On May 31, 2014, at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Romeo Santos brought a girl in her 20s out of the crowd to join him onstage in front of 19,000 fans. Wearing tight jeans and a cropped top, she balanced on high heels and constantly pushed her long, blonde hair back from her face.
Santos was dressed all in red — red pants, red jacket — and behind him was a bed draped in red velvet. He asked the girl — tonight’s girl, because Santos does this every night he plays, whether it’s for 19,000 people in Miami or 90,000 in Buenos Aires — her name. Mariana.
“Mariana,” Santos repeated into the microphone. “Do you like wine, Mariana?” he asked, holding forth a huge gold goblet. Mariana — eyes wide, smiling — drank obediently. “How many drinks do you need to lose control?” he asked. “There’s always a limit, before you go crazy. One, two, three?” Mariana lifted two fingers in reply.
“Then have another drink,” said Santos, as his band launched into “Propuesta Indecente” (Indecent Proposal), one of the biggest songs in Latin music for most of the last two years. The track has spent a record-setting 89 weeks in the top five of Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart (as of May 2). Like all of Santos’ hits, it nods to traditional music — in this case, a bit of accordion tango — but its attitude is drawn from modern R&B. “If I lift up your skirt, would you allow me to measure your sanity?” go the lyrics. Call it Latin pop’s Fifty Shades Of Grey, a worldwide sensation that pushes eroticism to the limits of mainstream acceptability.
Onstage, Santos and Mariana explored those limits, or at least appeared to. While the crowd screamed — many of them knew what was coming, which only fueled their enthusiasm — the two engaged in hand-holding, light caresses and quick kisses. By the second verse, she was seated on the bed while he straddled her legs, back to the audience, as her hands grabbed his butt. By the end of the song, the two were beneath the sheets.
How far this all really goes is the subject of some online debate — bolstered by photos of what appear to be open-mouthed kisses — which isn’t exactly a bad thing if your career revolves around songs of romance, heartbreak and sex, or if you’re dogged by rumors that you’re gay because you challenge Latin machismo with a song about homophobia. But it’s all stagecraft — the “Propuesta Indecente” girl is scouted by Santos’ uncle, Eduardo Fernandez Pou, who gives her a briefing backstage (“Are you willing to go up there and not lose control and start pulling his hair?”) and gets her to sign a waiver.
“I don’t do nothing to disrespect the fans,” says Santos, 33. “My shows are like a movie that’s rated R: a little bit of action, a little bit of drama, a little bit of sex. Of about 24 songs, two or three talk about sex. But sex is a very powerful tool, and it’s what sticks in people’s minds.”
It’s nearly midnight in February, and Santos is back in Miami for an awards show. A major star for the last 15 years — first with the bachata quartet Aventura, which has sold more than 1.8 million albums, then on his own with two solo LPs — he is the leading finalist at the April 30 Billboard Latin Music Awards with 21 nods in 16 categories, a record in the show’s 26-year history.
There’s no wine goblet in sight, and though a bottle of Malbec beckons from the dresser of his suite in the Mandarin Oriental, Santos sticks to chamomile tea. He’s nursing a sore throat, and has to sing tomorrow. Dressed in a white T-shirt, loose dark sweatpants and flip-flops, he easily slips back and forth between English and Spanish. He’s a Bronx native who grew up near Yankee Stadium, and in both languages he has a heavy New York accent. Though he often sings in delicate falsetto, his speaking voice is raspy.
There’s the same divide between Santos’ onstage and offstage personas. His given name is Anthony, and friends and family say he was a shy kid. But when he took the stage name Romeo 15 years ago, as a rising teenage star with Aventura, the shy kid had no shame, penning lyrics that read like steamy soap operas and acting them out in concert with abandon.
His songs are unusual, full of vivid detail and rendered in plainspoken language that make them ring true — going back to Aventura’s first worldwide hit in 2002, “Obsession,” where the singer drives his Lexus by the school his love interest attends, gets her cell number from a friend and then promises to caress her “in ways they haven’t even invented.”
On his latest album, Formula Vol. 2, “Propuesta Indecente” is another invitation to obsessive love, but it’s joined by “No Tiene la Culpa” (Not His Fault), which tells the story of a gay son’s struggle for acceptance. With stories like these and a sound rooted in the swagger of contemporary R&B and hip-hop, Santos has revolutionized bachata, a style of music that originated 100 years ago in the Dominican countryside, and which was grandparent territory before he and Aventura gave it a Bronx makeover.
