Urban Bachata – Battle of the Generations

By Aurelio Morel

What do such diverse-era songs “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “Stand By Me” and “The Way You Are” have in common? They have all been adapted into an increasingly popular Latin music subgenre called urban bachata. Urban bachata is a subset of bachata, a popular music form from the Dominican Republic that surfaced throughout the 70s and 80s in the island-nation’s countryside. It was often referred to as “cantina” music, as the songs of despair and heartbreak appealed to bar patrons. Urban bachata first came to the forefront in the U.S. during the late 90s, but not until the turn of the millennium did it become a global hit.

In 2002, a pioneering urban bachata group from New York City named Aventura released their breakthrough sophomore record, We Broke The Rules, forever changing the dynamics of bachata. The record became an instant success, spawning the number one hit “Obsesion” (Obsession). From there, the flood gates opened and a slew of other urban bachata acts followed. Most were Dominicans from New York City who incorporated elements of hip-hop and R&B, coupled with English lyrics, into the genre. “Bachata was a much easier, better way to express our music,” former member of the urban bachata duo Xtreme, Steve Styles, told Reuters in 2007.

Many would convert hit English songs into the genre, a strategy that proved effective when Prince Royce’s urban bachata take on the Ben E. King classic “Stand By Me” became a monumental hit in the Latin market.  “I don’t think it will be the phenomenon reggaeton was in its moment, but it’s definitely a genre that crosses nationalities easily,” Lorenzo Braun, VP of A&R and marketing for Sony BMG Latin’s urban/tropical division, told Reuters in a 2007 article. But as with any popular music trend, there are detractors.

While many praise the subgenre for taking bachata to unprecedented heights, others say the influx of urban rhythms into the genre is taking away from the essence of bachata. Leydy Bonilla, a local bachata artist from Charlotte, refuted those notions. While she acknowledges that the genre has changed, she does not see it as a negative. “I think evolution is a good thing,” asserted Bonilla. Bachata Flow, a local Charlotte band that specializes in contemporary bachata, also echoed that sentiment. Of its eight or nine musicians, not one had anything negative to say about the current state of bachata. This begs the question — just who are these detractors? The answer shouldn’t come as a surprise.

The fervent critics of the genre have typically been the older generation. In order to understand why this is, you would have to listen to some of the genre’s earlier artists. Regardless of your preference, one irrefutable difference is the singing style. The bachata of yesteryear was extremely melodramatic. Many times it seemed as if the singers were on the brink of tears as they belted out lyrics, bypassing technical form and perfect notes to focus on projecting emotion.

Now, those emotions have been usurped by pretty faces making pretty intonations. The singing style has become far less aggressive and more melodic. Also, more positive lyrics have been introduced into songs.

The bachata of the past was relatively one-sided as far as subject matter. The tales of intense pain and suffering did not appeal to younger generations who had yet to experience those things. Now, much of the subject matter has been simplified in order to be more relatable to youth. Instead of a singer declaring, ‘I’m going to drink myself to death because you left me,’ today they might typically say, I’m going to pour a drink in homage to your everlasting beauty.

And speaking of beauty, there is also the matter of sex appeal.

Much like when Elvis shocked the world by gyrating his hips on national television in the 1950s, the incorporation of sex appeal into the genre has created distance between the generations. Today’s bachata artists are appealing to young women and girls, a previously untapped market for the genre. Many of the urban bachata artists are physically fit and well-groomed, a quality which was rarely found in the genre’s past artists. They also create gender-specific songs that appeal to this demographic and revolve their live shows around catering to women. The amplified sexuality within the genre has likely served as a deterrent for the conservative older generation.

Romeo Santos for example, one of the genre’s bonafide sex symbols, often has a routine in his show in which he brings a female fan on stage and gives her a lap dance. These types of brazen displays of sexuality in the genre were previously unfathomable. So has this evolution done more good than bad? Or has urban bachata served as a Pyrrhic victory of sorts for the genre?

Personally, the subgenre’s contributions to the principal genre have, overall, been positive. Urban bachata has taken the genre to the next level in terms of popularity. Uncharted territories such as platinum records, high production-value music videos, and million-dollar concerts have been reached thanks to the subgenre. In 2007, Aventura played sold-out concerts for three nights in a row at New York’s Madison Square Garden, a feat never before accomplished by a bachata act. In the past, music videos in the genre were low-budget and obscure, and the artists enjoyed regional popularity at best. Urban bachata has also managed to reach demographic groups who would otherwise be indifferent to the genre’s existence.

Thanks to the prominence of urban bachata, non-Hispanics have been exposed to a genre they were previously oblivious to. Because of the bilingual nature of the material, non-Hispanics no longer feel the constraints of foreign lyrics. They can now sing along, further adding to the genre’s appeal. And before urban bachata, many second generation Latinos viewed bachata as outdated and obsolete. It was not until the incorporation of Spanglish (Spanish and English) lyrics mixed with smooth vocals over R&B and hip-hop induced rhythms, that new generations of young Latinos began gravitating to the genre.

As a fan, it’s amazing to see how the music has evolved  It has risen from an underground style that received only moderate airplay to a super-genre dominating the radio waves throughout the U.S. and Latin America. Whether you love urban bachata or detest it, its contributions to bachata cannot be downplayed. Who would have ever imagined that bachata would penetrate the American markets the way it has? Over the recent years urban bachata artists have collaborated with hip-hop and R&B performers and even had their videos presented on MTV.

Take for instance, Romeo Santos’s collaboration with R&B cornerstone, Usher, on the song “Promise.” Aside from being a huge hit in the Latin markets, the song became a mild hit in the American markets as well, getting regular play on MTV. While the genre hasn’t managed to completely become a household name for American audiences, it is well on its way to doing so. With its ever-growing roster of young, charismatic performers — Prince Royce, Leslie Grace and Karlos Rose among them — it should only be a matter of time before urban bachata enjoys the same pop culture recognition as the Harlem Shake has.


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