across in spades. Both Tom ATL and Thefatgit at #7 seem correct to me – he knows he’s got something here that’s going to work, that’s going to be huge and he wants to grab it with both hands. Surrounded by 1999’s #1s, this is a real gem, very near the top, if not the top, of the class of the year.

    Didn’t realise Desmond Child was involved.

  17. 17
    James BC on 12 Nov 2014 #

    Massive cultural impact. The song’s writers get credits on (at least) two other classics from the next year or so – Wyclef featuring The Rock’s behemoth It Doesn’t Matter and Sisqo’s equally timeless Thong Song – purely because both songs quote the title in their lyrics.

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    Patrick Mexico on 12 Nov 2014 #

    JLucas, sorry if my comment came across the wrong way. I didn’t mean at all that it was a bad idea for Martin to play a straight man if it was his own choice, or if it was suggested assertively. I meant it was a bad idea if his producers/A&R staff/backroom team were bullying him, gun-to-the-head, slavering like the Simpsons aliens with dollar signs in their eyes, into having this particular hit in this particular image… maybe that’s just my overactive imagination.

    Though as someone – albeit only 14 – who was having quite acute mental health problems and deep-seated confusion about my own identity at the time LLVL was released, and being bullied at school, I guess I was just trying to draw a (tenuous, but well-meaning) personal perspective with a song that – at the time – gave me a lot of cheer when I really did need it. Perhaps it was this story about a 2000 Ricky Martin interview that hit a nerve with me: http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/television/2010/03/06/barbara_walters_what_kind_of_tree_is_she.html

  19. 19
    Mark M on 12 Nov 2014 #

    Re9 & 13:
    ‘I used to like it, but then I found out that none of the Shangri-Las had actually had a relationship with a subsequently deceased motorcycle gang leader.’

    ‘Great guitar solo and woo-woos, but I’ve been told Mick Jagger isn’t in fact a fallen angel who was spurring on the Russian Revolution.’

    ‘Good beat, but I refuse to believe that Debbie Harry witnessed a guitar-eating alien.’

  20. 20
    Mark G on 12 Nov 2014 #

    #15 Nooh, the verses are in the first person.

    “She must have slipped me a sleeping pill” and so on.

  21. 21
    Mark G on 12 Nov 2014 #

    There’s a great cover version by The Toy Dolls, it’s too not much different apart from loads of kazoos in place of the horn section, and the chorus is more shouty; The general hi-energy vibe is still there.

    Also, a few years ago, the Wiki entry for this had it that it was based on an early Goodies song, and Bill Oddie was earning a considerable amount via a small percentage of the publishing. All bobbins, of course. But quite feasible.

  22. 22
    Alan on 12 Nov 2014 #

    @13 this is on console dancer “Just Dance 4”. My son’s favourite -though who can tell if it’s for the song or the moves (zorro sword fight, hip wiggle, “smack the pig”, heel kick)

  23. 23
    lonepilgrim on 12 Nov 2014 #

    Tom mentioned the rise of Salsa classes in his review and there was a growing taste among the UK public for all things ‘Latin’, whether that be dance, food or literature. Perhaps this was, in part, due to the rise in cheap(er) holidays to Florida and beyond as well as a flow of dancers, cooks and books in the other direction. Whereas in the past we brought back straw donkeys and ‘Una Paloma Blanca’ now our horizons and taste for the exotic stretched further.
    I had started listening to a lot of Brazilian contemporary music at this time which I love(d) for its lightness and ability to absorb a rich variety of cultural sources in a new and refreshing way.
    LLVL is kind of the opposite of that – a stomping, high paced monster that demands your attention with a sprinkling of ‘Latin’ signifiers to add flavour. I quite like it – but there are a lot of other tunes I like better

  24. 24
    Mark M on 12 Nov 2014 #

    I feel that careful pop archeology may be required here, so we don’t mix causation, correlation and coincidence.

    1) As Tom suggests, in London anyway, there were plenty of salsa classes, club nights and – often – combinations of both (a how-to session before the dancing proper).

    2) Re13: Maybe, but Latin dances have always been a fixture in ballroom dancing. And as has been mentioned a few times in Popular, Latin-flavoured dance music was huge here in the pre-pop era, as best represented by Edmundo Ros OBE , the Trinidadian-born bandleader who became the toast of London’s high society in the ’40s and ’50s.

    3) Probably not pertinent to its chart success, but the romanticisation of Latin America (and maybe especially passionate, strong-willed etc Latin American women), has long been a weak spot of the British left. A good example is Ken Loach’s Carla’s Song (there’s also an element of it in Bread And Roses). Can manifest itself in unquestioning support of brutal totalitarian regimes (Cuba), insufficiently critical support of dysfunctional regimes (Sandinista-era Nicaragua, Chavez’s Venezuela) or a weakness for unpleasant Marxist guerrilla groups (the FARC in Colombia).

  25. 25
    Andrew Farrell on 12 Nov 2014 #

    Between the (unsubtle, but nothing about this record is) voodoo mention and the skin the colour mocha, I never actually got the impression that the lady in question was Latina?

  26. 26
    Mark M on 12 Nov 2014 #

    Re25: It’s “black cats and voodoo dolls”, so that seems to suggest she has a non-donominational approach to the dark arts.

    And why would mocha skin make her not Latina? I would have thought the opposite.

  27. 27
    iconoclast on 12 Nov 2014 #

    Frothy, and placed between larger-than-usual inverted commas, but still quite fun. Nice to hear Proper Instruments, too. Doesn’t quite hold the listener’s attention all the way through, however: SEVEN.

  28. 28
    Ed on 12 Nov 2014 #

    @7, @11 – I came to love this through the version at the end of the wonderful Shrek 2, when it is used as the equivalent of a pantomime’s big musical finale. Our kids loved it too, for that reason.

    A great ending to a great movie: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=SXUG9zTpI_w

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    Tom on 12 Nov 2014 #

    #25 Yeah, it’s not cut-and-dried but Hispanic heritage encompasses a range of skin tones, mocha included. It may hinge on the title – the only Spanish words in the song are explicitly identified with her specific lifestyle. (But the point is she’s presented to the song’s audience as someone exotic: this is partly what I was getting at in the review, that the qualities associated with the exotic other tend to be roughly consistent no matter what the people being othered are actually like).

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    Mark M on 12 Nov 2014 #

    Re29 etc: Yeah, Latino/Latina is non-racially specific. Obviously, Latin America contains large numbers of people of European descent, of descent from indigenous people, of African descent, and – in some places – substantial minorities of Japanese and Lebanese (as we may discuss further down the line) descent. And, of course, every possible mix of the above.

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