The sleeves for the five albums recorded by Miami Sound Machine and Gloria Estefan between 1984 and 1991, plus the first volume of Greatest Hits.
III. PAGING DR. BEAT (1984-1993)
"Crossing over," that mythical high ground of commercial success, is always a fraught proposition. Change too much, and your old fans, or fans of a particular genre that you no longer play, gripe that you’ve sold out. Change too little, and eyebrows raise as to whether you were ever authentically your original genre in the first place. It would be churlish to begrudge a hardworking and consistently creative group of people hitting a new tax bracket after years of anonymity and incremental movement; but it’s also simpleminded to believe that success is particularly correlative with quality. Meaningfulness, perhaps — if meaning is democratically assigned, anyway — but not quality.
Paging Dr. Beat (A Spotify Playlist) | (The YouTube Version)
How a multiplatium worldwide musical phenomenon happens:
A Toda Máquina had a song called “Dr. Beat” on it, maybe the most commercial song Miami Sound Machine had yet recorded. (Enrique Garcia, the band’s flamboyant drummer, is credited with the composition; if you watch the videos in the playlist, you’ll recognize his aesthetic of goofiness). Interested in assimilating whatever new Latin sounds they could incorporated into their dance ambitions (as they had with Brazil on Rio), the Estefans visited Bachelor, a legendary discotheque in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where they met Pablo Flores, a young DJ and dance music specialist. Impressed, they gave him “Dr. Beat” to remix. They released the punched-up track to the European market, and it promptly went Top Ten in the UK, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. On the strength of that performance, Miami Sound Machine moved from the Latin-market label Discos CBS International to Epic, Columbia’s mainstream music label, and recorded Eyes of Innocence.
In the few places where Eyes of Innocence isn’t a track-for-track English-language remake of A Toda Máquina, it’s an English-language remake of their most successful songs from Rio and Otra Vez, and it has the barely-holding-together feel of a quickie cash-in record. (The Benataresque “Prisoner of Love” is the only entirely new song on the album.) “Comunicación,” a fun novelty about second-generation immigrants who mash up English and Spanish, is much worse as a song called “Do You Want to Dance,” “A Toda Máquina” is far more charming than whatever “Orange Express” is supposed to be, and so on. But the remixed “Dr. Beat” is deservedly the album’s centerpiece, and from its opening heartbeat kickdrum and PA announcement it grabs the attention in a way that no previous Miami Sound Machine record had.
That a song about rhythm, the healing properties of rhythm, and the wounds of love which require the healing of rhythm became Gloria Estefan’s first more-than-regional hit is one of those thematic coincidences which would be overbearing in fiction but which litter feature writing anyway. Unlike Indeep's Réjane Magloire (or Ke$ha) calling specifically on the DJ to save her live, Estefan’s surrender to the music is more genre- and technology-agnostic, which mean more universal. Live band? DJ? Sound system? Streaming playlist? Who cares, just let the beat take you. That it also turns on an unabashedly silly metaphor — Dr. Beat could be a Roger Hargreaves character — is also characteristic. Silliness will show up again and again this week, generally united to rhythm; music that takes itself entirely seriously is far more foreign to the Estefans’ aesthetic than any regionalism.
Which brings us to 1985, and “Conga.”
Written again by Garcia and built around a series of increasingly intense drumpad-timbale-conga breakdowns, it’s a dream of rhythm; even Gloria’s sung chorus is percussive enough to bear comparison to still-young hip-hop. And it was huge, a worldwide smash (except in the UK, where “Bad Boy” was promoted instead), and Miami Sound Machine’s first hit (#10) in the US, their home country.
I want to draw attention again to that last clause, because it’s worth repeating, loudly, that Latin music is as American as any other, and more American than some. Garage rock, for instance, is imitation British Invasion, yet the shit that people call “Americana” is more likely to feature distorted guitars than timbales, which were here first. The belief that American means white, or at most white and black, is the most unexamined assumption in cultural conversation today. “Conga” should be remembered not as a novelty Latin hit (under the usual theory that anything Latin is a novelty), but as fully a participant in the main stream of the US musical conversation about 1985 as “Into the Groove,” “Glory Days,” “Raspberry Beret,” or “Celebrated Summer.”
