In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
There’s a certain keyboard sound that I only ever hear on ’80s pop ballads. I don’t know enough about synths to identify it, but I know it when I hear it. It’s a bit like a Fender Rhodes, but more plastic-y, with lots of sustain on it. There’s usually echo, too. This sound clearly strains for some kind of quiet romanticism, but it always comes off cheap and tinny and ugly. I hear that sound, and I just check the fuck out. You could have Otis Redding singing over those little vaseline plinks, and it still wouldn’t hold my attention. That keyboard sound sends a message to my brain: “Go ahead. Stop paying attention. It’s fine. You won’t miss anything.”
On “Anything For You,” the first #1 hit from Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine, that sound is the first thing you hear. It’s just death. In a lot of ways, “Anything For You” is a fine, solid sentimental normie ballad. But its production choices — that keyboard, the echoing drums, the noodly and processed acoustic-guitar runs, the fake-ass horns — anchor it to a deeply boring moment for pop balladry. The original plan for “Anything For You” was to record it with just Estefan’s voice and a piano, and that version of the song would’ve unquestionably been infinitely better. But someone had enough ’80s-pop savvy to know that this thing would be a hit if you piled canned instrumental gloop all over it.
We, as a society, have moved past that whole aesthetic, and we should be grateful. I feel bad for Gloria Estefan that she got stuck in it. But she got her first #1 hit out of that style, so I guess it worked out.
Gloria Estefan did not start out as a singer of chintzy ballads. In fact, she fell backwards into a singing career; a whole lot of things had to happen at very specific times to make that happen. Gloria María Milagrosa Fajardo García was born to a fairly well-off family in Havana. Her mother had a PhD in education, and her father was a soldier who sometimes guarded the US-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. In 1959, when her family fled in the face of the Cuban Revolution, Gloria was a toddler.
The García family settled in Miami, and Gloria’s father José returned to Cuba shortly afterward to take part in the ill-fated Bay Of Pigs invasion. José’s own cousin captured him, and José spent a year and a half in a Cuban prison before President Kennedy negotiated for his release. Back in America, José enlisted in the military to fight in Vietnam. There, he got exposed to Agent Orange and came home with multiple sclerosis. Gloria’s mother supported the family as a public-school teacher, and Gloria helped look after her ailing father and her younger sister. (Gloria later said that her father had been doing CIA black-ops missions in Vietnam and that she herself had been approached by a CIA recruiter while working at Miami International Airport as a translator. I would say I’m 99% certain that Gloria Estefan’s entire pop career was not a CIA psy-op, but it’s fun to think about anyway.)
When Gloria García was a teenager, she and her cousin sang some old Cuban standards at a wedding. Emilio Estefan, Jr., the leader of the wedding band, was impressed, and he invited both girls to join his group. Estefan had also been born in Cuba, where his family owned an underwear factory. They left after the Revolution, first moving to Spain and then to Miami. Emilio, five years older than Gloria, found a job in the mailroom of the Bacardi company, and he worked his way up to a high-paying job as a director of marketing. At some point, Emilio bought an accordion and offered to play for tips in a local restaurant. It was a fun side hustle, and that side hustle expanded. Over time, Emilio put together a band called the Miami Latin Boys, and they played shindigs like that one wedding.
Gloria joined the Miami Latin Boys in 1975, when she’d just started studying psychology at the University of Miami. At that point, she would only play with the group during the weekends. A year later, she and Emilio started dating. Gloria and Emilio got married in 1978, a year before she finished her degree. They’re still married now.
When Gloria became the focus of the band, the Miami Latin Boys changed their name to the Miami Sound Machine. They started recording in 1977, and CBS signed them to an international deal. At first, they only recorded in Spanish, and their records took off in many Central and South American countries. At the time, the whole draw was that they were a slick American-style pop group who sang in Spanish. They weren’t often making Latin-style music. Instead, they were making disco and soft-focus ballads, which Gloria usually wrote. By 1980, they were successful enough that Emilio left his job at Bacardi. In 1984, Emilio convinced CBS to let them record an album in English, and their single “Dr. Beat” took off in Europe after a Dutch DJ started playing it.
“Dr. Beat” made the top 10 in the UK, but none of the singles from the 1984 album Eyes Of Innocence charted in America. A year later, though, the Miami Sound Machine released Primitive Love, the album that broke them in the US. Lead single “Conga,” a slick and earwormy take on Latin dance music, peaked at #10, and it remains way better-remembered than any of the group’s bigger singles. (“Conga” is a 7.) Two more Primitive Love singles followed “Conga” into the top 10. (“Bad Boy” peaked at #8, and “Words Get In The Way” peaked at #5. Both are 4s.) Primitive Love went platinum in 1986, and it sold steadily for years, reaching triple-plat status a decade later.
