Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

The Latin pop explosion of 1999 was a fake thing that became real. It was a marketing strategy that worked well enough to evolve into a cultural phenomenon. To even talk about it, you need to get a few things out of the way right out front, like the fact that “Latin music” is not a genre. It’s a web of different sounds — some connected to one another, some not — that really only have a language in common. The Latinx artists who blew up and made hits in 1999 came from vastly different places and circumstances. Most of them were just making straight-up English-language pop music with occasional nods to the performers’ different heritages. But a lot of those stars did have one big thing in common: They were signed to the various different subsidiaries of Sony Music.

Tommy Mottola, a man who’s appeared in a bunch of these columns because of his marriage to Mariah Carey, is an Italian baby boomer from the Bronx, but if there’s any one figure most responsible for that boom, it’s him. Mottola found ways to push his artists, using their ethnicities as a marketing hook. A few years after the big boom year, Mottola admitted as much to Billboard: “There never really was a Latin explosion, but we used it to take gigantic advantage of it, and lots of our stars benefited from that.” (In 2000, while that whole boom was still happening, Mottola, by then divorced from Mariah, married another one of the artists he’d signed, the Mexican singer Thalía. Thalía’s only Hot 100 hit, the 2003 Fat Joe collab “I Want You,” peaked at #22.)

For Mottola’s strategy to pay off, he needed to open things up with the right performer and the right song. He had both. Ricky Martin had everything a record-label exec could possibly want. He had an intriguing backstory, and his boy-band past was especially attractive during the high boy-band era. Martin was talented, hard-working, and insanely good-looking. His acting career made him a familiar face in America, and his music had already made him a star around the world. A big-deal Grammy performance early in 1999 gained Martin a tremendous industry buzz. Martin also had “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” a goofy, eager-to-please earworm too immediate to be denied. Empires are built on songs like that.

There’s a whole lot of right-place/right-time in Ricky Martin’s story, but there’s also a ton of hard work. Few performers have been quite so driven to the spotlight, and few have soaked up quite so much attention without letting it drive them insane. Enrique Martín Morales grew up comfortably middle-class in San Juan. (When Martin was born, the #1 song in America was Sly & The Family Stone’s “Family Affair.”) Before Martin was 10, he was already starring in Puerto Rican TV commercials.

As a kid, Ricky Martin loved English-language arena rock, and he also loved the Puerto Rican boy band Menudo, a strange institution first founded in 1977. The producer Edgardo Díaz had an idea: He would collect a bunch of adorable kids, and he would keep that lineup of kids forever unstable. Menudo membership was always temporary. In a Logan’s Run twist, the members of Menudo would be asked to leave when they turned 16 or 17. This kept any of them from becoming famous enough to take control from Díaz, and it also made boy-band membership oddly attainable. Menudo were hugely popular around the Spanish-speaking world, but a good-looking Puerto Rican kid could become a member of the group. That’s what Ricky Martin did.

Ricky Martin auditioned for Menudo a few times, and he got shot down for being too short, but he finally got to join the group in 1984, when he was 12. As a member of Menudo, Martin had to work tirelessly, pretty much forgoing his adolescent years. But Martin also got to travel and perform in front of vast audiences. Martin was a part of Menudo when the group released the 1985 English-language single “Hold Me,” which became their only Hot 100 hit, peaking at #62.

In grand Menudo tradition, Ricky Martin left the group at 17, and he moved to New York to study at NYU. Before classes even started, though, Martin dropped out. He was offered a role in a stage musical in Mexico City, and he took it. From there, he spent the next few years acting in telenovelas. While in Mexico, Martin started off his solo recording career, releasing a self-titled Spanish album. His first solo single, the 1991 ballad “Fuego Contra Fuego,” reached #3 on Billboard‘s Latin chart.

In 1994, after he’d released a couple of albums, Martin landed a guest-role on the short-lived NBC sitcom Getting By. From there, he was cast as a singing bartender on General Hospital. Martin kept that gig for about a year, but he didn’t like it much, so he went back into music. On his 1995 album A Medio Vivir, Martin moved away from sentimental balladry and into percussive dance jams, and that choice proved hugely successful. The album took off in places that didn’t typically go for Spanish-language music, like France and the UK. In America, A Medio Vivir went gold, and the banger “Maria” became the first Ricky Martin song to crack the Hot 100, where it peaked at #88.

