For more than a century, every generation of American women has had their Latin lover, their tanned man that provoked swooning and screaming and spontaneous chonis melting. Flappers had Rudolph Valentino; the Mad Men generation threw woo at Ricardo Montalbán. Ladies of the 1980s went crazy over Julio Iglesias, while their daughters went nuts for Enrique Iglesias and Antonio Banderas.
That's a lot of hombre there. Yet the lot of them seem like chavalas when compared to the titan of testosterone that is Romeo Santos–yeah, the pretty boy wearing the cute sweater in the photo above. With that precious earring and pout. None of the other smoldering señores sold out Yankee Stadium two nights in a row, as the 33-year-old did last year. Ninguno of the men re-defined a genre twice in the way of the self-proclaimed King of Bachata. While all Latino superstars have tried to cross over to American tastes, Santos has superstars cross over to him; his last album featured cameos by Nicki Minaj, Drake and even Kevin Hart, all of whom know that the best way to crack into the Latin market is by latching on to Santos.
Want final proof he's the greatest Latin Lover of them all? Last year, noted sportscaster Beto Duran texted me that he had scored tickets to Santos' concert at the Staples Center but had never heard of him. "There's no 10s here," Beto wrote, referring to the caliber of shrieking chicas at the sold-out show. "They're all 12s and 13s!"
"EXACTLY," I texted back.
Santos is everything America is right now–and will become. He's Latino, a Dominican/Puerto Rican who was born and raised in the Bronx; he's not just straddling all the hyphens in his life, but also obliterating them. He took the bachata of his Dominican side, a working-class music genre with distinctive steel-guitar arpeggios that are the sexiest boings you'll ever hear, and tamed it into a worldwide phenomenon through Aventura. From the late 1990s into 2011, the boy band mixed R&B, hip-hop, and other Latin music styles while keeping bachata's twang and heartsickness intact. Anchoring Aventura was Santos, who not only wrote most of the songs, but also sealed the deal with his voice: a feathery marvel that sighs, weeps and moans over the perfidy and beauty of mujeres, yet knows he's going to get her at the end of the night–Brian Wilson with balls.
Aventura's signature tune, "Obsesión" remains Santos at his best, a song so popular it hit the top of the singles charts in France, Germany, Austria, Italy and pinche Switzerland. From the group's tellingly titled 2002 album, We Broke the Rules, he breathlessly begs a woman to leave her "small and not handsome" boyfriend for him, so much so that Santos resorts to flirting with the woman's friend just to get his beloved's digits. "It's 5 in the morning/And I haven't slept at all," Santos starts. "Thinking about your beauty/I'm going to turn crazy." And that's exactly what happens at the end of "Obesión": Santos' character goes to a psychiatrist since "I don't have friends anymore/Because I only talk about you."
Yeah, Santos came off like a creep in that song, but that was the point. Every Aventura song had him embody the love-crazed man, the essential hombre: sometimes horny, sometimes sad, sometimes romantic, sometimes crazy, but always with women on the mind. And while such expressions aren't anything new to the crooner set, Aventura's sensitive swagger was revolutionary. No one–not Sinatra, not Vicente Fernández–had worn their heart so prominently on their shoulder and played the wimp so well while masking the inner playboy.
Follow-ups such as "Su Veneno" ("Your Poison"), "Dile al Amor" ("Tell Love") and "El Malo" ("The Bad Guy") became worldwide smashes; in fact, Aventura was probably more known among gabacha suburbanites than American music critics in the early days because the group became a soundtrack for ballroom-dance classes nationwide. Knowing their crowds, the group sang in Spanish while tossing in English conversations in ways that didn't come off as gimmicky. Women across the world fell for Aventura, their concerts becoming faith revivals for lonely panochas. Hell, even President Barack Obama invited Aventura to the White House in 2009, showing again that while he might not know how to get us out of this Great Recession for good, Obama sure as hell knows his pop culture.
Santos' career exploded even further upon going solo in 2011, with him doubling down on experimenting with musical genres. "Propuesta Indecente" ("Indecent Proposal"–it ain't that hard to figure out, cabrones) begins with the clashing notes of a mournful bandoneón and assured grand piano as Santos again asks a woman to run off with him, seducing in English and romancing en español. Its official YouTube video not only has an astounding 678 million plays, but it also shows Santos stealing a gabacha from a guy with a neck tattoo–racial politics at its most hilarious.
That last point is probably the most unappreciated part of the Santos juggernaught. Nearly all the aforementioned Latin lovers had one thing in common: They were as light-skinned as any American and usually of Spanish blood. Santos, on the other hand, is Dominican, his skin shining with black, European, even indigenous roots. Not since Jon Secada has America loved a Latino man this dark–or Latin America, for that matter–and with respect to Secada, he's just a match flare in Santos' sun. Santos doesn't need to acknowledge his skin tone, nor does it play any role in his music, but one cannot overstate the importance of an Afro-Latino throwing a hell of a monkey wrench into the love lives of gabachos and Latinos.
More Santos is in the works, especially now that Hollywood and the media have discovered him a decade late. He appeared in the film Furious 7; is voicing a character in the upcoming Angry Birds movie; and was recently written up in Billboard, Rolling Stone and New York. But, unsurprisingly, he isn't universally loved. Bachata purists howl he demeaned the music and ain't a real tiguere (tough guy); Latino men ridicule his entire career, from his propensity to throw in Chipmunks-sounding voices on Aventura tracks for reasons only known to Santos to a fluttering coo that's his trademark but sounds like an emasculated dove.
On anyone except Santos, that is. Want proof? Go to his concert this weekend, and marvel at all the 12s and 13s in the crowd. If you can't get lucky that night, gents, you'll never get lucky. And ladies? Prepare to get your chonis melted–you've been warned.
Romeo Santos performs at the Honda Center, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 704-2400; www.hondacenter.com. Sat., 8 p.m. $35-$215. All ages.