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How “Despacito” became the biggest song of 2017

An anatomy of what made “Despacito” the most popular song of the year.

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

On the way home from the beach last weekend, as we got into the car and turned on the radio, I immediately heard the familiar plucks of the cuatro, a steel-strung Puerto Rican guitar, on Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber’s “Despacito” remix.

When the song ended and the station went to commercial, we switched to another station, and within minutes the falling melody of the cuatro came on again. Having just heard the song, we tried another station. And another. And then we realized that we’d run out of pop stations before going 10 minutes without hearing “Despacito.”

The sweltering pop reggaeton-love ballad hybrid has been everywhere this summer, playing in cities and suburbs, at house parties and barbecues, at wedding receptions and department stores, in people’s headphones during their commute.

“Despacito” is inescapable and inevitable. You couldn’t avoid the song if you tried.

“It’s massively popular. It’s sort of unprecedented to have a song do so well in so many formats simultaneously,” Tom Poleman, the chief programming officer of iHeartRadio, told Vox. He explained that the song’s popularity spans a wide range of listening categories, including Top 40, Adult Contemporary, and Spanish Contemporary: “If you look at what we call total audience spins or total impressions, ‘Despacito’ has 1.8 billion total audience spins. That’s massive,” he said.

The original song and its music video were released in January; the video has since become the most watched YouTube video of all time, with more than 3 billion views. The remix, which features Justin Bieber, came out in April — and the two versions of the song combined have earned “Despacito” the distinction of “most streamed song in history.”

In May, the remix hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, where it has remained for the past 16 weeks — tying Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men for the most weeks at the top of the chart. It’s only the third Spanish-language song in history to reach No. 1 in America — the first since 1996’s “Macarena,” and before that, Los Lobos's 1987 cover of “La Bamba.” And now it’s tied with a handful of other songs for the title of second-longest-leading Billboard Hot 100 No. 1.

“Despacito” is equal parts heartbeat, heat, sweat, and skin, making it perfect for summer. But it’s become much more than the song of summer 2017, more than the results of what happens when human voice is stretched on top of music, more than a beat that sits at your hips and a melody that hits you in your chest.

Quite simply, “Despacito” is magic.

To have a whole country singing along and connecting to a song that so many of us don’t know the words to is a feat. “Despacito” appeals to each one of us in its own way, and that’s the greatest thing about it.

On a technical level, we can look at its chord progressions and melody and identify a few reasons why the song is so beloved. Audiences seem to be craving something that’s different from what they’ve been hearing, yet still familiar, and “Despacito” offers that.

But the song also represents something you can’t find in the notes and melodies and lyrics. “Despacito” now occupies a special place in recorded musical history. It represents incredible potential. It’s a reflection of its culture, and the appreciation it can bring to that culture. And to some, its popularity and crossover appeal have even become a political message of defiance against the status quo and the summer of 2017.

“Despacito” doesn’t sound like the music that’s been popular over the past couple of years. That’s helped boost its popularity.

To fully understand why people love “Despacito,” you have to understand the current state of pop music in America. “Despacito” is fusion of reggaeton, a style of music that originated in Puerto Rico, and pop. But for the past five or six years, American pop music has become nearly synonymous with electronic dance music (EDM), with not just EDM artists, producers, and DJs crossing over, but also major pop stars embracing the features and structures of the genre. And when everything begins to sound the same, people start to crave something new.

Beginning in late 2010 and continuing throughout 2011, pop music began to fuse with EDM. Rihanna and Calvin Harris’s 2011 single “We Found Love” became an absolutely huge hit, spending 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100; the song introduced some classic EDM elements (or dumbed them down, if you’re talking to EDM purists) to mainstream audiences. Among those elements were the manipulation of vocals and the tweaking of more traditional song structures, as well as one that’s specifically known as the drop — the moment in a dance track where the music coils around itself, building and building until it bursts, then unspools in a glorious, tempestuous release as the beat kicks in (in “We Found Love,” the drop comes about a minute and seven seconds into the song).

