Thursday, July 11, 2024

‘Regional’ no more – How Mexican music conquered the world

The broad collection of styles that make up the nebulous “Mexico Regional” genre of music have rocketed from traditional mainstays of Mexican grandparents to chart-topping super hits. With a massive 400% growth in the last five years, Mexican music is enjoying its time in the limelight, and artists across the world — especially in the United States — are rushing to cash in on what has suddenly become the most popular sound of the moment.

The road to success, however, has not necessarily been a direct one. In 2016, Luis Fonsi, a man who enjoyed a successful career in the Latin music space, released the first single from his upcoming album, Vida. The lead single, “Despacito,” did well — becoming a crossover hit reminiscent of “Livin’ La Vida Loca” by fellow Puerto Rican Ricky Martin 15 years before. The 1999 hit peaked at #44 on the Billboard 100, (although it ruled the Spanish-focused Latin Hot chart).

While “Despacito” was a hit, it wasn’t until the track was picked up and remixed by Justin Bieber that it really ascended to the level of ubiquity that it enjoys today. The tune was a behemoth, spending 16 weeks at #1. It was even banned in Malaysia after irritated radio listeners called the government in protest over hearing it so many times.  

Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee had a hit with 2017’s “Despacito,” but it took the involvement of Justin Bieber to catapult the song into international success. (YouTube)

It was the first Spanish-language song to top the Billboard charts since the viral success of the Macarena in 1996 — but it needed the assistance of an established English-speaking artist in order to do that. 

That all changed last year though, with the breakout of Mexican Regional music, an umbrella term that describes everything from Eslabon Armado and Peso Pluma’s “Ella Baila Sola” to Gera MX and Christian Nodal’s country-esque “Botella tras Botella” (and straighter bands like Grupo Frontera in between). The wave of Mexican Regional music hitting the U.S. charts has been the defining trend in the U.S. throughout 2023 and into 2024, and audiences — both Spanish- and English-speaking — are loving it.

While the early rise of Spanish-language music was driven by Puerto Rico, and a handful of major Latina acts from outside the U.S. such as Shakira and Juanes in Colombia and Spain’s Father-and-son superstars Julio and Enrique Iglesias, recent developments have a decidedly more Mexican tinge

No longer is the genre staidly tied to tradition — while the title is all-encompassing, bands and artists under the label of Mexican Regional experiment with elements of hip-hop, trap, rap and electronica, while incorporating the more typical elements of Mexican folk music.

Gabito Ballesteros is amongst a host of new Mexican talent set to release new music in 2024. (Gabito Ballesteros/Facebook)

Billboard Magazine found that 35 Mexican Regional tracks made the U.S. Hot 100 in 2023. The most successful, “Ella Baila Sola,” made it into the top five. The song held the top spot on the Global 200 chart for six weeks, and Peso Pluma became the face of the genre. The Jalisco-born singer became the most streamed artist on YouTube that same year.

Once again, the English-speakers have returned, hoping to find their “Despacito” amongst the newcomers to the scene. Major labels have jumped in to sign Mexican regional artists. Fuerza Regida and Yahritza y Su Esencia (who controversially played during last year’s independence celebrations) have secured major label deals. Record companies as large as Interscope and Sony are hunting for their Mexican groups, as the quest for new chart topping Mexican artists intensifies.

Streaming platform Spotify’s Uriel Waizel told Billboard that he believes Mexican Regional has found success because of its willingness to adapt to listeners’ tastes. “The biggest lesson regional Mexican music has taught is that the ‘traditional’ format had to make concessions to impact the U.S. and global charts,” he explained.

This is not unlike the meteoric rise of Afrobeats, Waizel feels, the last non-U.S. genre to dominate the charts. “[This] is what we saw happen with Rema and Selena Gomez [with “Calm Down”]. It’s a great example of music that becomes more digestible for global audiences.”

Washington’s Yahritza y Su Esencia are second-generation Mexican Americans and have caused a stir with their rejection of some elements of traditional Mexican culture. (Yahritza y Su Esencia/X)

This transformation is most obvious in the way that the genres have absorbed more urban U.S. genres — little surprise for two genres that often cover similar lyrical themes. It goes beyond the obvious however, with recent more pop-oriented offerings like Karol G and Peso Plumas “Qlona” and Fuerza Regida and Marshmello’s “Harley Quinn,” which more closely mimic regular U.S. chart offerings, while remaining true to their Mexican roots.

This success has produced a mixed reaction in Mexico. Some states have banned popular artists accused of glorifying violence, particularly bands affiliated with the wildly popular narcocorrido scene, which idolizes Mexico’s brutal cartel violence in much the same way U.S. rap idolized gang culture in the 1990s. 

Some of these artists have been accused of betraying their Mexican roots, as happened with Yahritza y su Esencia, despite being invited to play to Independence Day crowds in Mexico City’s Zocalo. Yahritza herself, the daughter of immigrants from Michoacán had said “I just don’t like Mexico,” during an interview in the United States, and the country was not impressed (she later clarified that she meant Mexico City). Even worse, the band suggested that Mexican food in their home state of Washington was superior to the food available in Mexico.

With roughly 25% of Gen Z Americans now of Latin descent, this changing of the guard, from immigrants to the children of immigrants is likely to result in increased popularity for the music of their parents’ homeland. However, whether or not that music pleases Mexicans on both sides of the border is up for debate. 

What cannot be argued though, is the huge success that these songs are having. Now even established Latin stars from outside of Mexico, including Bad Bunny, Shakira and Becky G, artists who once eclipsed the Mexican music scene, are rushing to record their own Mexican Regional tracks. This coming year is set to be a big year for Mexican artists with hotly anticipated new music from 17-year-old Chino Pacas, Gabito Ballesteros, Kenia Os, Xavi and Yng Lvkas all set to release albums. 

No matter the reason for the sudden increase in the popularity of Mexican influenced music in the U.S. or the controversy surrounding it, it seems unlikely that 2024 will be anything other than another year of absolute dominance for the genre.

By Mexico News Daily writer Chris Havler-Barrett

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