Las Vegas sounds a lot like the current Latin pop music craze

Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez and Luis Fonsi.

"Right now my life is Versace and Vegas, and I’m not complaining,” Ricky Martin tells me. When he says Versace, he means his co-starring turn in the Ryan Murphy-helmed The Assassination of Gianni Versace, an installment of FX miniseries American Crime Story coming early next year. Édgar Ramirez plays Versace, Penélope Cruz portrays his sister Donatella and Martin plays his partner, Antonio D’Amico—his biggest acting gig yet.

When he says Vegas, the Puerto Rican star is talking about his fiery production show All In, which just began its third run at the Park Theater on the Strip this week, perfectly timed for Mexican Independence Day and all the Latin tourists who’ll be partying in Vegas all weekend long. “The second time I was definitely more relaxed,” Martin says. “The critics were amazing, and that keeps your feet on the ground. But I think it’s very classy, and very complete in the sense that if you know my music, you will be pleased, and if you don’t, the production is so rich and the quality of the people I’m sharing the stage with is so high, it will feel good. At this point I feel at home, and it’s great.”

Ricky Martin 2017 has been pretty great, but I want to talk about Ricky Martin 1999, when his self-titled U.S. breakthrough album and “Livin’ la Vida Loca” placed him at the front of the so-called Latin pop music explosion and made him an international star for the second time (he did it with Menudo as a teenager). I want him to tell me about that explosion—and the one starting to happen now.

“Listen, man, if the slogan ‘Latin explosion’ is going to create some kind of curiosity for people who are not familiar with the culture, I say bring it on. I don’t have a problem with that,” he says. “I remember when I had the Time magazine cover and they wrote, ‘Latin goes pop’—back then I was like, come on, we’ve always had pop in Latin America. We’ve always been that. But if you need a hook, why not?”

It’s the hook from “Despacito”—the recent monster smash by another Puerto Rican artist, Luis Fonsi—that’s fueling the current Latin pop surge, one complemented not by English-adopting veterans like Martin, Enrique Iglesias and Christina Aguilera, but Spanish-performing up-and-comers such as J Balvin (“Mi Gente”), Maluma (“Felices Los 4”), Nicky Jam (“El Amante”) and Wisin (“Escápate Conmigo”), all ready to capitalize now that the language barrier has been broken. Their reggaeton-influenced, largely tropical sound refreshes an American pop scene that has been dominated for years by hip-hop and EDM-driven pop songs.

Today’s building Latin pop movement is also being driven not by constant radio and MTV airplay, as it was in 1999 and 2000, but by smartphones and streaming. Spotify’s first Latin playlist, Baila Reggaeton, became the service’s second-most popular playlist globally within two years of its launch in 2013. Billboard reports that 25 percent of Pandora users in the United States identify as Latino—a population represented by nearly 60 million people in the U.S. alone—and access to the newest music has never been more widespread, so it’s no surprise that America is increasingly embracing this sound.

“Despacito,” which also features post-millennium Puerto Rican breakout Daddy Yankee, topped Billboard’s Songs of the Summer chart. It sat at No. 1 on the Hot 100 for a record-tying 16 weeks; it’s the first Spanish-language No. 1 since novelty hit “Macarena” in 1996; and it’s the most streamed song of all time. An alternative version featuring Justin Bieber boosted its success in the States, but the original has more than 3 billion views on YouTube.

Martin says he’s been reliving la vida loca watching Fonsi—also an established singer before his crossover hit—take the music world by storm. “I am enjoying this moment in music as much as he is. I’m very happy for what he’s going through at the moment, and the door is open for him to keep creating amazing music [that will bring] longevity in the Anglo world. He’s already known everywhere in the Latin world. This is his time.”

Fonsi knows it, partially because he grew up watching Menudo, and because he watched Martin’s ascent. “Ricky is one of the biggest Latin artists in the world and the one I respect the most for what he’s done musically,” Fonsi says. “It’s a privilege and honor to be part of that fraternity of artists who have been able to sort of cross over.”

Zaher Fakih has created a Vegas Latin music hub at Embassy Nightclub.

Zaher Fakih has created a Vegas Latin music hub at Embassy Nightclub.

