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Thursday, March 10, 2016

March 10, 2016: Puerto Rican Posts: J. Lo and Marc Anthony

[On March 9th, Raúl Juliá would have turned 76. To honor one of the most famous and talented Puerto Rican artists, this week’s series will feature a handful of Boricua blogs, leading up to a special weekend post on Puerto Rican statehood!]
On the linked but divergent paths of two of the most famous Puerto Rican American musicians.
It’d be difficult to argue that the most prominent Puerto Rican American musician of all time wasn’t Tito Puente; anybody known as “The Musical Pope” and “The King of Latin Music” has a pretty good initial argument on his behalf, and Puente’s more than half a century of recording, performing, and bandleading—as well as his lifelong advocacy for fellow Latin American musicians and artists—backs up the claim. But right below the King, as the unofficial Prince and Princess of Puerto Rican (and perhaps even contemporary Latin) American music, I’d have to locate two of the 21st century’s most successful recording artists, and a pair who happened to spend ten years as husband and wife: Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony. Born in New York City less than a year apart, Lopez and Anthony’s biographies and careers have had numerous similar moments and arcs, even if we leave aside their decade of marriage—but there’s also a key difference that reflects two distinct possibilities for Puerto Rican and Latin American artists.
Perhaps the clearest link between Lopez and Anthony is how they’ve redefined success within their respective cultural and artistic fields. Lopez was the first woman, and only the second artist period (after Prince), to have a #1 album and the #1 film at the box office in the same week, with 2001’s J. Lo and The Wedding Planner respectively; indeed, I would argue that Lopez is one of a very short list of artists who have had extended successful careers in both music and acting (rather than being best known for one and occasionally venturing into the other, as is the case for most folks on that hyperlinked list). Anthony is generally considered the most popular salsa artist of all time, whether judged by the total sales of Spanish-language albums such as Otra Nota (1993) and Todo a Su Tiempo (1995), by his triple-platinum English-language solo debut Marc Anthony (1999), or by a single like “Vivir Mi Vida” (2013), which spent a record-breaking 18 consecutive weeks atop the Billboard salsa charts. Although the notion of artistic crossovers—whether between media and genres or between languages and cultures—is of course not new to the 21st century, it’s become far more prevalent and central to our current moment than ever before, and no artists embody that narrative better than Lopez and Anthony.
Yet on that second type of crossover, between languages and cultures, there’s a striking difference between the two. Ten of Anthony’s twelve albums to date have been recorded in Spanish (and the first of the two English-language ones was an early career collaboration with Puerto Rican artist Little Louis Vega), compared to only one of Lopez’s eight albums. Again, the difference can’t be explained in terms of origin or geography, as both artists were born in New York City to parents who had migrated from Puerto Rico. Musical genres and niches have played a role, as Anthony’s choice to work in the more overtly Spanish genre of salsa (compared to Lopez’s pop/dance emphasis throughout her career) has likely necessitated more connection to that language. Yet at the same time, I would argue that Anthony’s and Lopez’s respective recording choices and arcs reflect the complex, evolving, and hugely critical 21st century question of Spanish’s place within our shared American landscape—a question, of course, with which the American territory of Puerto Rico has dealt for well more than a century. I can’t pretend to be able to do that question justice in a sentence or two, so will just add this: starting last year, my boys’ elementary school requires two Spanish classes per week for every student (as part of their standard school day), and I couldn’t be happier.
Next Puerto Rican post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other PR connections you’d highlight?

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