Camila Cabello, Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and J Balvin
Latin

2017 Was the Year That... Latin Pop Took Over the U.S.

To recap the decade that was, Billboard is looking at one major theme from each year and explaining how it dominated that 12-month period. Below, we continue with 2017, a year where a Latin pop breakthrough long bubbling under the surface in the U.S. finally exploded into the mainstream, proving how global 2010s popular music had become.

For nearly 20 years, the biggest moment for music from the Spanish-speaking world in the U.S. mainstream came in 1999. That was the year when, at the height of boy bands and nu-metal, a wave of artists of Latin descent also engulfed Top 40 -- led by the Puerto Rican-born Menudo alum Ricky Martin, whose "Livin' La Vida Loca" topped the Hot 100 and became one of the year's most iconic hits. Soon, stateside smashes of similar sizes followed for Enrique Iglesias, Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez, bringing touches of flamenco, salsa and other Latin pop music to TRL and Top 40 radio. But despite the boom in popularity for artists of Hispanic descent at the end of the '90s, there wasn't a particularly large uptick in actual Spanish-language music on the charts: Despite occasionally having titles like "Livin' La Vida Loca" (or Iglesias' "Bailamos"), the hits of that period were sung almost entirely in English.

An actual Spanish-language top 40 hit on U.S. shores would have to wait until the mid-'00s, when the international breakthrough of reggaetón resulted in crossover singles like Daddy Yankee's "Gasolina" (No. 32 on the Hot 100 in 2004) and N.O.R.E.'s Spanglish anthem "Oye Mi Canto" (featuring Gem Star & Big Mato, Nina Sky and Yankee again, No. 12 in 2004). A decade later came the true breakout moment for Latin pop in the U.S., when after 15 years of English-language dance anthems keeping him in the mix at U.S. radio, Enrique Iglesias had a stateside smash in his native tongue, alongside Cuban singer/songwriter Descemer Bueno and and reggaetón duo Gente de Zona, with the massive "Bailando." Though the song's crossover prospects were certainly helped by a remix featuring English-language contributions from familiar Jamaican dancehall paragon Sean Paul, the song was still largely sung in Spanish, including the entirety of the chorus. It still proved absolutely undeniable on American airwaves, hitting No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and even making the top ten of Billboard's airplay-tracking Radio Songs chart.

THE 2010S WERE THE DECADE THAT...
2010Turbo-Pop Ruled the Radio | 2011Adele Revived the Music Industry 2012EDM Infiltrated Everything | 2013Streaming Became Unignorable 2014Cultural Appropriation Dominated the Pop Music Discussion | 2015Canadians Ran Popular Music | 2016: Every Major Album Release Was an Event 2018Hip-Hop Took Its Victory Lap 2019Lil Nas X's 'Old Town Road' Put a Bow on the Decade

Though Iglesias' hit was by far the biggest of the Spanish-language songs that impacted the U.S. mainstream in the decade's first half -- and Iglesias himself the most recognizable name and face to American audiences, from his days as an English-language pop star -- he was far from the only Latin artist growing to massive stateside popularity at the time. Romeo Santos, another boy band grad from his days with '00s bachata heartthrobs Aventura, had also become an idol as a solo artist, selling out New York's Madison Square Garden three nights in a row in 2012, and scoring guest appearances from North American hitmakers Usher and Drake on Hot 100-cameoing singles of his own. After a promising career in the '00s was derailed by personal issues, reggaetón survivor Nicky Jam experienced a major comeback in the mid-'10s with international smash "El Perdón," which again featured Iglesias, and crossed over on the Billboard charts, assisted by an English-language edit titled "Forgiveness." And J Balvin, a Colombia native raised on rock and reggaetón, was starting to make U.S. inroads, gracing the Hot 100 with "Ginza" in 2016, and appearing on official remixes from the pop-conquering likes of Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber.

While Latin pop was starting to make its impact felt on U.S. airwaves, it now had another venue through which its international popularity was becoming increasingly undeniable. The boom in popularity of streaming services largely removed the gatekeepers who would often blanch at giving most foreign-language music a chance to win over U.S. listeners. That let the music's increasing accessibility to non-Spanish speaking American audiences speak for itself in play counts on YouTube and Spotify, where artists like J Balvin and fellow Colombian singer/songwriter Maluma were consistently putting up massive numbers.

It seemed like only a matter of time until one of these artists released a song that would prove undeniable both through viral spread on streaming and through crossover appeal on American Top 40 radio, and become the single that really marked Latin pop's stake in the ground in the U.S. mainstream. Still, expectations from its biggest artists were tempered: In an April 2017 Billboard cover story, Nicky Jam answered a question about language choice by offering, "I don’t see a Spanish [language] song being No. 1 on the Hot 100. I mean, if it happens, fantastic. But I don’t think it will." His interview co-star J Balvin disagreed, but was also hesitant: "I think it's possible, but we’re not there yet. It may take many years, as new generations emerge and realize the United States isn’t the only place on the planet and English isn’t the only language of value."

In fact, it was possible, and it didn't take many years -- or even many months. The week before the Balvin/Jam cover story, the biggest new Spanish-language U.S. hit since "Bailando" had hit an early peak on the Hot 100: "Despacito," a seductive mid-tempo banger from a pair of veteran hitmakers, Puerto Rican pop singer-songwriter Luis Fonsi and reggaetón MC Daddy Yankee. The irresistible single had steadily climbed the chart since its February debut, making it to No. 44 in mid-April. It stalled from there, but by then it had captured the attention of an artist who would completely change its stateside trajectory: Bieber, once again one of North America's hottest pop stars following his mid-'10s comeback, who heard it during a Colombian stop on his South American tour and noted how it enraptured club audiences. Inspired, he and manager Scooter Braun set up studio time with vocal producer Josh Gudwin and Colombian musician Juan Felipe Samper, to help Bieber record both a new English-language verse for the song, and his own attempt at its Spanish-language chorus.

