By Susan Lee
Eli Lagarreta, 20, felt a little territorial about the music he had been listening to for 10 years, music no one around him had ever heard.
After all, he started listening to reggaeton—the genre that fuses dancehall, techno and hip-hop—when he visited his extended family in Puerto Rico, where the music first emerged. Starting at age 10, Lagarreta had to convince his grandmother, who lived on the island, to send him the latest reggaeton CDs.
So Lagarreta was taken by surprise when he went to a reggaeton concert recently. He stood amid a dizzyingly diverse crowd of teenagers and twenty-somethings from throughout the United States and Latin America, all dancing to the music he always thought of as a uniquely Puerto Rican phenomenon.
“I thought it was beautiful that people could get together, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans and other people,” he said. “For me, it was seeing other Spanish people and Puerto Ricans as one.”
As reggaeton gains increasing popularity, longtime U.S. fans have mixed reactions, ranging from enthusiasm to dread about its inevitable commercialization. These older fans, many of whom are Latin American-born, do have some bragging rights. They’ve been listening to reggaeton for as long as ten years, and they have impressive collections of reggaeton records. The music, with its themes of street life, social angst and the hardships of growing up poor, resonates with them.
Many older fans have one particular advantage that sets them apart from newer aficionados—they can understand reggaeton lyrics, most of which are in Spanish.
“It’s got to have a nice beat, but I am the type of person that likes to look at the words and pick a song apart,” Lagarreta said.
So does 26-year-old Laura Mason of Los Angeles, who particularly admires the work of Ivy Queen, one of few female reggaeton artists.
“She has this unique voice, deep and masculine and powerful,” Mason said. “She’s kind of domineering in her attitude.” Mason says that Ivy Queen deals with sexual issues in an empowering way.
Ivy Queen’s songs like “Tuya Soy” ("I’m Yours") describe being in a marriage, feeling misunderstood and disrespected. Many of her other songs explore abuses that many women suffer.
Alex Cruz, of Brooklyn, N.Y., blasts reggaeton in his SUV as he heads to a friend’s house in Harlem. Cruz, 21, said he was raised listening to reggaeton, which is similar to hip-hop.
“It’s like stories about lives, how they [the artists] came from the streets,” Cruz said. He particularly likes Hector El Bambino, whom he believes sends a positive message. Bambino, who has been called the “Dr. Dre” of reggaeton, talks about how rough the street is and why kids should stay in school. And reggaeton, Cruz added, is not as sexually explicit as some American rap.
Not all fans are happy with reggaeton’s popularity. Marlene Villela, 17, of Houston, said she was turned off by “everyone just trying to make money” on the reggaeton sound. As a result, she believes the music is quickly losing its authenticity. Villela, who has been listening to reggaeton for the last five years, disapproves of remixes because she says they sound too forced.
“You can't just mix a regular pop song with a reggaeton beat,” Villela said. “I used to be in love with it. Now, some songs are talking about fueling up my tank. What is that?”
Villela is referring to the reggaeton artist Daddy Yankee’s hit single, “Gasolina,” that has resulted in a whole message board discussion on Google.com dissecting the lyrics, including le gusta la gasolina, or “she likes gasoline.” People came up with a variety of interpretations. For some it was a straight sexual reference; for others a simple nod to fast cars; and for some it was a line glorifying alcohol and drugs.
Regardless of content, fans agree that the hypnotic rhythm, which contains hints of salsa or calypso, is enough for them to listen. For many, the music is simply something to move to.
Greg Downey, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, teaches a course on Latin American music and says he wonders whether reggaeton is just a passing fad. Downey considers reggaeton “gateway” dance music like techno that is very basic and accessible to young club-goers, unlike other more complicated dance music forms like salsa, tango or swing.
“What is interesting about reggaeton is not so much that it is in Spanish," he said. “It’s that there is finally a large audience, a Latino population in the United States that has made it commercially viable.”
Adam Moreno, 34, a DJ and screenwriter, spins reggaeton, hip-hop, soul and funk at Piano’s, a bar and lounge on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that attracts crowds from suburban New Jersey and Long Island. Moreno believes reggaeton has an appeal that transcends language. Sometimes, he said, English-speakers can’t even follow the fast rhymes of hip-hop or the bellowing in pop songs. That doesn’t stop a music fan from appreciating a certain style of music, he says.
“Reggaeton has a very sexy rhythm, and that’s why a lot of people get into it,” Moreno said. “It’s an interesting trend. It might fade away in the mainstream, but I think the genre is viable and real.”