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.
It was nowhere, and then it was everywhere. In 1993, the unknown middle-aged Spanish duo Los Del Rio recorded a fun, silly dance song called “Macarena.” The members of Los Del Rio didn’t have anything to do with the various “Macarena” remixes that followed or with the line-dance moves that quickly became inextricable from the song. Three years later, “Macarena” wasn’t just a hit single or a dance craze. It was a glittering artifact of the monoculture — a thing that everybody knew, that nobody could escape.
It’s impossible to name one signature moment for “Macarena” or for the dance that went along with it. There were simply too many. In July of 1996, for instance, “Macarena” hadn’t even reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 yet. But the Magnificent Seven of the US women’s gymnastics team won a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, and they celebrated their victory by doing the Macarena.
Or maybe the big Macarena moment happened at Yankee Stadium in August. There, during a Yankees/Mariners game, 50,000 people did the Macarena together, setting a record for the most people doing the arm-arm-chest-chest thing in the same place at the same time. This publicity stunt was a direct fuck-you to the Mariners, who’d previously set the record by hosting 37,000 people doing the Macarena at their own stadium two months earlier.
The Macarena moment that most of us remember best might be what went down at the Democratic National Convention in August. There, the assembled Democrats, cruising to a November rout of Bob Dole, were arrogant enough to put on a display of clumsy, euphoric gyration so deeply awkward that it seems to go viral every couple of years. Witness, if you will, a manically grinning Hillary Clinton opting out of the Macarena itself, simply clapping along while the power-brokers around her debase themselves.
Behold future presidential loser Al Gore opening his nomination speech by mocking his own inability to do the Macarena.
Al Gore and Hillary Clinton were among the only Americans who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do the Macarena in public at any given opportunity. Part of the magic of the Macarena was that anybody could do that stupid dance. It was the sort of thing that you could pick up by watching anyone else do the dance for 10 seconds — sort of like one of those ’80s movie scenes where somebody does a dance and then everyone else in the immediate vicinity locks into the exact same choreography. You didn’t need much sense of rhythm to do the Macarena. You didn’t need to remember too many steps. You simply had to be aware of the location of your chest, head, and butt, and you needed to be able to put your hands on those parts in sequence. Few dance crazes are quite so undemanding.
The general ease of the Macarena did not hurt the brisk sales of VHS Macarena instructionals. My parents owned one of those how-to-do-the-Macarena videos. (I think it was a gag gift.) A couple of years ago, when I helped my parents move into assisted living, I found that Macarena video sitting on top of a box of crap. For more than 20 years, over multiple moves, they had kept that strange little physical reminder of mid-’90s cultural flotsam. This had more to do with their hoarder tendencies than their lingering affection for “Macarena,” but they still had the damn thing. I wonder how many of those Macarena videos are still in people’s chaotic personal collections and how many of them are currently cluttering up landfills.
I’ve been writing this column for years because I’m fascinated with pop music, with how it’s received in its moment and how it’s developed over the decades. “Macarena” almost sits outside of that conversation. “Macarena” was a fad that came out of nowhere, dominated all of popular culture for several months, and then almost instantly became an embarrassing reminder of how fads work. As a song, “Macarena” managed to become one of the biggest hits of 1996 without sounding much like any other 1996 hits. It’s a puzzling little island, and it’s got a fascinating history of its own.
Los Del Rio were — and are — Antonio Romero Monge and Rafael Ruiz Perdigones, two Spanish musicians who spent decades making traditional Spanish party music before recording the song that would make them rich. Monge and Perdigones came from the Andalusian city of Dos Hermanas, just south of Seville, and they started making music together in 1962, when both of them were teenagers. They took the name Los Del Rio — Spanish for “those from the river” — and they played traditional rumba and flamenco, styles that were mostly popular in rural Spain.
In the early ’90s, the middle-aged members of Los Del Rio had released dozens of albums, and they’d built up enough of an audience in the Spanish-speaking world that they’d been invited to tour South America. One night in Venezuela, Los Del Rio were invited to a party that was thrown by the TV executive Gustavo Cisneros. There, they were captivated by a local flamenco dancer named Diana Herrera. While watching her perform, Los Del Rio got up and improvised an early version of what we now know as the “Macarena” chorus. That chorus translates roughly to this: “Give your body happiness, Macarena, because your body is for receiving happiness and good things.”
When they got back to their Venezuelan hotel, the members of Los Del Rio spent about five minutes writing lyrics for the song that they’d improvised. In its original form, “Macarena” is a song about a free-spirited young woman who loves going out dancing. Her boyfriend Vittorino is doing his compulsory military service, and she goes out with other guys while he’s gone. She also dreams about moving to New York and finding herself a new boyfriend. When Los Del Rio first wrote the song, “Macarena” was originally “Magdalena.” The duo changed the name to Macarena because of the Seville church called the Virgin Of Hope Of Macarena and because Macarena was also the name of Monge’s daughter.
