Bad Bunny, ‘SNL’ and the Normalization of Spanish in American Pop Culture

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The fact that Bad Bunny topped the Billboard 200 for the third consecutive time with his Nadie Sabe Lo Que Va a Pasar Mañana (No One Knows What Will Happen Tomorrow) came as a surprise to no one. By now, the Puerto Rican artist is firmly entrenched in the pop culture zeitgeist, having entered that rarified club of artists who can do no wrong (in this moment in time, at least) and whose music demands immediate consumption.

But unlike every other artist who has ever hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 — well, “every” until earlier this year, anyway — Bad Bunny’s feat carries a massive, previously unheard of caveat: He sings only in Spanish, and he achieved his trifecta of No. 1s with Spanish-only albums, something no one has ever done before.

That alone is noteworthy. But seeing Bad Bunny (or Benito, his real name, and the name he increasingly goes by publicly, including on the cover of his new album) host Saturday Night Live (SNL) largely in Spanish took things to a whole other level. Thanks to a rapper from Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, Latin presence in U.S. pop culture has been mainstreamed for perhaps the first time since I Love Lucy in the 1950s. The big difference is, I Love Lucy used comedy as a vehicle to “translate” Desi Arnaz’s accented English, accompanied by boogaloo.

In contrast, Bad Bunny makes no attempt at translation or compromise when he very matter of factly speaks in Spanish. Last Saturday (Oct. 21), during his SNL opening monologue he not only went back and forth between Spanish and English, but also repeatedly alluded to language as a bridge (“I’m very excited to be here in Sábado Gigante,” he joked, referring to the iconic late night show that defined Spanish language television for decades) and as a divider (“People are wondering if I can host this show, because English is my second language”).

It’s an important point to make. While Benito has clearly spruced up his English chops and was indeed perfectly capable of hosting the evening, Latin artists were long kept off the air and off major events because they either spoke and sang only in Spanish, were not fluent enough in English, or because their Latin accents were not as broadly accepted as the more elite British or French.

Their other-ness was problematic: So much so, that back in 2013, when New York-born and raised Marc Anthony sang “God Bless America” at the MLB All-Star game in America, he received an avalanche of criticism on Twitter claiming he wasn’t American, despite his Bronx accent.

Fast forward to August, 2017 — still just six years ago — when the runaway smash “Despacito” was at the height of its popularity, having culminated its 16-week, then-record-rying run at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Despite it already boasting the most-viewed video of all time on YouTube, it didn’t get a single Video Music Award nomination, a fact the VMAs attributed to miscommunication and technicalities.

Whatever it may have been, it was par for the course at the time. That same year, USC’s Annenberg School of Communications released a report revealing that although Latinos comprised nearly 18 percent of the U.S. population (the biggest minority in the country), only 5.8 percent of speaking roles in film and television went to them. Two years later, the number actually went down, to 5%.

As for the Grammys, in 2017 there had been only three Spanish-language performances since Ricky Martin brought the house down in 1999 with “The Cup of Life” (singing in English).

Even the Hot 100 bears witness to the exclusion of Latin music. Between 2010 and 2016, only 14 songs performed primarily in Spanish made it to the chart. In 2017, the year of “Despacito,” the number jumped to 19 — no doubt spurred by the sudden visibility into the opportunity of Spanish or bilingual songs.

Since then, the ascent has been steady, with Spanish-language (and by extension, Latin music) artists gaining increasingly prominent looks in marquee properties, from late night shows to this year’s Grammys (with Bad Bunny famously opening the ceremonies with an all-Spanish performance) to September’s VMAs, where Shakira received the Video Vanguard award and sang a 10-minute bilingual medley of hits. On the Hot 100, so far this year nearly 100 songs in Spanish have made it onto the chart, including every track on Bad Bunny’s latest album.

It would appear that Spanish, at last, has been normalized in the American mainstream, and that Latin faces at last have become visible — and that Latin culture, at last, is not seen as simply quaint or colorful or foreign, but as part of the very fabric of this country. It’s a tipping point I earnestly longed to encounter as an observer of Latin culture for the past two decades.

Years ago, When Bad Bunny debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in December of 2020 with El Ultimo Tour del Mundo, it marked the first time in history that an all-Spanish album had topped the all-genre chart. The notion that this could be a fad or a bleep on the screen was very real. Back in 2017, when I interviewed Nicky Jam and J Balvin for a Billboard cover story, I specifically asked about the importance of language choice in their songs. Their answers reflected the reality of the moment.

“If you’re aiming for the American market, it has to be in English,” said Nicky Jam. “I can’t picture an African-American rap fan sitting in his car saying, ‘I love Nicky Jam’s rap!’ [in Spanish]. Just being realistic.”

I concurred with Nicky Jam. Over the years, nothing I had seen in the marketplace suggested that it was ready for Spanish as a dominant music language. Balvin, however, didn’t agree.

“I think it’s possible [to have a No. 1 in Spanish], but we’re not there yet,” he said. “It may take many years, but as new generations emerge and realize the United States isn’t the only place in the planet and English isn’t the only language of value [it may happen].”

The words were prescient. A few months after that interview, “Despacito,” in its bilingual version with Justin Bieber, rose to No. 1 on the Hot 100, opening the floodgates for possibility, investment and A&R. Coupled with the global surge of consumption of music in Spanish, Latin music began to creep onto the all-genre charts, the numbers rising steadily and peaking at 70 tracks so far in 2023 — before Bad Bunny’s new album release last week, which added 22 more Spanish tracks to the list.

Not surprisingly, Bad Bunny was both a performer at last Saturday’s SNL and also the host, asking to change the “Speaking in a non-English language” caption that caused an uproar seven months ago at the Grammys to the more humorous “Speaking a sexier language.”

Is it really sexier? I don’t know — but finally, I can say it’s no longer frowned upon. It’s Spanish. And it’s cool, and it’s part of us, even if you don’t understand a word.

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