The Miami Sound Machine followed that crossover by crossing over even harder. The 1987 album Let It Loose steered into the glossy glide of Primitive Love. Let It Loose is a clubby record, but it has nothing to do with the Latin freestyle that was popular at the time. Instead, it’s bright and shiny pop music with synthy horn-stabs and busy percussion and samba beats. The album’s first single, the “Conga” soundalike “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” peaked at #5. (It’s a 6.) “Can’t Stay Away From You,” a rhythmic ballad, got as high as #6. (It’s a 5.) Eventually, the group released the least clubby song on the album, the closing track “Anything For You,” as a single. It’s the most atypical track on there, and naturally, it became the biggest of the bunch.
When Gloria Estefan wrote “Anything For You,” she had been happily married for nearly a decade. But the song, like so many of Estefan’s ballads, is all about suffocating heartbreak. (Her explanation: “Creative license.” Fair enough!) On the song, Estefan’s narrator pines for an ex, trying to figure out why her idyllic relationship has come to an end: “Time keeps dragging on and on/ And forever’s been and gone/ Still, I can’t figure what went wrong.”
Estefan’s lyrics go all the way over the top on this one. Her narrator insists that she’ll be fine: “I’ve learned so much from you/ You made me strong.” She even wishes her ex well in any future relationships: “I hope you find someone to please you, someone who’ll care and never leave you.” But she also lets this person know that she’ll be right there if that theoretical future relationship doesn’t work out. This person knows that she needs to move on, but she just can’t do it. She’s stuck, flailing, weak. It’s sad.
Emilio Estefan is the credited producer on “Anything For You,” though some of the musicians who played on the song insist that he really just ordered sandwiches in the studio. Originally, “Anything For You” was only Gloria’s voice and a piano, but when they listened to the recording, they decided to give it more. The session musicians rushed a final version of the song, piling gloop all over it.
Gloria Estefan is a gifted, fluid singer with a lot of vulnerability in her voice. But there’s something extremely stagey about her delivery — a showy and heavily polished quality that, combined with that canned production, keeps me from feeling a song like “Anything For You” on any kind of gut level. Both in her lyrics and in her delivery, Estefan captures the feeling of being unable to convince yourself to stop caring about this other person. But all that garbage production smothers her melody and keeps her voice from doing what it needs to do.
Look: It’s a personal thing. This kind of ballad just loses me everytime. Millions of people around the globe cry to songs like this one. They play it at weddings and funerals. They hear majesty in all those synth-horn stabs and noodley guitar flourishes. I don’t want to shit on any of that. These people do not need my snark. But I just do not get it. For me, precious few of these ballads have melodies strong enough to withstand that kind of treacle-swamp arrangement, and few singers have the power to push through all those amber waves of corn. “Anything For You” can’t do it, and neither can Gloria Estefan. The success of the Estefan jukebox musical On Your Feet! makes sense; maybe a song like “Anything For You” was always meant for Broadway.
“Anything For You” was huge. Estefan recorded versions of the song in Spanish and Spanglish, and her label released the Let It Loose album in Europe under the title Anything For You. In the Netherlands, that album was a world-swallowing smash, holding the #1 spot for 22 weeks. That’s some Thriller shit.
After the “Anything For You” single hit in the US, the group released one more Let It Loose single, the dance track “1-2-3,” and it peaked at #3. (It’s a 6.) That song was written by Kiki George, the longtime drummer who’d joined the Miami Latin Boys as a teenager. At that point, George was the only original member of the band who was still touring with them. In the studio, Emilio used session musicians, many of whom got pissed off about perceived lack of respect. For the tours, Emilio hired recent graduates of the University Of Miami music school.
Kiki George had a hand in writing most of the group’s dance hits, but he felt himself getting pushed out. In 1988, he left the group, and the Estefan family retired the Miami Sound Machine name. Gloria Estefan was now a solo artist. As a solo artist, she’ll appear in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Something I’ve learned from putting this section together: Wayne Wonder really loved making reggae versions of big American pop ballads. Here’s his 1989 take on “Anything For You”:
(Wayne Wonder’s highest-charting single, 2003’s glorious “No Letting Go,” peaked at #11.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Donna Summer singing an extremely long version of “Anything For You” as part of a Spanish TV special in 1990:
THE 10S: The Pet Shop Boys’ incandescent quasi-freestyle version of the bittersweet country standard “Always On My Mind” peaked at #4 behind “Anything For You.” It keeps me satisfied. It’s a 10.