Friday, November 13, 2009

Looking Backward at Reggaeton’s Futurity

What up mi gente! As promised here are my comments from Princeton's "Reggaeton: Critical Perspectives" roundtable.  Feel free to hit me up with any thoughts...

Looking Backward at Reggaeton’s Futurity

I want to thank Alex[andra Vazquez] for organizing this panel and inviting me to participate.  She asked that I say a few words about the future of reggaeton, and where I think the genre is going both socially and sonically.  I found this to be a surprisingly difficult assignment, mainly because it is a challenging task to speculate about the futurity of a genre that has already been declared dead on multiple occasions.  Like Mark Twain, however, the reports of reggaeton’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, but it nonetheless remains important to consider why critics and others have been so quick to write obituaries for a genre that seems to be alive and kicking. 

This discourse is not new, instead it is something that tends to (re)appear at moments of increased visibility and growth.  Back before reggaeton was reggaeton, when it was simply known as underground, the genre was at the center of a moral panic in Puerto Rico that resulted in efforts to ban it from the airwaves and the confiscation of hundreds of cassettes due to allegations that the music violated local obscenity laws.  Dismissed as porquería, or trash, detractors assumed that the genre would die a swift death at the hands of Puerto Rican authorities who sought to contain its social impact because it was too black, too poor, too American, too sexual, and too crass.  And Raquel [Z. Rivera] does a great job of breaking this down in her chapter “Policing Morality, Mano Dura Stylee,” for those of you who are interested.  Despite efforts to contain and even eradicate the genre, reggaeton was able to break into the market and achieve international success and recognition.  It is at this moment that the pronouncements of reggaeton’s death were once again being sounded.  So, I’m interested in why at a time when reggaeton was becoming increasingly successful in commercial terms and cultivating a wider fan base, would critics, and even reggaetoneros themselves, say that reggaeton is dead?

Like similar pronouncements in salsa and hip-hop, the death of reggaeton comes at a moment when the genre perceived as moving away from, or beyond, its original audience and social milieu.  The death of reggaeton encapsulates competing and often conflicting notions of what the genre was, what it is, and where it is going, both sonically and socially.  Similar to Nas’s 2005 assertion that “Hip Hop is Dead,” some reggaetoneros seems to be looking backwards in order to construct a more authentic future for reggaeton. 

Here I am thinking of Las Guanabanas’ recent mixtape called Regreso al Underground [Return to the Underground] which calls for a return to reggaeton’s “roots.”  This past is reduced to the genre’s early emphasis on themes of smoking weed, drinking, screwing and partying.  

This turn, or I should say nostalgic return, to underground aesthetics is no doubt in response to the increasing popularity of the reggaeton romantic ballad known as Romantiqueo, or ReggaePop.  Artists such as Ñejo & Dalmata, Guelo Star, J-King & Maximan, and Jamsha have all dismissed romantiqueo as inauthentic and as an affront to reggaeton’s masculinity.  On the track “Sendo Cabron,” Guelo Star announces, “Somos los reyes del underground.  Reggaeton for Life!  Fuck ReggaePop!  Pop Lollipop-ers.”  

Guelo Star attempts to reassert a certain mode of reggaeton masculinity, by questioning and challenging the heterosexuality of artists who perform romantiqueo.  I see this move by Guelo Star, and other artists like the ones I previously mentioned, as attempting to negotiate shifting understandings of class, race, nation, sexuality, and masculinity within reggaeton after its explosion in the international music scene. 

All this is to say that if we are to speculate about the future of reggaeton we have to take into account the significance of its many deaths and resurrections, in addition to how reggaetoneros reach into the past in order to formulate a reggaeton futurity.  Calling time of death as well as the injunction to return to an idealized and nostalgic past can thus be understood a means for reggaetoneros to reconstitute themselves within reggaeton’s constantly shifting terrain.


Anonymous said...

Great post. It's interesting how the "return to the underground" which seems to be a move to protect reggaeton's street cred and keep it PR-centric (so a class and nationalist response) gets articulated through gender/masculinity. This is pretty common in hip hop I think.

Marisol LeBron said...


Totally, I think it is very nationalist. As reggaeton moves toward a more global pop (or World Music 2.0 or Nu Whirl) sound it is interesting that these artist are trying to keep it so PR-centric, and not just PR-centric, but Ponce-centric.

I do think you see the same thing happening in hip hop, especially in terms of the whole Old School vs. New School debates, also the Backpacker/Underground hip hop scene vs. commercial hip hop/rap.

Thanks for the comment!