When he got done touring the world behind A Medio Vivir, Ricky Martin spent a few months acting in Les Misérables on Broadway, and then he went off to record the global 1997 smash Vuelve. FIFA asked Martin to record a song for the 1998 World Cup, and he came up with something special. Martin had remained tight with his former Menudo bandmate Robi Rosa, who’d been born on Long Island and who was more comfortable working in English. (Rosa was the Menudo member who sang lead on “Hold Me.”) Rosa co-wrote and co-produced Martin’s big World Cup song with Desmond Child, the former disco artist who’s been in this column a bunch of times for co-writing songs with Bon Jovi. The Cuban-American Child had just moved back to his Miami hometown, and he was excited to start writing for a Spanish-language star. Rosa and Child, working with songwriter Luis Gómez Escolar, came up with a song that Martin recorded in Spanish as “La Copa De La Vida” and in English as “The Cup Of Life.”

Vuelve was a huge hit around the world, and it went platinum in America. “The Cup Of Life” became Martin’s second Billboard hit, peaking at #45. Martin had been signed to Sony Discos since his first solo album, but the success of Vuelve convinced Tommy Mottola that Martin could be a superstar in the US. Martin agreed to record an English-language album, and Mottola pushed hard to get Martin a spot as a performer at the 1999 Grammys. Near the end of the broadcast, Martin turned “The Cup Of Life” into a theatrical showstopper. He killed that shit.

That Grammy-night performance was the moment that Ricky Martin really clicked for the music business and maybe also for the rest of America. (People actually watched the Grammys back then.) You can practically see the audience figure things out. Ricky Martin looked and moved like a boy-band guy because he was a boy-band guy. He was also a Broadway star and a soap-opera actor and a very big deal on a global level. He had energy and charisma and a gift for spectacle. He was a can’t-miss prospect. One month after Grammy night, “Livin’ La Vida Loca” came out. It didn’t miss.

Funny thing about “Livin’ La Vida Loca”: It’s not really a Latin pop song at all. It doesn’t come from any Latin tradition. Other than the title, the song doesn’t even involve the Spanish language. Desmond Child, who co-wrote the song with Ricky Martin’s old friend Robi Rosa, later told Songfacts that the two of them worked hard to give the song a flavor that might seem Spanish to people who had no experience with any kind of Spanish culture: “That particular song had parts that sound like Spanish but aren’t. Like, ‘skin the color of mocha.’ ‘Mocha’ is an American term — we don’t say that in Spanish. But it sounded like Spanish.” (One clueless label exec still asked Child if he could write a version of the song in English.)

But while those lyrics don’t make much use of the Spanish language, they do go pretty hard on Latin stereotypes. Ricky Martin crows about a temptress who intoxicate you to the point where you don’t even notice that she’s ruining your life. This image of the girl who will make you take your clothes off and go dancing in the rain has everything to do with fucked-up ideas about delirious passion that Americans love to ascribe to people from neighboring countries, though maybe it’s notable that the woman playing the role in the “Livin’ La Vida Loca” video was a Croatian model.

Musically, “Livin’ La Vida Loca” sounds awfully close to the big, bright, sunny ska-punk that was all over alt-rock radio in the late ’90s. The busy horn-stabs work as constant adrenaline-shots, and the baritone guitar owes something to instrumental surf-rock. The mix is jammed full of elements, these digital layers of sound that are almost overwhelming in their grandeur. (“Livin’ La Vida Loca,” it turns out, was the first #1 hit to be entirely recorded on ProTools.) One of the only moments where things get even remotely quiet — the bit about waking up in New York City in a funky cheap motel — is pure Warped Tour ska. (I wonder if New York City still has any funky cheap motels. Probably not.)

In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Desmond Child says that “Livin’ La Vida Loca” is his attempt to channel the spirits of a couple of the 20th century’s most grandly glitzy entertainers: “We hired Randy Cantor to be our arranger and coaxed him to throwing in the kitchen sink. We added everything from whistles to gongs and horns and rock guitar and Spanish piano. At the time, Frank Sinatra had just passed away, so we were listening to Frank and swing. And I had this inspiration because Ricky reminded me of a Latin Elvis. So I had this vision of Ricky dressed like Elvis in a Las Vegas performance in all black, really moving and shaking.” This makes sense. “Livin’ La Vida Loca” is a song desperate to grab your attention, to entertain. That impulse isn’t native to any one particular culture. If it’s anything, it’s just plain ol’ American.

A song as wild and energetic as “Livin’ La Vida Loca” demands a singer who can really sell it, and Ricky Martin is up to the job. Martin’s enthusiasm is genuine and infectious. He never gets much of a chance to sing on the song. Instead, he just belts everything with a hammy flair that’s just perfect. In his overcharged gusto, Martin evokes no less a Vegas showman than Tom Jones. Even Martin’s ad-libs add to the atmosphere; every “come aaaown!” pushes the track that much harder. As the song reaches its climax, Martin is just whooping and bellowing and roaring, and it’s awesome. “Livin’ La Vida Loca” became so big that its canned enthusiasm came to seem a little oppressive, but when it hit at the right moment, it was glorious.