That it’s now both a Pan-Latin and global style — something you can hear from the Dominican Republic to Colombia to Italy — is largely due to Santos. “[Romeo] practically is the genre,” says Colombian reggaetón star J Balvin, who says he has “studied and analyzed” Santos’ music, and points to the stories it tells. “With Aventura, he created a brand. But it’s about his music. Those lyrics. He writes stories people identify with,” says Balvin. “And he has been very strategic about his career.”
If you think of Aventura as the ’N Sync of the bachata world (both rose to major stardom in Europe before breaking wide in the United States), then Santos is its Justin Timberlake. Then again, Santos sold out two nights at Yankee Stadium in July 2014. Timberlake had to combine his ticket-selling power with Jay Z’s to accomplish the same thing. In February, Santos played to 90,000 fans in Buenos Aires, and his South American tour included five more stadium dates in April.
“He has made bachata the R&B of the Latin world,” says Rebecca Leon, vp of Latin talent at AEG, one of the most powerful figures in Latin live music, and a promoter for Santos’ 23 upcoming U.S. arena dates. His Pan-Latin stardom is impressive, and unusual for an American-born artist, but Santos also draws crowds in Italy, Germany and Holland.
The mainstream is taking notice of Santos’ star power, and his 3.1 million Twitter followers, too. He has a cameo role in Furious 7 (one more central to the story than Iggy Azalea’s brief appearance), and on April 27 he will perform on NBC’s Today for the first time. “I don’t think there’s a Latin act better prepared to cross over,” says Lucas Pina, senior vp of SBS Entertainment, the live division of the Spanish Broadcasting System’s radio and TV network.
Santos, though, seems resistant to crossover dreams. His first solo album, Formula Vol. 1, arrived two years after Aventura’s split in 2010. It was primarily bachata, but featured Usher and Lil Wayne on songs with English lyrics that are the closest he has come to mainstream R&B. Yet, for the Nicki Minaj and Drake features on 2014’s Formula Vol. 2, he stuck to Spanish, and let his guest stars cross over to the bachata side. “Odio,” his single with Drake, became the highest Billboard Hot 100 debut for a Spanish-language track in the chart’s history when it entered at No. 45 on Feb. 14, 2014. “I’m reaching a huge audience,” he says. “I’m doing what artists like Beyoncé are doing in terms of selling out stadiums. The difference is my audience speaks Spanish.”
Anthony Santos was born on July 21, 1981, to a Dominican father and a Puerto Rican mother. His father worked construction, and his mother stayed home to take care of Santos and his sister, Laura, who is nine years older. “I tell my sister, ‘They didn’t do good with you, that’s why they had me,’ ” he says with a laugh. “With me, my parents hit perfection.” He grew up on Vyse Avenue in the Bronx, a short drive from the Bronx Zoo to the north and Yankee Stadium to the west. “It was mixed: African-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans,” says Santos. “It was nice in the sense that everybody knew each other, but if you weren’t from that neighborhood back then, you would get robbed.”
Spanish was spoken in the home. “My parents are so Latin that they’ve been living in New York for over two decades and they can’t even speak proper English,” he says. “They speak their own language.” He grew up hearing the polyglot music of New York all around him: hip-hop, salsa, R&B and merengue were in the air outside. At home, his mother, who has a beautiful voice, played romantic balladeers like José José and Julio Iglesias. “Bachata wasn’t that big,” Santos recalls. “But since my family was Dominican I knew the background of certain bachateros.”
He was a quiet kid, but he liked to sing. “He always had that in him,” says Laura, who works with him now as a personal manager. “Even when he was playing with his toys, he would be humming.” At 13, he joined the choir at his Catholic church. “There were a few chicks in the choir that I really liked,” he says. “It’s crazy because I joined the choir for the wrong reasons, but I started getting compliments … [Music] became a mission when I realized, ‘This is the only thing I’m great at.’ ”
He began putting together songs in his bedroom, imagining himself singing to his friends or his high school girlfriend. “I would write the lyrics, the melody — I had it in my head,” he says. “I didn’t know how to write music, but I knew what I wanted the beat to sound like.” The sound that he was after was a fusion of the music his friends listened to — Biggie Smalls, Tupac, Jodeci? — and the music his Latin relatives loved.
