Let’s begin with the obvious: Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez are the pioneers of the Latin pop wave currently warming America’s mainstream. Buy the hype, however, and you’d think a cultural revolution — Viva la musica latina! — had been launched.
Well, not quite. While Martin and Lopez are bona fide Latinos (he from the balmy beaches of Puerto Rico, she from the balmy borough of the Bronx, N.Y.), their current hit albums are unapologetic pop. Save for a brassy horn riff here and a Spanish-guitar fill there, the music’s as Latin as, say, George Michael or Janet Jackson.
To those who love la vida loca, or at least think they do, there’s a journey well worth taking into the world of genuine Latin music (an industry so big that it will get its props at a separate Latin Grammy ceremony next year, and so hungry that boxing champ Oscar De La Hoya has snared a multimillion-dollar deal with EMI Latin). And if, for most, this is as much about hunks as it is hooks, here are the heartthrobs driving the $570 million, male-dominated market Ricky Martin once called home — before that fateful Grammy night almost five months ago.
The sound: Marc Anthony’s pure tenor is more than a voice; it’s an explosion that fires up his fusion of classic salsa and modern disco.
Essential recording: Todo a Su Tiempo (RMM, 1995)
Roots: Born to Puerto Rican parents in Manhattan.
Anglo ambitions: Salsa’s biggest star has paired with Top 40 hitmaking producers Rodney Jerkins (Whitney’s ”It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”) and Walter Afanasieff (Mariah’s ”One Sweet Day”) to cut his power-ballad-heavy English- language album, due in September. This fall, the multi-threat talent also costars with Nicolas Cage in Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead.
The sound: While many Latin singers hide behind flat international pop, Crespo is boldly Latin. His irresistible merengue, a dance music from the Dominican Republic, has sparked the biggest club craze since the mambo left Cuba and landed his all-Spanish tracks on Billboard’s pop charts.
Essential recording: Pintame (Sony Discos, 1999)
Roots: Born in New York to Puerto Rican parents; raised in Puerto Rico.
Anglo ambitions: Crespo has said he wants to take his music to Europe, but he’s begun an intensive English course. Take a guess at what he really wants.
The sound: One of the market’s biggest sellers (more than 36 million units worldwide), Luis Miguel evokes the Sinatra swagger with his smooth style and song selections.
Essential recording: Romance (WEA Latina, 1994)
Roots: Born in Puerto Rico to a Mexican father and an Italian mother, in Latin America he is known simply as El Idolo (The Idol).
Anglo ambitions: His label drools at the thought of crossing him over, but Luis Miguel, known for unrelenting perfectionism, has said he first wants to improve his English.
The sound: If you like Ricky, you’ll die for Chayanne. His music and his voice may be the standard stuff of pop — catchy yet unexceptional — but he’s a dazzling showman with roguish good looks, barrels of charisma, and a spicy repertoire of sexy bump-and-grind salsa moves (which he flaunted in last year’s film Dance With Me, with Vanessa Williams).
Essential recording: Atado a Tu Amor (Sony Discos, 1998)
Roots: Born Elmer (yup, Elmer) Figueroa in Puerto Rico.
Anglo ambitions: Sony is hoping to have him record in English by the middle of next year. Can you say caliente?