Movements aren’t built on single actions. And yet, many of the recent achievements of Latin music are still labeled pre- and post-“Despacito.”
It’s been five years (May 27) since this juggernaut of a song — performed by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and, later, in a bilingual version with Justin Bieber — soared to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, and stayed there for a then-record 16 weeks, tying the time spent by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” at No. 1 in 1995-96.
“Despacito” would eventually break all sorts of records, including most weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart and most-viewed music video on YouTube (although recently, the video was toppled by “Baby Shark”).
But half a decade later, the starkest legacy left by “Despacito” is how it changed the world’s perception of Latin music, and how it changed the way the industry itself regarded and marketed music in Spanish.
Here are five ways “Despacito” changed Latin music forever.
“It spearheaded a global Latin movement.”
1. It opened the floodgates for a wave of Spanish language and Latin-themed tracks on the Billboard charts
This is no exaggeration: There is a clear pre and post “Despacito” effect on the Hot 100. Pre-“Despacito,” in 2016, four predominantly Spanish-language tracks got into the chart. In 2015, there were two and in 2014, four. In 2017, the year of “Despacito,” 19 mostly Spanish tracks made the chart, including J Balvin’s “Mi Gente.” In 2018, the number rose to 21, in 2019 to 22, and in 2020, with the help of Bad Bunny, to 41. Last year, 26 tracks made the cut, a number that is poised to increase this year thanks again to Bad Bunny.
2. It made collaborating with Latin artists cool
Pre-“Despacito,” collaborations between Latin acts and mainstream acts were few and far in between. As one top executive once told me, “Our phone would never ring. It was always us [who] begged the Anglo labels to do something with our artists.” Now, it’s the other way round. Right on the heels of Bieber’s “Despacito” collab came Beyoncé joing Willy William and J Balvin for “Mi Gente.” Then, it became an avalanche, with major Hot 100 hits including “I Like It” (Cardi B, Bad Bunny, J Balvin), “Hawái” (Maluma and The Weeknd), “Con Calma” (Katy Perry, Daddy Yankee and Snow) and “Taki Taki” (Ozuna, Cardi B, DJ Snake and Selena Gomez).
3. It awakened pop artists’ Latin side
Twenty years ago, Christina Aguilera released Mi Reflejo, an album where she explored her Latin roots by singing Spanish language versions of her English tracks. Mi Reflejo was a major success, debuting at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart, but it was also seen as a risky move by labels who were leery of seeing their top talent bomb amid accusations of cultural appropriation. Now, reveling in your Latin heritage is cool, with artists like Selena Gomez, Camila Cabello and (again) Christina Aguilera releasing all-Spanish fare.
“This was an opportunity for us to change the landscape of Top 40 radio”
4. It finally opened mainstream radio’s eyes to the power of Latin music
With just a handful of exceptions (i.e. “Macarena”), music in Spanish was verboten in most mainstream radio stations, save for cities like Miami and Los Angeles. With “Despacito,” programmers realized their listeners were not as closed minded as they were. “This was an opportunity for us to change the landscape of Top 40 radio,” said Mike Chester, who at the time was head of promotions for SB Projects (he is now EVP of promotion and commerce for Warner Records).
When Chester first took the Bieber version of “Despacito” to radio, programmers immediately flagged it as “too Spanish for pop radio,” and asked for a version with more English. “Scooter got intense with me. He said, ‘f’ that; we’re not changing a damn thing. This is an opportunity for us to thrust a Spanish record on U.S. pop radio.” Today, predominantly Spanish records still mostly don’t dominate pop airplay, but they are certainly an important part of the ecosystem.
5. It made Latin music global
Thanks to the globalization of streaming, “Despacito” was the tipping point for Latin music around the world, highlighting the universal potential of the language and the beats. Today, consumption of music in Spanish is second only to music in English. And while it didn’t just start with “Despacito,” the song was the catalyst for major change. “When I look back, what really hits me is the fact that it opened a huge door for the non Latin world to vibrate to Latin music,” Fonsi told Billboard three years ago. “It spearheaded a global Latin movement. I don’t mean to take credit and to say it was all me or the song; it was the sum of many songs and many artists. But this song definitely kicked the door open.”