The word “reggaeton” flashed on the big screen behind J Balvin as he took the stage at Primavera Sound, where the words to his anthem of that name aptly described programming changes at the two-decade old Barcelona festival which has been best known for presenting English-language indie bands:
Y si el pueblo pide (Reggaetón, reggaetón)
No se lo vo’ a negar (Reggaetón, reggaetón)
[If the people want it (reggaeton, reggaeton), I’m not going to deny them (reggaeton, reggaeton.]
The festival broke its single-day attendance record on Saturday (June 1), when Balvin appeared as the festival’s first-ever Latin urban headliner, attracting 63,000 people to Barcelona’s Forum park. While, at the same time, Primal Scream performed for an audience of seasoned Primavera fans on the other side of the festival grounds, a more massive, younger and diverse crowd had clearly come for the reggaeton in Balvin’s set.
The sea of people in front of the stage started to move as soon as the rhythm started, with audience members screaming out the words to every song and waving their arms in the air as Balvin bounced around the stage in big tie-dye pants and white-framed sunglasses, backed by the primary-colored anime cartoon images on screen that have become a signature at concerts by the Colombian star, who a year ago toppled Drake as the most-streamed artist on Spotify, worldwide. Further back, where the view to the stage was obscured, the enormous artificial grass lawn of the Mediterranean Sea-view festival was transformed into a packed dance floor.
In the months leading up to this joyous communal moment, there had been some tensions between Primavera organizers and its devoted following of alternative music fans. When the bill was announced last December, with J Balvin as one of the headliners, a local paper described him as representing a genre that “makes the hair of many rock and pop fans stand on end.”
“There was a backlash,” Marta Pallares told Billboard in an interview before the festival, which ran from May 27-June 1. The negative reactions on social media ranged from disbelief (“is this a joke?”) to disdain (“If J Balvin goes to Primavera Sound, I’ve lost faith.”)
“The old guard was shocked about J Balvin,” said Abel González, Primavera’s head booker, who joined Pallares for the interview at the festival offices. He disclosed that after the line-up, which also included Cardi B (who later canceled and was replaced by Miley Cyrus), Carly Rae Jepsen and veteran reggaetonera Ivy Queen, was announced, ticket sales were at first sluggish compared to recent years, when passes quickly sold out. (“It’s not like [J Balvin] is Radiohead,” González said). But Primavera’s bid to attract new audiences ultimately paid off as fans of the more mainstream acts discovered they were playing there.
“We are not only an indie festival anymore,” González said. “The word indie doesn’t mean much anymore…Everyone needs a younger audience. We want to have a festival for a long time. Music is about transmission, so it has to be transmitted from one generation to the next.”
Primavera organizers had unveiled their line-up with the slogan “The New Normal,” and at the time described it as “risky.” Saturday marked the first time that the festival had featured a mainstage on the festival’s biggest night where all of the artists sang in Spanish (Balvin, Rosalía and Argentine artist Nathy Peluso). The festival also showed its support for gender equality with a program in which women artists represented more than 50% of the line-up. (Within that context, J Balvin struck a sour note during an incongruous moment in his show when he brought a dancer on stage and slapped her ass as she simulated giving him a lap dance.)
While Balvin’s infectious rhythmic blend proved that reggaeton is the new pop, Rosalía’s earlier set was an emotional homecoming for the artist from the outskirts of Barcelona, whose song “Malamente” catapulted her to world recognition a year ago. While she has recently collaborated with J Balvin – on “Con Altura” – and been lauded by media as the latest “Latin star,” Saturday’s concert-opening with “Pienso en Tu Mira,” exultantly celebrated where she comes from. With total command of her vocals, joined by dancers and her chorus of flamenco singers and clappers, she showcased the strength of her roots as a student of flamenco and the genius of the electronic arrangements created with her collaborator El Guincho, who joined her onstage.
Before a huge and excited crowd, the 25-year-old artist repeatedly yelled out “Barcelona” as if it were a mantra, and spoke in the city’s characteristic mix of Catalan and Spanish, with some English thrown in for the visitors. James Blake, who performed his own Primavera set, came on stage to sing their collaboration “Barefoot in the Park,” from his album Assume Form. Balvin and Rosalía both performed “Con Altura,” separately, during their respective shows.
Earlier that day, Primavera organizers had announced the debut of its first Los Angeles festival, slated for September of 2020. While the program will be announced further down the line, Primavera organizers have said that in addition to, overall, “featuring the classics, icons of today and artists of tomorrow,” the new weekend-long festival will be a “platform” for Latin artists, and Spanish and Catalan bands.