For the “Livin’ La Vida Loca” video, Ricky Martin worked with Wayne Isham, the guy who’d established the visual language of ’80s glam metal in his clips for Mötley Crüe and Bon Jovi. The “Vida Loca” video tweaks and updates that language, but it’s mostly the same — going for pure energy overcharge, just like the song. The video’s first shot is a car screeching around a corner and decimating a fire hydrant, and Isham smash-cuts from there into a club full of ridiculously hot dancers. The rest of the clip is a riot of bodies moving and cameras whirling. At the center of it all, Ricky Martin radiates the plastic handsomeness of a Ken doll, but he’s right in there, jumping around with the same enthusiasm as everyone else while bringing enough presence to hold the spectacle together. You couldn’t resist this guy, and you couldn’t resist this song, either.

That level of energy just wasn’t sustainable. In the summer of 1999, Chris Rock made “Livin’ La Vida Loca” into a running joke on his Bigger & Blacker special. When he hosted the VMAs that September, Rock called Martin “the Puerto Rican Al B. Sure!” and joked that he needed a second hit really, really badly. By that point, Ricky Martin already had a second hit; the sitar-laden ballad “She’s All I Ever Had” made it to #2 in August. (It’s a 6.) But “She’s All I Ever Had” just wasn’t as memorable as “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” and Martin never again captured the dizzy intensity of that song’s moment.

Ricky Martin’s self-titled English-language album was a huge success. It sold seven million copies in the US alone, and it kicked open the door for the Latin pop explosion that Tommy Mottola envisioned, as we’ll see in this column in the days ahead. But Ricky Martin hasn’t been back in the top 10 of the Hot 100 since “She’s All I Ever Had.” Many of Martin’s later singles seemed like attempts to recapture the lightning of “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” The delightfully goofy “Shake Your Bon-Bon,” another single from the self-titled album, peaked at #22, while “She Bangs,” the lead single from Martin’s 2000 follow-up Sound Loaded, landed just outside the top 10, getting to #12. These days, too many of us sadly remember “She Bangs” as the William Hung song.

Sound Loaded was nowhere near as big as Ricky Martin, but it still went double platinum. While he was out promoting that album, Martin danced with George W. Bush at Bush’s 2001 inauguration, a moment that Jon Stewart memorably clowned on The Daily Show. (Since then, Martin has campaigned for every Democratic presidential candidate from Obama on.) After Sound Loaded, Martin largely went back to singing in Spanish, which made his presence on the American charts a whole lot more sparse but which probably helped keep his star bright around the world. Martin has kept recording ever since, and he’s done some acting, too — in Evita on Broadway, on The Assassination Of Gianni Versace on FX. For many years, Martin refused to answer persistent questions about his sexuality, but he came out as gay in 2010, and he got married in 2017.

In the past 20 years, Ricky Martin has landed a few Spanish-language songs on the Hot 100, though none of them have charted especially high. The last time he charted as a lead artist was 2010, when a song that Martin recorded in both English and Spanish — with Joss Stone as “The Best Thing About Me Is You” and with Natalia Jiménez as “Lo Mejor de Mi Vida Eres Tú” — peaked at #74. But Martin has remained a pop-chart presence in other ways, like the Glee episode where he guest-starred and sang on a couple of covers that scraped the Hot 100.

Ricky Martin remains hugely important as an inspiration to future generations of Latin pop artists. That’s how he made his most recent appearance on the Hot 100. The reggaeton star Wisin collaborated with Martin and with Jennifer Lopez, an artist who will appear in this column very soon, on “Adrenalina,” a clubby 2014 single that peaked at #94. (Wisin’s highest-charting single as lead artist, the 2017 Ozuna collab “Escapate Conmigo,” peaked at #63.) Martin has also worked with Bad Bunny, quite possibly the biggest artist in the world right now, and he’ll spend this fall on a co-headlining arena tour with Enrique Iglesias, another artist who will soon appear in this column.

In 1999, the hype surrounding Ricky Martin was deafening. “Livin’ La Vida Loca” was a single that lived up to that hype, one that very nearly translated all that manufactured excitement into tangible musical form. That kind of hype can totally derail a career. Fortunately, Martin never seemed to worry too much about keeping that high going. Instead, Martin has maintained relevance without desperately chasing it. We probably won’t see Ricky Martin in this column again, but he seems like he’s doing great these days, even as his life has presumably gotten significantly less crazy.

GRADE: 8/10

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