The Unstoppable Rise of Reggaeton

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When Don Omar boasted about reggeaton repping for all Latin America from Europe to the United States in 2005’s “Reggeaton Latino” it sounded like wishful thinking. In 2015, with the Baila Reggeaton playlist cracking into the third most streamed on Spotify globally, his lyrics seem pretty accurate.

Two years ago when Rocio Guerrero, Spotify’s head of Latin content management, first created the playlist, it was meant to serve a niche audience. To her surprise, Baila Reggaeton grew to have nearly two million followers, becoming in the process the most streamed Spanish-language playlist worldwide.

“It’s interesting because the reggaeton audience today is bigger than any other Latin genre,” Guerrero said. “The reality is this playlist is being played in Singapore, London and all over the world. There are Latin people all over the world, but it’s not just Latin people listening.”


A number of factors contribute to the playlists’s success, Guerrero said, among them that Spotify’s Latin audience trends young and more likely to listen to reggaeton, to start. But she attributes a more surprising element to the outsize influence of the genre—a change in tone to a kinder, gentler, more lovelorn brand of reggaeton.

"Two years ago reggaeton shifted to a more melodic sound and the lyrics shifted to seducing women, rather than using women as objects,” Guerrero said, adding that people in the music industry were surprised to learn the person behind the playlist was a woman. “This has been the more romantic side of Reggaeton and that has been key because we’ve brought all these women to the playlist, which in turn brought all the men.”


Reggaeton’s association with rough street life dates to its roots as a genre affiliated with the working poor and communities of color in Puerto Rico, said Petra Rivera-Rideau, a professor of Africana studies at Virginia Tech whose book, Remixing Reggaeton, explores the rise of the scene. Although the genre continues to be hyper-masculine, romantic tracks have always been around, she said. More likely, the increasing crossover appeal of the music has to do with the industry spying a business opportunity.

“The idea that romantic reggaeton is new is not new, it’s always been popular,” Rivera-Rideau said. “That doesn’t mean that the music industry can’t exploit it to use music that was so threatening at one point and make it palatable to audiences that didn’t care about it.”


The genre’s crossover success stories reflect the “very white, family-friendly, non-threatening face of reggaeton,” said Michelle Rivera, who studies the genre as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan. Unexpected collaborations with mainstream Latin pop artists have also marked the mainstreaming of the genre. “El Perdon,” the Nicky Jam and Enrique Iglesias chart-topper that was one of the most played of 2015 typifies the new breed. Jam and Iglesias sing plaintively over swelling violins and piano about the pain of seeing a former love marry someone else. Then the beat kicks in and we’re back in familiar territory. The song spent 26 weeks at number one on the Billboard charts and earned Jam a Latin Grammy.


The formula works. Last year J. Balvin and Jam were among the Top Five Billboard artists of the last year. For his part, Balvin dropped verses on Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” Latino remix, the original song itself plays as a reggeaton-lite beat produced for an English-speaking audience.

With Latinos spread all over the world, social media and online players become even more important in distributing artists’ work, Rivera added. Perhaps as a way to prolong what critics initially said was a musical fad, reggaeton artists like Daddy Yankee and Wisin y Yandel toured heavily in Europe and the Middle East following the mid-2000s boom. That, in turn, built up a global fan base that has now shored up the genre’s continued success, Rivera explained.


“Early on in reggaeton, back in the day, I would get my music from my cousins or I’d go back to the island [Puerto Rico],” she said. “But now, if I want to hear new music even I go to Pandora, or Spotify, or YouTube. And the artists are constantly releasing their work online, it’s a more direct connection to fans and it takes the middleman out. I think that contributes to the popularity of the playlist.”

The role of Baila Reggaeton as a genre kingmaker has not been lost on Guerrero, who updates the playlist every Friday and keeps the running time to around 50 tracks. Artists competing for exposure to its millions of followers vie for placement on the list, with some producing tracks specifically for the online audience, she said.


Recently anointed hits include “Dancing Kizonga” a track from Alx Veliz, who was born in Canada to Guatemalan parents and produces his music in Toronto.

“I added the track maybe a month ago and today it’s on the charts,” Guerrero said. “Now it has over eight million streams—that’s coming from a tiny artist.”


That amount of influence has Spotify looking to the future. “We hope to create a brand around it,” Guerrero said of growing the company’s Latin programming.

Rivera added: “This is why Daddy Yankee has a bajillion endorsement deals, and the same for J. Balvin. You can see across the board the same thing happening—[people] want to target this 'untapped gold mine.’” That goldmine's audience is turning out in droves. If, in the process, it makes artists write more songs about sweet-nothings and falling in love, well then, dale.


Gabriela Resto-Montero spends her days repping Puerto Rico and Colorado, writing about politics and culture, and scamming for Hamilton tickets. She awaits both Rihanna and Wisin y Yandel's new albums with equal anticipation.