Los Del Rio first performed “Macarena” at a local Seville festival, and they noticed that people were still singing the song a few days later. That original “Macarena” isn’t a club song, but it is a dance song, built on a heavy handclap rhythm and on their own acoustic guitars. It’s already got that “Aiiight” sound, which Los Del Rio apparently included in a lot of their songs.
The duo were signed to the Spanish arm of BMG, and when “Macarena” started to catch on regionally, their label people commissioned some dance remixes to see if the song could get club play. One of those remixes came from the Madrid dance duo Fangoria. That remix tied the Los Del Rio track to a syncopated electronic thump while keeping the original track’s rhythms intact. Fangoria essentially transformed “Macarena” into a club track, and they also added a “whoa-oh-oh” sample that they took from “Higher And Higher,” a 1991 track from the shaggy Liverpool dance-rockers the Farm. (The Farm’s only Hot 100 hit, 1991’s “Groovy Train,” peaked at #41.) Fangoria’s remix eventually became the basis for the version of “Macarena” that took off worldwide, but Fangoria didn’t get any credit for it. At one point, Fangoria tried suing American remixers the Bayside Boys for plagiarism, but they lost.
Thanks in large part to that Fangoria remix, “Macarena” spread throughout the Spanish-speaking world over the next few years. Nobody’s sure who came up with the line dance that became the Macarena, but that probably developed in Mexico. Eventually, “Macarena” became a hit in a few heavily Latino American regions like South Texas. One pop station in Seattle started playing the song and saw it become a sensation. “Macarena” was especially huge in Miami, and Jammin’ John Caride, a DJ on the hugely influential Miami pop station Power 96, started getting requests to play it whenever he spun records at clubs or parties. Caride wanted to play the song on the radio, but Power 96 had a policy that the station couldn’t play Spanish-language music. So Caride took the song to two friends who were known as the Bayside Boys, and he asked for a remix that included some English.
The Bayside Boys, Miami producers Carlos De Yarza and Mike Triay, mostly made jingles for ads and remixes specifically tailored to local radio. The duo had a two-day deadline to remix “Macarena.” They quickly wrote some English lyrics that took the basic idea of “Macarena” and made it a little hornier. In their take, the character of Macarena never mentions her boyfriend’s military service, but she laughs at him and implies that she bangs his two friends simultaneously while he’s out of town. (Tough beat for Vittorino, unless that’s what he’s into.) The Bayside Boys knew a local singer named Patricia Alfaro; she’d recorded a local car-dealership ad with them. They asked her to inhabit the character of Macarena, and she gave a very giggly performance but got across the idea that she was a young woman on the prowl.
The Bayside Boys didn’t really remix “Macarena” in any substantive way; they mostly just took the version of the song that Fangoria had already made. The Bayside Boys did, however, add a couple of extra samples. The echoing laugh on the intro of the Bayside Boys’ “Macarena” remix comes from Yaz’s almighty 1982 synthpop banger “Situation.” (“Situation” peaked at #73. Yaz’s highest-charting US single, 1982’s “Only You,” peaked at #67.) The Bayside Boys also added in Anne Bancroft telling Dustin Hoffman that she’s not trying to seduce him, but they didn’t sample that line from The Graduate. Instead, they took it from George Michael’s 1992 single “Too Funky.” They didn’t even know that it came from The Graduate. (“Too Funky” peaked at #10. It’s an 8.)
The Bayside Boys’ “Macarena” remix blew up on Miami radio, and it started to spread to other markets. That remix was unreleased at the time, and it was also completely unauthorized. The Bayside Boys got scared when they got a call from a lawyer at BMG, but after toying with the idea of hitting them with a cease-and-desist, BMG instead licensed and released the Bayside Boys’ mix of “Macarena.” BMG also hired a team of cheerleaders to dance to the song at Miami clubs. “Macarena” first charted on the Hot 100 in 1995, making it up to the middle of the chart and then falling back again. Early in 1996, BMG flew Los Del Rio to Miami; they’d never been to America before.
BMG also commissioned a “Macarena” video. The original idea was that Los Del Rio would do the dance, too, but they just couldn’t figure it out. Instead, the video shows the two of them, good-natured middle-aged guys in suits, lip-syncing into old-timey microphones while smiley young people dance around them.
Los Del Rio didn’t do too much to promote “Macarena” in the US, but the Bayside Boys did. The Bayside Boys never actually met Los Del Rio — never even talked to them on the phone — but the Miami remixers took “Macarena” on the road, performing at clubs and rodeos and any other venue that would have them. They did as many as three shows a day, bringing singers and dancers along with them. Once New York’s WKTU added “Macarena,” the song truly blew up nationally. That summer, it was everywhere. That was my first year working as a camp counselor, and we’d have to get up to do the damn Macarena in the middle of lunch. It was just what you did — a weirdly crucial component of being out in the world in the summer of ’96.