Success begets success, and EDM producers, DJs, and artists began to notice that there was a mainstream audience for a pop version of EDM. If a song could mimic “We Found Love” or David Guetta’s “Titanium,” particularly in its vocals, buildup, and drops, it could find the same audience.

Since then, many have forecast the death of EDM. Yet its influence on different genres of music, particularly pop, has continued for years. Bieber’s 2016 album Purpose, along with popular collaborations between pop and EDM artists — think Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande’s songs with Zedd, or DJ Snake’s and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What” — are a testament to that. The popularity of dubstep, along with Skrillex’s mainstream success and that “wub-wub” sound you hear in so many pop songs, is evidence of it too. And earlier this year, Lady Gaga released “The Cure,” which features a chirping chimera-like synth that mimics the music of the Chainsmokers, whom she was trolling on Twitter just last year.

As a result, American listeners and even artists seem to be burned out on that sound and are craving something new, something that doesn’t sound like anything we’ve been hearing lately.

The “Despacito” remix — which features a verse sung in English by Justin Bieber at the start of the song, followed by Fonsi’s swooning vocals and Daddy Yankee’s grit — helps to satisfy those sonic cravings. In particular, it focuses on intimate vocals, and shifts away from high-energy choppy vocal synths and swirling drops.

“Between the smoothness of its backing instrumentals, its midtempo groove, and its repetitive and very familiar chord progression, it’s as if they’ve removed anything that could distract us from the interaction of the voice, the melody, and the language,” says Alex Reed, an associate professor of music theory, history, and composition at Ithaca College. “The fact that it’s three men alternating verses makes it a showcase for subtle differences in vocal timbre.”

This upfront approach to vocals is something pop artists have begun experimenting with of late. Charlie Harding, a songwriter and co-creator of the Switched on Pop podcast, explained to me that songs with “much more restrained, close-up, nice vocals that feel intimate and feel more minimalist” — like Bieber’s verse on “Despacito,” as well as Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar” and Julia Michaels’s “Issues” — have been growing in popularity.

But this isn’t to say that the only reason “Despacito” hit No. 1 in America is that it sounds different and enjoyed some fortuitous timing. There are a lot of great songs out there that are popular but sound similar to other hits, and there are a lot of great songs out there that are sonically different but will never find a huge audience.

“Despacito” is a scorcher of a tune — the experts I talked to all agree. And standing out from recent pop music is only the start of what it has going for it.

The key to “Despacito” is how it’s constantly moving

In addition to Bieber’s buttery vocals, and the contrast between its reggaeton-inspired style and the EDM-inspired pop dance music of the past few years — its most pronounced feature is a thumping downbeat, a.k.a. what the Atlantic has called the “boom-ch-boom-chick" beat the opening and chorus of “Despacito” sink their teeth into you via a perpetual rise and drop.

“If you want to geek out over the melody, it does a similar thing [as] the chorus, it keeps climbing in thirds,” Reed says. “An important part of the rhythm is its syncopation on offbeats, which make it feel kind of open, giving the listener and dancer a lot of space to move around — it ends up feeling free, evocative, and sensual.”

To really hear the difference, listen to the melody in the opening verse of the “Despacito” remix, and compare that to the chorus of Taylor Swift’s “Welcome New York.” The chorus of “Welcome to New York” feels like it wants to keep you at one moment or one level, while “Despacito” wants to keep climbing.

“One thing that stands out about ‘Despacito’ is that ‘Despacito’ opens on melodic movement,” Harding says. “What ‘Despacito’ is doing is, instead of having a rise to this epic big moment, it's constantly moving — it's forcing us to feel different emotions.”

Harding explains that Bieber’s vocals sort of sound like the beginning to a pop song. But then the rise and drop of “Despacito” become really noticeable when Fonsi’s voice comes swooping in, shifting the song from pop to love ballad. Then there’s another aural surprise when the downbeat kicks in, and the song assumes its reggaeton-pop form.

