To appreciate how enormous a deal this is, consider that the last time anything remotely Latin had a spot in the main Grammy categories was back in 2000, when Santana's "Smooth" and Ricky Martin’s "Livin' La Vida Loca" were up against each other in both categories (“Smooth” won both). Of course, both those songs were fully in English (save for the “Livin’ La Loca” refrain in Martin’s hit), while “Despacito,” even with Bieber in it, is predominantly in Spanish. (Puerto Rico-born singer-songwriter Jorge Calderón did receive a song of the year nom in 2004 alongside Warren Zevon for "Keep Me In Your Heart.")
And that alone is a great thing. Not just because we’re talking about a major Spanish-language hit getting U.S.-mainstream recognition and overall global recognition, but because acknowledging that music truly has no borders (cheesy as that may sound) is in keeping with the spirit of the Grammy awards.
Few people may remember that the first-ever record and song of the year winner, back when the Grammys launched in 1959, was a foreign-language song, Domenico Modugno’s “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare).” Then, in 1964, global sounds triumphed again when “The Girl From Ipanema,” in the Astrud Gilberto & Stan Getz version, won record of the year.
Even 1985’s record and song of the year winner “We Are The World” was a nod to the global power of music as an agent of change.
But from that point onward, foreign language recordings and non-predominantly English-speaking artists have been largely absent from the main categories. Even Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” featuring Wyclef, arguably one of the biggest global hits of all time, made it only to the best pop collaboration with vocals category; and that song was mostly in English.
Likewise, Marc Anthony’s English-language hits “I Need To Know” and “You Sang To Me” were up for best male pop vocal performance in 2000 and 2001, but again, were not contenders in the main categories. And Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” another global blockbuster, never got a single Grammy nomination. Of the mainstream Latin acts who’ve achieved global success, only Ricky Martin had major Grammy impact in 2000, when “Livin la Vida Loca” was also up for best male pop vocal performance and his self-titled bilingual album was up for best pop vocal album.
But “Livin,” like “Despacito,” became not just a global hit but a cultural phenomena that transcended all barriers of language and nationality. Back in 2000, few people in the world were oblivious to Martin, just as few people are oblivious to “Despacito” today. And while the Grammys are a U.S.-based award that recognizes recordings released here, ignoring the sounds that move the world at large is clearly tone deaf (no pun intended).
And yet, it’s been happening for decades.
Which makes “Despacito’s” achievement 17 years later all that more notable. The song has become a force of nature, and at this point, it’s clearly much more than a passing fad. It helps that “Despacito” is a fine song, a clever blend of romantic Latin pop with a reggaeton beat, subtly naughty lyrics, a rapper’s contemporary edge and an irresistible chorus that can be applied to so many situations.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Had it not been for Bieber and those 16 weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100, it’s unlikely “Despacito” would be a top Grammy contender today.
In other words, it’s unlikely Spanish-leaning or other foreign language tracks will become regulars in the main Grammy categories unless they come with the hard-earned status of global cultural events. Given the growth of streaming and our ever growing access to music from around the planet, however, there will be more of those in future.
In the meantime, however, let’s savor the moment and have a drink for “Despacito.”