A whole lot of people made a whole lot of money from “Macarena.” It wasn’t just Yankees PR people or instructional-video manufacturers, either. A Canadian group called Los Del Mar — Spanish for “those from the sea” — seemingly formed just so that they could release their own sound-alike “Macarena” cover. Thanks to Canadian laws, that version got heavy airplay in Los Del Mar’s homeland, and it also reached #71 on the Hot 100. Los Del Rio’s original non-remixed version of “Macarena” also made it to #23 in the US. Eventually, the Bayside Boys’ “Macarena” remix spent a grand total of 60 weeks on the Hot 100 — at the time, the longest run of any single in history.
I guess this is the part of the column where I talk about “Macarena” as a song, which seems like a ridiculous thing to do. It’s not just that the song is all bound up with the dance and all the hysteria that surrounded it. There’s also the issue of overexposure. Anyone who was around in 1996 heard “Macarena” enough times to get deeply sick of it. The song’s repetitious nature didn’t help with that; that chorus comes back a few too many times. But listening to “Macarena” purely as a novelty dance track, I think it’s pretty fun.
The “Macarena” beat has an agile, sinuous quality. The samples and the excessively flirty Patricia Alfaro vocal give it a giddy energy. Alfaro and Los Del Rio might’ve never been in the same room, but there’s a nice give-and-take between Los Del Rio’s chorus and Alfaro’s verses. “Macarena” sounds cheap and slapdash, but that’s part of the appeal. Dance-craze songs are supposed to achieve a specific end; they exist merely to get people up and moving. At that, “Macarena” succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations.
The “Macarena” backlash arrived almost as soon as the song itself became a dominant hit. Before long, some radio stations started loudly touting the fact that they weren’t playing “Macarena.” Los Del Rio became definitive one-hit wonders, though they did manage one more single that charted on the Hot 100. Later in 1996, the duo made it to #57 with the extremely unnecessary “Macarena Christmas.”
In my memory, “Macarena” started off as a fun, goofy thing to do at parties and quickly evolved into an oppressive presence. At the time, it felt like some shadowy, powerful figures were forcing “Macarena” on us — like it was part of some grand experiment on the effect of repetitive sounds on collective mental health. But then, record labels can’t manufacture something like “Macarena.” If they could, they’d do it all the time. It’s all they’d ever do. Instead, “Macarena” happened through accident and happenstance — a slow-spreading organic smash that grew into something else. Maybe that’s why I look back at it with a certain fondness now. Or maybe it’s just that I was 16 and I thought girls looked hot when they did the dance. Either way, I can think of a whole lot of worse things that have come to infect American life. The Macarena was silly and stupid and harmless, and a silly, stupid, harmless dance craze can be a glorious thing.
BONUS BEATS: There were naturally a whole lot of “Macarena” parodies in 1996 and 1997 — things like MC Rage’s “Fuck Macarena” and the GrooveGrass Boyz’ country version of “Macarena.” My favorite of those is “Marijuana,” the 1997 spoof from the LA death metal band Brujeria. Here’s that:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: I almost included a scene from Doug Liman’s 1999 movie Go in this section. I like that movie a lot, but the scene in question uses a different remix of “Macarena,” so it’s not really true to the “Macarena” experience. Instead, here’s the climactic moment from Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation where Dracula’s son-in-law uses his DJ powers to defeat the evil Abraham Van Helsing by getting a giant sea monster to do the Macarena:
(Adam Sandler’s highest-charting single, 1996’s “The Chanukah Song,” peaked at #80. The highest-charting single from Andy Samberg’s group the Lonely Island, the 2010 Akon collab “I Just Had Sex,” peaked at #30. “Good Vibrations” and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” the other songs from that scene, have already appeared in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Tyga built his 2019 single “Ayy Macarena” on a sample of “Macarena.” In the video, which remakes The Mask for some reason, Tyga performs alongside the now-much-older Los Del Rio. Here’s that video:
(Tyga’s highest-charting single, 2010’s “Rack City,” peaked at #7. It’s a 10.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In Clint Eastwood’s 2019 movie Richard Jewell, there’s a crowd scene at the Olympics in Atlanta where Jon Hamm is slightly confused to see everyone around him doing the Macarena. I like Hamm’s reaction, but I love the idea of Clint Eastwood overseeing a mass Macarena situation. But the scene really does capture what it was like in 1996, so I guess Eastwood was paying attention. Maybe Clint saw people doing the Macarena on the set of Absolute Power. Anyway, here’s that piece of filmmaking:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the intense scene from Titane, the fucked-up and excellent French art-horror film that won the Palme D’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Vincent Lindon uses “Macarena” to teach Agathe Rousselle how to do CPR:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Donna Lewis’ sunlight-bursting-through-clouds slow-motion endorphin-rush “I Love You Always Forever,” a song that has literally reduced me to tears more than once, peaked at #2 behind “Macarena.” Feels like it’s standing in a timeless dream of light mist, of pale amber rose. It’s a 10.
Céline Dion’s version of the Jim Steinman song “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” — a recording so maximally melodramatic that listening to it feels like standing on a mountaintop, pulling your own heart out of your chest, and offering it up to the sky — also peaked at #2 behind “Macarena.” It’s a 9.