“The cool thing about where it goes from the pre-chorus to the chorus, it’s kinda like this buildup, this suspense that’s building, and then all of a sudden, it’s like you’re there and then you go, ‘Despacito,’” Fonsi said in his commentary about the song on Genius. “We even slowed down the track just to give it a little bit more of a dramatic feel.”

“Despacito” expertly mixes the fresh with the familiar

Perhaps the most beguiling thing about “Despacito” is the way it surprises our ears — in both its melodies and the fact that it’s a Spanish-language song in the American pop music ecosystem — yet still folds in the familiar.

“The chord progression is the most common one of the last 20 years: It’s what Marc Hirsh called the ‘sensitive female chord progression’ in 2008,” Reed told me.

The chord progression Reed mentions (vi-IV-I-V) was dubbed the sensitive female chord progression because it appeared in a bevy of pop songs sung by women in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Beneath the surface differences of those songs is a feeling of yearning, a kind of ache that never quite feels resolved.

One of the most well-known examples of this chord progression is in 1995’s “One of Us,” by Joan Osborne, where you can hear it in the chorus:

It’s also present in Beyoncé’s 2008 song “If I Were a Boy”:

"What [the sensitive female chord progression] allows is for [a song] to be very fluid. You're really not centered anywhere,” Rob Kapilow, a conductor and former host of NPR’s What Makes It Great series, said in 2008. “What it does is not have that kind of resolution, that kind of firm, declarative ‘We're here.’”

“Despacito” also fits this description. “It repeats cyclically in a way that feels always rolling forward, without a clear beginning or end,” Reed says. That repetitive, rolling quality is especially apparent in the chorus.

The chord progression in “Despacito” fit into the song, since the song is open-ended. It’s a question and an invitation without a response from whoever Bieber, Fonsi, and Yankee are singing it to.

“Despacito” is all about lingering in that moment of connection between two people — not what comes before or after. The song’s title literally translates to “slowly.” And when you dig deeper into the lyrics, it becomes about seduction: all the things you’d want to do to someone you’re madly attracted to. It’s not about prelude or resolution, but about being locked into a moment of infatuation.

It’s funny that a song as sexy and passionate as “Despacito” is using the same chord progression that made the music of the late ’90s and early 2000s so folky and sad. But the key to “Despacito” sounding so different is that it puts that chord progression into the frame of reggaeton.

“Compared to the pop genres where the progression is common, it appears less often in reggaeton and Latin music, so it’s a synthesis of different modes of pop,” Reed says.

“Despacito” also features another common sound. According to Harding, the song actually relies on a principle that a lot of hit songs over the past couple of years employ: “harmonically ambiguous or modally ambiguous chord progressions,” where “the listener is being pulled between a predominantly minor sound and a predominantly major sound.”

Or what I, as a tone-deaf pop music fan, might call the “minor sad.”

In the plainest English speak: “Despacito” and a lot of hit songs of the past couple of years use notes that aren’t definitively upbeat, which makes it hard to pinpoint whether the song is happy or sad.

“Minor sad” examples in pop music include the Chainsmokers’ “Closer” and a lot of the Weeknd’s songs — songs that feel like they’re danceable but aren’t necessarily outright “happy.” They can also make you question why you’re dancing in the first place.

“Whether or not we are musically literate, we hear major [chords] as happier and more optimistic, and minor [chords] as more sad and sorrowful, solemn, maybe introspective,” Harding explained, noting that adding a minor sound has been used in dance music to make songs, which can be repetitive, feel less so.

I don’t think there’s a point in “Despacito” that feels sorrowful or solemn. But it does feel like a song that isn’t obviously happy or sad. We don’t really know if the singer’s seduction is successful. At the end of the remix, everything cuts out and all you’re left with is Bieber’s feathery voice singing “Des-pa-cito” with a blush of yearning — an end that fits seamlessly with the beginning of the song.