With Bieber's contributions added to the Fonsi and Yankee original, the new "Despacito" remix exploded instantly. The week after its late-April release, the song vaulted into the Hot 100's top 10, and just three weeks later, it hit No. 1 -- the first song sung primarily in Spanish (or any foreign language) to top the chart since Los Del Rio's dance craze-accompanying "Macarena" in 1996. Even after reaching the chart's apex, the song continued to grow in popularity, hitting new peaks in sales, streams and radio airplay, conquering all three of Billboard's Hot 100 component charts for several weeks. As the song's reign continued on well into the summer, it started to verge on the truly historic -- and indeed, when it reached its 16th week at No. 1 in early September, it tied Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men's mid-'90s mega-ballad "One Sweet Day" for the all-time longest stay atop the chart. (The shared record has, of course, since been broken.)

All this success came for a song whose three performers had never even all been in the same room together: Bieber was still in the midst of his Purpose World Tour when the song took off, and went on a live hiatus after the song's end, never performing the song live with its two primary creators as it took over the world. But as popular as the remix was, it hardly wiped the original version -- which Fonsi and Yankee did eventually perform together at the 2018 Grammys -- from the cultural memory. Indeed, the original made its own kind of statistical history in April '18 when its music video, set in La Perla neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico, became the most-viewed clip in YouTube history, outpacing the platform's second-best performer (Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You") by over two billion views by decade's end.

The impact of "Despacito" on the stateside pop market was quickly felt. In the midst of the song's chart dominance, Balvin teamed up with French electronic singer-producer Willy William for the sizzling reggaetón anthem "Mi Gente," which topped Billboard's Hot Latin Songs chart and Spotify's daily Global chart -- the first entirely Spanish-language song to do so -- and crossed over to the Hot 100. It also picked up a key fan in five-year-old pop progeny Blue Ivy Carter, whose superstar mother Beyoncé hopped on the song's official remix, released to benefit victims of recent hurricane destruction across Central America. The song exploded even further from there, eventually making it all the way to No. 3 on the Hot 100 -- which, coinciding with the ongoing "Despacito" run, marked the first time in the chart's history that two non-English titles appeared in the top 10 simultaneously.

And it wasn't only Latin pop songs with star-studded remixes that impacted U.S. shores. Maluma also scored his biggest Hot 100 hit to date, reaching No. 48 with the sultry solo hit "Felices los 4," while Latin trap artists Ozuna and Bad Bunny -- who would become the two most recognizable stars from the burgeoning genre -- also scored their first entries on the chart, as guests on Wisin's "Escápate Conmigo" and Becky G's "Mayores," respectively. The global impact of Latin pop could be spotted most clearly on the 2017 year-end YouTube charts, as a stunning six of the top ten most-viewed music videos of the year where visuals for Latin pop songs -- led, of course, by "Despacito."

The impact of the Latin takeover could be felt in English-language pop hits, too. After leaving the highly popular X Factor-assembled girl group Fifth Harmony in December 2016, breakout star Camila Cabello had struggled somewhat to establish herself as a solo artist, with her first couple song releases meeting with a tepid commercial response. That changed in late 2017 with the breakout of "Havana," a slow and slithering near-tango, led by a dramatic piano hook and accented by jazzy trumpet riffing. The song, and its narrative of international bad-boy romance (with an East Atlanta co-star in star rapper Young Thug), were highly informed by Cabello's own Cuban-American roots, and the song connected in a way that her somewhat more anonymous earlier solo songs hadn't, creeping up the Hot 100 and eventually hitting No. 1 the next January. It wasn't reggaetón or Latin trap, but it still probably wouldn't have hit American audiences in the same way even a couple years earlier.

Concurrent to the rise of Latin artists in the U.S. mainstream was the breakthrough of another genre that had benefitted from the increased globalization of pop music: Korean pop, usually shortened and summarized (perhaps somewhat reductively) in America as K-pop. As with Latin, K-pop had been growing stateside for the majority of the 2010s, enrapturing younger American audiences with its wide universe of music competition shows, devoted fandoms, sonic proficiency and innovation, and idol solo artists and groups. The biggest of those was undoubtedly BTS, the boy band septet who scored their first Hot 100 hits in 2017 with "DNA" and "MIC Drop," marking the two highest-charting songs by a K-pop group in the chart's history -- numbers which they'd go on to clear themselves easily in each of the next two years on their way to being simply the biggest boy band in the world, leading to similar U.S. crossover success for peers like girl group BLACKPINK and supergroup SuperM.

As with K-pop, Latin pop would continue to grow its presences in the U.S. throughout the 2010s, and at decade's end, it's no longer siloed off in their own mini-universes, but increasingly integrated as a regular part of American pop culture. It's not unusual to see J Balvin and Bad Bunny gracing the same tier of the Coachella roster poster as Diplo and Weezer (with Balvin even headlining Lollapalooza this year), or to see award show performances from Ozuna and Maluma at the VMAs in a lineup mostly full of English-language artists, or to see Rosalía gracing critics' lists mostly consisting of albums by American hip-hop and indie acts. It's all led to a rush of industry prognostication over which International genre could essentially serve as the Latin pop of the 2020s: Nigerian afrobeats? U.K. grime? Brazilian baile funk? If the international fences around genre continue to fall, as they have in the past decade of streaming democratization, the answer might be all of them.

Next, in 2018: Hip-hop takes its streaming-assisted victory lap as the biggest music in America.