Today marks exactly 22 years since Los del Rio’s “Macarena” hit No. 1 in the U.S. In the interim, we’ve seen its influence exerted on the charts -- not necessarily stylistically, but rather in fundamental changes to the way songs are marketed, how they pick up steam, and how they reach listeners. It’s about the furthest thing from The Velvet Underground & Nico, which Brian Eno famously claimed was responsible for tens of thousands of kids starting new bands, but when it came to the charts, the “Macarena” had a game-changing legacy too.
It was popularized by a dance craze
In one sense, nationwide dance crazes are almost as old as the Hot 100 itself. In fact, the No. 1 song on the list of the biggest Hot 100 singles of all time, Chubby Checker’s 1960 hit “The Twist,” has a signature move to thank for much of its popularity. Others followed in the years between “The Twist” and the “Macarena” -- think of Van McCoy’s 1975 smash “The Hustle” or Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” from 1978. Both were iconic moments from the disco craze, which itself was one of the most dance-driven musical trends of the 20th century.
But the way those dances were originally spawned and then popularized differs from those in the post-“Macarena” world. Chubby Checker took an existing song called “The Twist” and made his own version, adding the instantly recognizable dance step. “The Hustle” was named and modeled after an existing dance that McCoy had seen Puerto Rican teens doing in a Manhattan club. Village People’s Randy Jones recently called the “Y.M.C.A.” dance “purely audience-generated,” the product of an American Bandstand crowd. These songs didn’t create dance moves on their own, they either tacked them on, borrowed them, or picked them up along the way.
Compare that to the “Macarena,” which arrived in the States with a video featuring dancers performing the multi-step routine. This type of readymade, pre-packaged instruction manual soon became the go-to delivery format for songs with dances embedded in their DNA. Look at Soulja Boy’s “Crank That (Soulja Boy),” GS Boyz’ “Stanky Leg,” or Cupid’s “Cupid Shuffle,” all staples of mid-2000s dancefloors. Whether it was through their videos or their lyrics, the songs all function as step-by-step guides to the moves with which they’re associated.
Not only has the idea of the “dance song” changed, but there are more pathways for it to succeed thanks to the internet and social media. Whether it’s a mid-2000s “ringtone rapper” trying to make their name with a signature move, a “Gangnam Style” viral event, or even a fan-driven phenomenon à la Drake’s #InMyFeelingsChallenge, accompanying dances have been a frequent presence on the Hot 100 in the years since “Macarena.”
The remix was more popular than the original
Nobody bats their eyes when they see “[Insert DJ] Remix” tacked onto the end of track today, but seeing that Bayside Boys parenthetical on the end of the chart-topping version of the “Macarena” was a more unusual sight back then. By 1996, remixes were hardly new, as DJs had been churning out disco edits, 12” versions, and customized mixes for decades at that point -- yet very few of these were more pop-savvy than the originals.
The Bayside Boys’ “Macarena” was engineered specifically for mass appeal. A Miami radio DJ brought the original song to his bosses, who requested an English-language version, and he then enlisted Mike Triay and Carlos de Yarza to rewrite and remix it for him. Their version, with its additional lyrics and electronic beat, is the one everybody knows today.
Scour the rest of our list of the biggest Hot 100 singles, and you’ll find that “Macarena” is the first remix, chronologically speaking, on the list. It’s not the last though. The version of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” that charted in the States (and appears at No. 33) had a similar remix treatment, adding Justin Bieber to appeal to English-speaking audiences. OneRepublic originally released their song “Apologize” in 2006, but it was a remix from hip-hop veteran Timbaland (coming in at No. 64 on the all-time list) that ultimately got it to the Hot 100. Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” (No. 91) hit No. 3 on its own but was propelled to No. 1 by a remix that added Beyoncé. (Both versions being factored into its total performance.) While you still won’t hear many knotty extended remixes on the radio today, existing songs finding a second life with more pop-friendly versions is hardly out of the ordinary.