How Justin Bieber’s involvement in the “Despacito” remix helped make the song a hit in the US

“Despacito” is a song that’s had two lives. Long before the remix hit No. 1 in the United States, the original version of the song was a global hit — one that Bieber heard in a club while touring in Colombia earlier this year.

“About two weeks ago, the song took another step because Justin Bieber did a feature on it, and that gave the song a different dimension,” Fonsi told Forbes at the beginning of May. “The story behind it was he was on tour in Bogotá, Colombia, and he went out to a club and he heard the song, and he saw how people went crazy over it and started singing it, so he contacted us through his management.”

According to iHeartRadio’s Poleman, Bieber’s vocals and credit on the remix are what helped it achieve mainstream success and the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100.

“The song was a hit in the Latin community before Justin Bieber was added to it,” Poleman said. “But he has that magic touch in pop for the last couple of years. Adding him made a huge difference.”

In those last couple of years Poleman is talking about, Bieber’s music has functioned more as a showcase for producers, DJs, and trends than anything uniquely Bieber. His hit songs feel like aural kaleidoscopes that highlight the neat things producers, songwriters, and Bieber can do with his breezy vocals.

In 2015, the Skrillex-Diplo collaboration Jack Ü chopped Bieber’s voice into jagged, mewing bits for the emo-EDM track “Where Are Ü Now.” Those vocal synths and beats, combined with tropical house (which borrows rhythms from dancehall and reggaeton), showed up in Bieber’s 2015 album Purpose, which featured hits like “What Do You Mean” and the breakup bop “Sorry.” In 2016, Bieber teamed up with DJ Snake for “Let Me Love You,” an existential love letter that sometimes sounds like a humpback whale laced up in a booming electro-pop corset.

As a result of all this experimentation, Bieber has become something of a gateway for mainstream pop fans, allowing them to experience sounds they weren’t listening to before. And by attaching his name to “Despacito,” he introduced his fans to the song.

Ironically, however, the extended success that “Despacito” has enjoyed in the US as a result of Bieber’s involvement in the remix underlines an unfortunate reality about the state of the American Top 40: It’s not even remotely diverse. “Despacito” being the third Spanish-language song to hit No. 1 in the US is a triumph, but it’s also a sign of how flat American listening tastes can be. A potential hit could be all around us and people might not embrace it if Bieber isn’t involved.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that, despite his fluent-sounding Spanish in the “Despacito” remix, the Canadian star has forgotten the words to the song during multiple live performances — occasionally singing “blah blah blah” without any hint of embarrassment. In one video, you can hear Bieber flub the chorus to the song, admit not knowing what he’s singing, and then swap the lyrics for Spanish you’d see at a Taco Bell drive-thru. He eventually stopped performing the song live.

Still, in the coming months, we’ll see if “Despacito” bucks American pop’s history with Spanish-language songs and ushers in a new wave of appreciation for Latin music and the artists who create it — DJ Khaled and Rihanna’s “Wild Thoughts,” which includes a heavy sample and homage to Carlos Santana’s “Maria Maria” is arguably the second biggest song of summer, possibly signaling the effect “Despacito” has already had in creating that appreciation.

Poleman believes “Despacito” can bring true change in a way that’s more lasting and significant than the faddish late-’90s craze of the “Macarena” or the early 2000s Latin-pop trend.

“It’s going to certainly change the desire for record labels to sign Latin artists that they think can cross over,” he told me. “It’s already happening. The barrier has been broken. People have seen that a Spanish song can be a mainstream hit. I don’t think it’s going to completely change the complexion [of the charts] right away, but I think it opens the door.”