Which isn’t to say that there isn’t something of a novelty about it, and about its parent album, Primitive Love. I mean, Christ, that title alone. (It’s worth pointing out here that while Cuban music as a whole was largely a creation of the Afro-Cuban population which is the country’s lasting legacy of colonial slavery, Miami Sound Machine was made up of white Cubans; and Gloria’s ancestry in particular is Spanish.) I don’t want to minimize the stupidity and cruelty of equating Latinism with exoticism, of Caribbean mestizaje with primitivism, of tropical music with aggressive or always-available sexuality, of selling an ersatz experience of cultural tourism to an assumed-white audience (the album closer, “Surrender Paradise,” might as well be an ad for a Caribbean travel agency); I’ll just note that Emilio Estefan, as shrewd a businessman as ever, knew exactly what he was doing, and understood perfectly well the conditions under which a Cuban-American band would be allowed access to the mainstream. Maybe that makes it worse. But tourists are always quicker to decry the evils of tourism than the people who profit from them are. (Get money.)
At any rate, “Conga” changed the terms. Miami Sound Machine were no longer a local band; they were global superstars. (Big deal; so was Paul Hardcastle. Sustaining it would be another thing entirely.) The sweet, lovers-rocky “Bad Boy” and the achingly vulnerable synthpop gem “Falling in Love (Uh-Oh),” an update of classic Spanish Harlem girl-group music, were also minor hits; and the stage was set for 1987 and Let It Loose.
It was beyond clear, now, that Gloria, with her versatile, powerful, and warm voice, was the star. The third album for Epic was credited to Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine, and her name was ten time as large.
The songwriting-for-hire team of Lawrence Dermer, Joe Galdo, and Rafael Vigil, who had written most of Primitive Love, were back on Let It Loose, but Emilio and Gloria, having paid close attention, wrote the two biggest hits. The tensely obsessive ballad “Can’t Stay Away from You” was in some ways a more sophisticated rewrite of the previous album’s soppy “Words Get in the Way,” and “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” is “Conga” turned into an actual song instead of a percussion exercise. The result was the two best songs the band had yet recorded — whenever I do a you-can-only-have-one-song-per-artist list in my head, “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” is Gloria Estefan’s (I do that more often than you’d think) — and Let It Loose is kind of a do-over of Primitive Love, flushing out most of the gross racial and sexual stereotypes and keeping the ultramodern, booming sound, hot rhythms, and sweeping R&B melodies. Gloria Estefan was never really a freestyle artist — Emilio’s production aesthetic was always too commercial and heterogeneous, and she was always too strong a singer, to really fit the style — but Let It Loose is the closest she comes.
This is as good a point as any to mention that while I’ve followed the conventional narrative here of Gloria Estefan being the talent and Emilio Estefan being the sonic, business, and writing mastermind, reality is more complicated. To some extent that’s because in any creative partnership it’s impossible to really determine who contributed what from the outside, and as Gloria became increasingly a star, they were increasingly a team. (Drummer and “Conga” songwriter Kiki Garcia would leave after Let It Loose, complaining that Miami Sound Machine was now just Gloria and Emilio telling studio musicians what to do.) But it’s undoubtedly sexist of me to attribute all creative decisions to Emilio and all performing ones to Gloria, and absent any evidence that there was disagreement between them, I’ll (like the label) be attributing everything to Gloria, and let the history-sifting biographers decide where Emilio’s contributions begin and end, from here on out.
Because 1989’s Cuts Both Ways was the first album credited to Gloria Estefan, full stop. With the success of “Can’t Stay Away from You” proving that she could be more than just a chintzy dance singer, it was marketed as an adult contemporary album, and while there were still chintzy dance songs (particularly campaign classic “Get On Your Feet”), the bulk of the album was dedicated to the sort of moving, tender ballads that offer office workers around the world just enough of a dripfeed of emotional sustenance to keep them feeling human and refusing to overthrow capitalism. That’s one reading of adult contemporary, anyway; another is: until you’ve actually tried to be a contemporary adult shut up and turn down your skatepunk. Comforting power ballad “Don’t Wanna Lose You,” with its plastic-treated guitars and gated drums, was a #1 hit; the glossy “Here We Are” and the sparsely funky (for her) title track did great business too.