Politicians referenced it to seem hip
Barack Obama’s presidency was filled with nods to popular music: brushing the dirt off his shoulder like JAY-Z, shouting out OutKast and Black Keys on Twitter. During her 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton engaged with even more trendy pop music phenomena, appearing on Ellen first to Whip/Nae Nae, then to Dab.
There are a few precedents in the pre-Clinton years, such as Richard Nixon posing for a photo with Elvis or Jimmy Carter introducing the Allman Brothers before one of their shows. But in recent years, politicians have become much more transparent in their use of popular culture to court the youth vote. An early indicator of this was the 1996 Democratic National Convention, which took place just weeks after “Macarena” hit No. 1. C-SPAN aired a video of delegates attempting the trendy dance (you’ve probably seen it memed before), and Al Gore even cracked a self-deprecating joke referencing the song.
Its lead artists were barely emphasized
Perhaps because both members of Los del Rio were in their late 40s (and, well, not exactly silver foxes) when the “Macarena” began to chart, the video wisely sidelined them while foregrounding a diverse, colorfully-dressed group of female dancers. Antonio Romero Monge and Rafael Ruíz Perdigones both still appear in the video, wearing suits and singing into a vintage microphone, but they’re clearly not the focal point.
This can be viewed as part of a much longer-seated trend in music of artists’ appearances becoming deemphasized, or at least less necessary in order to sell their music it. Not much of this has anything to do with the “Macarena” directly. Instead, it has its roots in the ‘60s, when album covers gradually began shifting from straightforward photos of artists to more abstract artwork. (You can also draw a throughline from there to other forms of anonymity, such as Daft Punk’s helmets or Gorillaz’s cartoon band.) Music videos eventually followed suit: Think of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” video, which almost entirely comprises news footage, or Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” video with a dancing Christopher Walken -- videos where artists themselves are decidedly not the point. The idea of an artist-less video has also become prevalent as “lyric videos” and “dance videos,” in addition to the traditional music video, have become routine parts of a song’s rollout and promotion.
Today, faceless presentation of music isn’t an obstacle to launching new artists or music, but often a selling point. The “Macarena” video isn’t exactly Daft Punk’s trippy “Around the World” video, but it is almost exactly Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” video, which leaves the Biebs out in favor of a brightly-dressed, diverse group of female dancers -- and succeeded not just in spite of his absence, but arguably because of it.
It presaged the late ‘90s Latin pop boom
In 1996, two songs by Latinx artists on appeared on Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 list. Both were “Macarena,” with No. 1 being the Bayside Boys Mix, and No. 98 being Los del Rio’s original version. By 1999, Billboard’s year-end chart contained eight songs by Latinx artists, including Santana, Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, and Enrique Iglesias. (There was also the infamous “Mambo No. 5,” sung by a half-Italian, half-Ugandan singer from Germany named Lou Bega). The Latin pop boom was in full effect.
While it’s true that the “Macarena” needed a remix with some English to become such a massive hit, its success helped open the floodgates. Consider previous Latin music stars like Selena, who despite being enormous throughout Latin America, never cracked the top 20 in the States. Julio Iglesias -- Enrique Iglesias’ father and one of the most successful Latin artists of all time -- needed guest appearances from English-speaking artists Diana Ross and Willie Nelson to notch the only two top 20 hits of his career.
The Latin pop boom of ‘99 only lasted a few years, but the after-effects are still visible today. Even after radio moved on from the likes of Ricky Martin, Latin rhythms persisted in many of The Neptunes’ biggest hits, such as Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” and *NSYNC's “Girlfriend.” More recently, we’ve experienced a second Latin pop boom. While artists such as Shakira, Sean Paul, and Pitbull certainly held their own in the late 2000s and early 2010s, what we’ve seen happen since “Despacito” has been much bigger. Compare Latin music’s growing chart presence between 1996 to 1999 to this: In 2015, only three Spanish-language songs entered the Hot 100; in 2017, there were 17; in 2018, there have already been 13. The success of tracks like J Balvin’s “Mi Gente” and Cardi B, Bad Bunny, and Balvin’s “I Like It” means that we’re currently in the midst of another Latin boom, and hopefully this time it’s more than just a passing fad for English-speaking ears.