What we talk about when we talk about “Despacito”

My favorite origin story about the popularity of “Despacito” is that it the song has been a huge hit among people who do Zumba, a popular dance workout at health clubs across the country. Daddy Yankee, speaking at a conference in France earlier this summer, said: “Zumba is a huge platform as well, and it relates to the music we’re making. They reach out to millions of people in their platform and that’s another tool we have to promote our music. I’m taking advantage of many platforms.”

I’m not familiar with the latest Zumba trends, but anecdotally I can say that whenever an instructor drops “Despacito” in one of the SoulCycle classes I frequent, everyone in the studio — predominantly white women in Spandex — loses their collective shit. Eyes squint, hair is tossed, Caucasian selves are felt.

I’m not exempt; I absolutely lose my shit too, mouthing along to the lyrics that I still don’t really know (prior to writing this story, I just knew “Despacito” was about doing sexual things slowly to someone). By the end of the three minutes and 48 seconds, I’m ready to name my firstborn child “Suave Suavecito.”

Reed says this is natural.

“When we hear songs in foreign languages, our hearing is connotative, and not denotative — and actually we often prefer it that way, since music itself is more about evoking ideas than dictating them,” he explains. “Even when we hear songs in English, we rarely really latch onto the lyrics in an expository, textual way.”

Harding says this idea illustrates the idiom of “getting lost in the music” — where you are more interested in how a song makes you feel, as all of its components work in unison to create something bigger than just lyrics or a melody.

If you don’t know the meaning of the words to “Despacito,” you can still pick up on the images and feelings it’s creating. It’s still possible to appreciate the way the lyrics sound, how they flow from verse to verse. For listeners who don’t speak Spanish, their “appreciation” of the song and the feelings it conjures up come from their individual experiences with the song’s roots.

“Those connotations are ones that are suggested to us by our background knowledge of the language and its culture, which is why ‘Despacito’ seems to resonate for a lot of people,” Reed says. “It plays up existing cultural stereotypes of Puerto Rico as sensual, bodily, passionate — stereotypes that you can find way back in West Side Story.”

But the cultural stereotypes and touchstones present in “Despacito” and its music video don’t necessarily have to be taken negatively. In an age where the president of the United States flattens entire peoples into exaggerated, inaccurate caricatures, a song like “Despacito” could give listeners an appreciation for the cultures and people who created it.

“Well, I think it’s ironic,” says Enrique Santos, an on-air radio personality at iHeartRadio and the chairman of iHeartLatino. “But [the song and the appreciation it brings to Latin art] is a great thing when you have had such negative rhetoric being tossed around. It shows that we’re much more than what some people have portrayed us to be as drug dealers or rapists — no. We’re musicians, we’re artists, we’re mothers, dads, brothers, sisters.”

In that sense, “Despacito” can be an act of defiance.

In early August, Moises Velasquez-Manoff wrote a column for the New York Times about how “Despacito” is undeniably politically relevant to him. The song’s success in the time of Donald Trump doesn’t necessarily mean that it will conquer people’s tribalistic instincts or topple any of his administration’s actions. But to Velasquez-Manoff, the song’s success and Americans’ appreciation of it represents what he believes is an anthem that celebrates natural inclination of the human spirit.

“We have this other side that’s curious, that doesn’t cringe from difference so much as find inspiration in it,” Velasquez-Manoff writes. “A transcendent side that takes joy in bringing together disparate parts, in creation, in play. … The song is a fusion, an amalgam. As such, it doesn’t just illustrate the genius of pop music but also serves as a model of how creativity works generally.”

The common thread among many of the music experts I spoke to is that they believe “Despacito” is more than just a song about a certain kind of slow lovemaking, but is also very much about a specific kind of human love. Music’s most powerful magic is its ability to connect people.

“Despacito” and other popular songs like it give us something to feel even if we don’t know what’s happening the melody, the chord progressions, or the words. For three minutes and 48 seconds, it can change our lives. It can be a passionate love song, a beacon for humanity, or an inventive fusion of innovation all at once or not at all.

Because all we want to do is listen just one more time.