And then there was “Oye Mi Canto (Hear My Voice),” her first return to the Spanish language since early 1984. (It, like “Don’t Wanna Lose You,” was issued in both English and Spanish-language versions; but even the English-language version contains Spanish in the second half, helpfully translated for know-nothing gringos by the title.) Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco Flora and Cuban tumbao pianist Paquito Hechevarria contribute solos, and there are extended horn riffs out of Nuyorican salsa. The percussion is still chintzily electronic, but there’s a worrying amount of authenticity at work here.
But hold that thought. Because the 80s are coming to an end, and Into the Light is both Gloria’s first album of the 90s and the last of what I might call, with all apologies to Neil Tennant and Tom Ewing, her imperial phase. (Hers overlaps almost exactly with Madonna’s and Janet Jackson’s; the turn away from pop to male-dominated rock and hip-hop in the 90s by critics and the industry is maybe the biggest unremembered story of that over-remembered decade.) In March of 1990, on her way from concert to concert in Pennsylvania, her tour bus was smashed into by an out-of-control semi-truck in a snowstorm, crushing her within ten tons of metal and fracturing her spine. She was in the hospital and recovery for ten months. Into the Light was her response, written in great part alone and availing herself of emotional textures that had not been in her music before.
"Coming Out of the Dark" summons a gospel choir to make a romantic metaphor for her experience land with greater sincerity, "Nayib’s Song (I Am Here for You)" is explicitly addressed to the son who was almost orphaned at the age of ten, and "Live for Loving You," the closest thing the album has to the uptempo dance numbers which were the centerpiece of every previous Epic album, borrows South African rhythms and textures to express maybe the most beautiful statement she had yet made about her marriage. But even apart from those three highlights, Into the Light is a broad, thoughtful, considered album, her greatest artistic statement yet, even if it does speak the grammar of early-90s adult contemporary. (Jon Secada co-wrote and sings background vocals; the Estefans were by now not just an institution, but providing a sort of boot camp for ambitious young Latin performers).
A year later, she put a period on this era in her career by releasing her first English-language Greatest Hits collection, a roughly chronological summation of the last eight years (heavier on the ballads than the dance tracks, perhaps naturally) that ends with four new songs. I’ll talk about one tomorrow, but of the remaining three, “Always Tomorrow” is a pretty slice of optimism given too much weight in production, and “Go Away” is —
Well, I warned you I might get nostalgic.
In 1992, I was in ninth grade in a suburb of Guatemala City, where my parents were missionaries. After a childhood in which the totality of my exposure to popular music ranged from Amy Grant to Phil Keaggy, I had begun (secretly at first, as though it were a shameful sin) to turn on the radio in my room after school and listen to the English-language stations broadcast from the capital. Everything in secular culture had an unpredictable charge in my imagination, sexual even when it wasn’t, positively pornographic when it was. “Go Away” was the first new Gloria Estefan song I ever heard — I was mowing the back yard, and had covertly switched the tab on my Walkman from a Glad cassette to the radio (to save the battery, I told myself). The punchy, spiky tune, with its comic dismissiveness and sudden, wacky blurts of musical noise cut though the glossy ballads and long-haired navel-gazing of that year’s chart pop, and I was addicted. I didn’t yet know who Spike Jones was, but once I learned, I understood his aesthetic instinctively. “People have the right to party/and you won’t let them have their fun/See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya/Auf weidersehn, au revoir, shalom” is still, I think, a better philosophy, or anyway less aggro and entitled, than fighting for your right to party. I still think of George W. Bush every time I hear it.
At any rate, it’s a deck clearing. What happens next is both the obvious next step and a total left turn. See you tomorrow.