“When I said I wanted to do bachata, people looked at me like I had three heads,” he says. “In the early ’90s, it didn’t have a good reputation.” People thought of bachata as “tiki-tiki-tiki guitar, and the lyrics were very vulgar — it wasn’t classy music.” But working with his cousin Henry Santos and a pair of brothers with the same surname, Lenny and Max Santos, the quartet that eventually would become Aventura gave the music a smooth, contemporary update.
Their first album, as Los Tinellers, was released in 1995 and flopped. “I had no idea how the music business worked,” says Santos. “I had a concept of ‘Yeah, my songs are pop, they’re going to put our CDs in the store, the word is going to spread like a virus and we’ll be famous in less than a month.’ ” Instead, he says, “Nothing happened.” It took a name change, two more albums and seven more years before Aventura got it right, with 2002’s We Broke the Rules. “Obsession” became an overseas hit, reaching No. 1 in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and France, where it held the top spot for seven weeks. At home, Aventura had hit on a style that worked for both Latin millennials, who craved their own sound, and their parents, who wanted to hold on to tradition.
While Aventura’s star was rising, Santos’ life changed in other ways that caught him off guard. He broke up with the girl he had been seeing since high school, only to discover she was pregnant. His son, Alex, was born in 2001. “I was very immature,” says Santos. “The first year-and-a-half I was like, ‘Maybe he’s not mine!’ The kid looked like me from day one, but I just wasn’t ready for that commitment at the time. I wanted to focus on my music.” It took a while for his mother to make him understand that he had to “man up,” but he did. He bought a house for his ex-girlfriend and Alex, and has grown close to his son, who’s now 14. In 2011, he and Alex appeared together on the cover of People en Espanol, despite the fact that Santos fiercely guards his privacy. “When he got to an age where he personally could decide ‘I want to be on a cover,’ [we did it],” he says. “I wanted to show him, ‘I’m proud of you.’ I wanted my son to understand that I wasn’t hiding him. I was protecting him.”
About halfway through Formula Vol. 2 is the most controversial song Santos has recorded, “No Tiene la Culpa” (Not His Fault). It tells the story of Manuel, who’s mocked on the street and at school for being gay, and shunned at home by, the song says, his “macho and anti-gay” father, who tells him he will go straight to hell. Some of the lyrics are painfully clichéd — Manuel wants to be a hairdresser — but its message of acceptance, and its indictment of machismo, is daring for mainstream Latin music. “Don’t be a fool,” Santos says during a spoken passage in the song. “This isn’t a gay record. This is a reality song. Ignorance ain’t taking us nowhere.”
Ironically, the song sparked speculation, fueled by Santos’ insulated life, that he is gay. He denies this, but won’t say more, except to acknowledge that, “If you say, ‘Next question,’ people will say, ‘Oh, you’re hiding something.’ ”
Numerous sources confirm that Santos has a long-term girlfriend, who also is from the Bronx. Santos refuses to comment on that or any other relationship. “I’ve been so private. That’s part of the reason they’ve said, ‘Is Romeo gay?’ No. I just don’t want to show you my girl — if I got a girl. I’m not married.” Why not just talk about his personal life? “I want to sell music. That’s all I’m interested in selling.”
To that end, his U.S. arena tour will run from mid-May to August, after which he’ll begin working on his next album. “I don’t like to record while I’m on tour, because I feel I’m singing the same songs every night and I don’t want [the new work] to have the same essence,” he says. “I need to decontaminate from everything I’ve done.” About all he knows for certain at this point is that it will focus on bachata. (His joint label deal with Sony Music Latin and RCA gives him creative control, he says.) If he releases any English-language records, RCA will handle them, but it doesn’t sound likely. “I don’t have a problem doing one or two songs [in English],” he says. “But I don’t feel it. It’s not a passion. English is my first language, but musically speaking, I write my music in Spanish. When I go into [the English-language] world now I have to depend on writers and producers. So, in that world, I don’t know if I’m capable of functioning and connecting the same way.
Santos does divulge that on May 2, he’ll be ringside at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas to see his idol Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight Manny Pacquiao. “Floyd is not only great at what he does,” he says, “he’s also a great entertainer” — one, like he, who’s judged solely on his ability to keep the hits coming.