“Despacito” made Fonsi a household name this summer in America, but he’s most proud of the natural way in which the song struck. “It’s not really crossing over, it’s just celebrating what we’ve always done in the same language and same way we’ve done it,” he says. “The fact that everything has happened in a very organic way has been the success of it. Daddy Yankee jumped in and kicked it up a notch. Justin Bieber heard the song in Colombia and jumped in and added another layer. We never really planned it to be this way, it’s just been so powerful that people want to be a part of it. And the crossover is not just to the United States audience, but in other countries where the culture is dramatically different, like Russia, Japan, China and India. It never ceases to surprise me. I think, how were we able to do this? I’m trying to figure it out so I can do it again.”

Latin pop songs like “Desapacito,” “Mi Gente” and others are easily found in Las Vegas, clearly a pop music mecca where most major concerts roll down the Strip and the biggest hits get spun and performed in the hottest clubs every weekend, sometimes by the artists who made them. And it’s not just the new blood. Joining Martin among the current crop of superstar headlining Strip residents are Carlos Santana at the House of Blues and Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull with separate shows at the Axis.

“And also on the Strip, you’ve got Bruno Mars, who’s half Puerto Rican, so you’ve got it from all angles,” Pitbull says. “To me the most important thing is that music is the universal language, but Latin culture and its music are infused with everything—European, African vibes, a little bit of everything. That’s where the hooks are right now, that’s the sound that’s been out so many years but is starting to take over. Especially with the access everyone has on the Internet, I feel there are no boundaries.”

Las Vegas concerts from Latin performers are evolving the way country concerts did. The latter were once restricted to rodeo season on the Strip; they reached far beyond that years ago, and the MGM Resorts-anchored, three-day Route 91 Harvest festival has become an annual fall powerhouse.

Some casino showrooms have consistently booked Mexican or Latin musicians for the coming holiday weekend, but traditionally everything has been built around a big fight, usually with a Mexican boxer competing. There’s a huge fight on Saturday—Saul “Canelo” Alvarez against Gennady Golovkin at T-Mobile Arena—complemented by Latin performers taking over practically every major live music venue in the tourist corridor (see sidebar).

“This is a Vegas story,” says Live Nation Las Vegas President Kurt Melien, booker of many of those shows. “There’s always been a big fight, but as the number of tourists continues to grow, there’s been an organic growth in the music. We started this probably 10 years ago with [second generation Mexican singer] Alejandro Fernández. He was doing it almost every year, and we just kept adding shows. This will be the biggest weekend of that period.”

Fernández, Marc Anthony, Enrique Iglesias, Maná—many of this weekend’s acts could be described as legacy performers. But the genre’s young guns have already played Vegas this year: Fonsi kicked off the U.S. leg of his tour at the Palms last week; Maluma sold out the Cosmopolitan in March; Prince Royce played the Hard Rock Hotel in July; and J Balvin took over Mandalay Bay’s Beach in May.

“There’s an incredible demand for this in Vegas,” Melien says. “At some point you’re not even sure if people are coming for the music or if people are just here and they’re excited. But we know the demographic is more diversified and younger, and a bigger piece of the audience is local. We’re seeing this music fits the Vegas personality.”

Other on-the-verge Latin artists like Bad Bunny and Karol G have found a home in Las Vegas at Embassy Nightclub, the Chinatown-adjacent hot spot where global sounds dominate the programming.

“We’ve brought artists here in the past two years that would book stadiums in other countries, or acts that would normally come to town as a bundled group and fill up an arena,” says Embassy’s creator and operator, Zaher Fakih. “But we bring them in monthly or even weekly. You can see that the Strip is realizing this corner of the music world can actually bring money to the casinos.”

Embassy’s methods have been adopted by Drai’s After Hours nightclub at the Cromwell, which recently transformed its house music room into the Reggaeton Room several nights every week (with Embassy’s assistance).

“There are so many different types of music under that label—salsa, merengue, cumbia, bachata ... it’s really the pop and reggaeton getting the attention,” Fakih says. “But we have [succeeded] by mixing it up [with] live bands, old-school [mainstream pop] nights that include Latin genres, Cuban artists, tropical beats, Mexican regional nights. It’s a strong and beautiful clientele.”

I knew how strong that audience could be, but when I saw Ricky Martin’s show at Park Theater, I was stunned by the rush of energy when he started singing his Spanish hits. The crowd went wild when he opened with “Livin’ la Vida Loca,” but it absolutely erupted for “Lola, Lola” and “Vente Pa’ Ca.”

“It really doesn’t matter what language,” Martin says. “At the end of the day, it’s those drums and those sounds. No matter where you’re from, you react. Something magical is happening.”

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Brock is an award-winning writer who has been documenting life in Las Vegas for 20 years. He currently leads entertainment ...

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