1999: The Year Latin Pop Conquered America
The U.S. music scene in 1999 saw an unprecedented surge in the popularity of Latin pop.
Hispanic artists and various elements of Latin sounds dominated the charts to such an extent that by the end of the year even artists with no Latin heritage to speak of were looking to capitalize on the movement by recording Spanish-language versions of their singles in hopes of activating the crossover market.
"It was completely sudden, and it had a lot to do with Ricky. After his performance at the GRAMMYs, everyone was on alert, so to speak, and expecting his new album. The first hit, of course, was "Livin' La Vida Loca" with that sensational video. I think that was the beginning." — Leila Cobo, executive director of Latin content and programming, Billboard
As a young man, Martin came to prominence between the ages of 12 and 17 as a member of the GRAMMY-nominated boy band Menudo. The Puerto Rico native was also a successful actor and solo recording artist before he burst onto the U.S. music scene in 1999. In the '90s, he acted in TV series such as "General Hospital" and "Getting By," telenovelas and stage plays, and he'd released four successful Spanish-language albums.
Martin won his first career GRAMMY — Best Latin Pop Performance for Vuelve — at the 41st GRAMMY Awards in 1999, but it was his show-stopping performance of "La Copa De La Vida" that same year that made it clear something big was on the horizon.
Martin's "Livin La Vida Loca" was released one month after his spectacular GRAMMY performance, and quickly became his first-ever No. 1 charting single, holding the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for five consecutive weeks.
The singer's self-titled fifth solo album — his English debut — was released two months later, and hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 almost immediately. The most successful album of Martin's career, it has gone on to sell well over 15 million copies worldwide. Needless to say, 1999 was a big year for the Puerto Rican pop star.
Leila Cobo, executive director of Latin content and programming for Billboard, was working as Miami Herald's pop music critic at the time, recalls one event that served as an interesting tell sign.
"I went to cover [the signing] and found a line of hysterical girls at 11 a.m. on a school day that went on for blocks," she says. "I had never seen anything like this, ever."
Writing for Billboard roughly a month after "Livin La Vida Loca" hit store shelves, Michael Paoletta, now executive producer, A&R and music supervision for Comma Music, commented prophetically, "In the weeks since [the GRAMMYs], it seems like every record label exec has been in a heated search for the next Latin hottie."
Jennifer Lopez had worked as a successful dancer and actress during the '90s, notably appearing as a Fly Girl on Keenan and Damon Wayans' sketch comedy and variety show "In Living Color." In 1997 Lopez earned a huge breakthrough in the leading role as GRAMMY-winning Tejano singer Selena in the titular biopic about her life and tragic death. The Bronx native's performance in the film was lauded by critics and fans alike, putting her in the entertainment spotlight and at the same time making her ripe to become the breakout female star to help propel the Latin pop movement.
Lopez's debut single, "If You Had My Love," was released in May 1999, just a week before Martin's self-titled album hit the shelves, arriving at the perfect time to sate the appetites of stateside listeners. The single climbed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and became one of the best-selling singles in the U.S. for 1999. Lopez's first studio album, On The 6, released a few weeks later, also skyrocketed, debuting at No. 8 on the Billboard 200 and ultimately earning triple-platinum status.
The same month that saw Lopez release On The 6 also saw another well-established Latin pop star blow up in the U.S.
Enrique Iglesias had previously won his first GRAMMY for Best Latin Pop Performance for his first self-titled 1995 studio album. The Spanish singer also came from an impressive musical pedigree, being the son of GRAMMY-winning Latin pop crooner Julio Iglesias.
"Bailamos," the junior Iglesias' inaugural English language release, was selected for the 1999 blockbuster action flick Wild Wild West, thanks in part to a request from GRAMMY winner Will Smith. The single would top the Billboard Hot 100 and become an immense success, eventually selling more than 5 million copies worldwide.
Almost certainly the biggest success story of the 1999 Latin pop explosion, however, was to be the eponymous band led by then-52-year-old guitar god Carlos Santana.
"We connected with hip-hoppers. … We connected with middle white America, we connected with Latin America, Africa, Asia, Australia. It's like the Champs-Elysées in Paris: This CD is connected to all the streets." — Carlos Santana on Supernatural, 1999
When Santana's 17th studio album, Supernatural, was released in 1999, the group had been playing live together for longer than the likes of Martin, Lopez and Iglesias had been alive. The album's lead single, "Smooth," featuring Matchbox 20's Rob Thomas, was an absolute phenomenon that year. It spent an astonishing 12 weeks in the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100, marking Santana's first chart-topping song.
Supernatural would net Santana a total of eight GRAMMYs at the 42nd GRAMMY Awards, including Album Of The Year and Best Rock Album, with "Smooth" taking home Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year and Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals. Commercially, Supernatural would eventually sell more than 30 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling albums of all time. Due to its equally strong chart performance, "Smooth" would be the final song of the decade to stand atop the Hot 100.
The Latin GRAMMY Awards
Following the incredible explosion of Latin pop music in 1999, the year 2000 heralded the inception of the Latin GRAMMY Awards, hosted by the Latin Recording Academy, which was established in 1997 as a counterpart to the Recording Academy.
Nuyorican Marc Anthony would become the first artist to take home the inaugural Latin GRAMMY for Song Of The Year, Record Of The Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for "I Need To Know (Dímelo)," from his Top 10 1999 self-titled album.
While some later argued that the 1999 Latin explosion was a brief high-gloss blip on the pop culture radar, its impact cannot be underestimated. The 2000s and beyond have seen a steady stream of Latin artists dent the Billboard charts — including Shakira, Juanes, Luis Fonsi, J Balvin, and Nicky Jam, among others. The past year has seen the continuing dominance of Latin sounds in the modern pop scene, with crossover hits such as Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's "Despacito" serving as but one example.
And the Latin GRAMMY Awards has emerged as The Biggest Night in Latin Music, honoring top Latin music talent and featuring top-shelf performances that thrill millions worldwide — a testament to the staying power of Latin music.
"To have a song in Spanish, and to be in the top of the Hot 100, that's something that rarely happens," Fonsi told CNN regarding "Despacito." "I'm just very proud that Latin music has grown so much and people are just really connecting to it."