This month marks 20 years since Ricky Martin dropped his self-titled, English-language LP — forever shifting the course of American pop music.
Released May 11th, 1999, Ricky Martin would sell nearly ten million copies worldwide within its first month. Its astronomical success was due in no small part to its single, “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” which was dropped earlier that March. Co-written with his fellow Menudo alum, Draco Rosa, as well as hitmaker Desmond Child, the salsa-rock fusion track would not just ascend to Number One on the Billboard Hot 100; but it would remain there for five consecutive weeks, and become one of the best-selling singles of all time. It even spawned some notable imitators: among them Jimmy Fallon, who performed an acoustic ode to Star Wars titled “Livin’ La Vida Yoda” on Saturday Night Live.
The triumph of “Livin’ La Vida Loca” would precipitate a banner year for Hispanic pop artists in the United States: Following her breakthrough role as Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in the 1997 biopic, Selena, Jennifer Lopez released her 1999 studio album, On the 6, to critical acclaim. Meanwhile, Spanish pop king Enrique Iglesias followed that summer with his first English-language single, “Bailamos,” and later that year, Marc Anthony’s own English-language LP debuted in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 chart. Still, a bona fide pop star since 1984 — that is, when he was first enlisted to Puerto Rican boy band Menudo — Ricky Martin was arguably leader of the pack.
Nicknamed the “Puerto Rican Elvis” by Today host Katie Couric, Martin had never shined so bright in the States as he did the morning of June 11th, 1999 at Rockefeller Center. Met with a horde of screaming fans, some waving Puerto Rican flags, Martin powered through “Livin’ La Vida Loca” and “She’s All I Ever Had,” plus the Spanglish remix of his 1995 megahit, “María.” But despite attracting one of Today‘s largest concert crowds, the interview revealed simmering tensions between anglophone media and American pop’s new wave of bilingual superstars: Couric seemed ill-prepared when she suggested a pop veteran like Martin might fear being “a flash in the pan.” And when asked to teach co-host Matt Lauer some dance moves, Martin rebounded with the slickest of comebacks: “Pay me!”
In a different 1999 interview, this time on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, Martin was given the floor to further explain his method behind the “Vida Loca” madness. “I’m in the communicating business,” he told Leno. “I’m doing it in Portuguese, French and Italian — why not in English?”
Martin even professed that the first records he owned were by Journey, Boston and Cheap Trick; yet he changed his tune after his mother dragged him to a Celia Cruz and Tito Puente concert. “Ever since, I’ve just been playing with fusion,” he said. “These are fascinating sounds. I have it in my blood. Why not take advantage of it?”
“I won’t stop singing in Spanish,” he continued. “It’s my mother tongue. [It’s] important to let people know more about Latin culture and exchange a little bit — it’s what I’ve been doing for seven years, since I released my first solo album.”
It’s not a far cry from mission statements issued by Latin pop stars like J Balvin, who continue to advance the cause of Spanish-language pop in the United States. Although Martin has not released an album of his own since 2015, he has spent the past year recording vocals on tracks with Bad Bunny, Wisin y Yandel, and most recently, Maluma. A representative for Martin told Rolling Stone that he’s currently in the studio working on new music of his own.