The Number Ones

September 4, 1999

The Number Ones: Enrique Iglesias’ “Bailamos”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

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.

“Tonight, we dance.” You couldn’t possibly invent a better, cheesier, more ridiculous three-word phrase for a Spanish heartthrob introducing himself to an English-language audience. By the time he conquered the American charts for the first time, the 24-year-old Enrique Iglesias already had a lot going for him: international stardom, a famous last name, the kind of absurd handsomeness that doesn’t seem real. Those are all valuable assets, but they’re not enough to push a song to the top of the Hot 100. For that, you need to be shameless enough to grab the zeitgeist by the hand and whisper in its ear. Enrique Iglesias was (and is) nothing if not shameless, and “Bailamos,” his first-ever English-language single, was brazen enough to swoon its way to the top.

Part of that is timing. 1999 was the year of the so-called Latin pop explosion, a moment that saw quite a few artists of Latin descent pushing their way to the top of the charts. All of those artists came from different places, and some of them didn’t even put their heritage front-and-center. (It was a while before I knew that Christina Aguilera, the singer who had the #1 song in America just before Enrique, was half-Ecuadorian.) Enrique Iglesias had a curious distinction as one of the stars of that Latin pop boom: He isn’t even Latin, at least in the way that the phrase is generally understood. Instead, he’s European.

Enrique Iglesias came from Spain and lived most of his life in Miami. But before he made his English-language debut, Enrique had already spent a few years dominating the Latin charts. When he moved into the English-language market, Enrique pushed the Latin thing as hard and as shamelessly as he possibly could. The end result is a song that embraces the whole Latin-lover stereotype as hard as Rudolph Valentino in a Zorro mask with a rose clamped between his teeth — a song so over-the-top in its sexy theatricality that I can’t help but admire it.

You probably already know his father. In 1963, Real Madrid goalkeeper Julio Iglesias suffered a car accident that left him unable to walk for two years. With his soccer career over, Julio focused on music. Five years after his accident, Julio won the Benidorm International Song Festival and signed with Discos Columbia. Over the next few decades, Julio became one of the most popular balladeers in the world. He recorded in Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, German, even Russian. In 1981, Julio’s disco-flavored take on the Cole Porter song “Begin The Beguine” became his English-language breakthrough. It didn’t chart in the US, but it went to #1 in the UK.

Willie Nelson was on vacation in London with his wife when he heard Julio’s take on “Begin The Beguine” in a restaurant, and he decided that he wanted to work with this singer. He found out the singer’s name, and he told his manager that he didn’t care if this guy was an unknown; they needed to record together. When Nelson heard that Iglesias was one of the biggest stars in the world, he figured that was even better. Willie and Julio duetted on “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before,” a song that Albert Hammond and Hal David had written together in 1975.

Julio and Willie released their version of the song in 1984, and it became the highest-charting Hot 100 single for either singer. (It’s a 3. One other Willie Nelson song, 1982’s “Always On My Mind,” also peaked at #5; that one is a 10.) “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” was Julio Iglesias’ only major American hit, but the man was established. For long stretches of time, Julio Iglesias might’ve been the only Spanish-language singer who most Americans could’ve named.

In 1970, when he was first becoming famous, Julio Iglesias met Isabel Preysler, an aristocratic Filipina woman who’d moved to Spain and started working as a TV host after some time as a model. Julio was the first person she’d ever interviewed. The two married in 1971, and they had three kids before splitting up in 1979. The third of those kids was Enrique Iglesias. (When Enrique was born, the #1 song in America was Tony Orlando & Dawn’s “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You).”)

When Enrique was a little kid, he and the other Iglesias children lived with their mother in Madrid. In 1981, though, Enrique’s grandfather Julio Iglesias, Sr. was kidnapped by the ETA, a militant Basque separatist group. The ETA demanded a two-million dollar ransom from Julio Jr., but Spanish police rescued Julio Sr. in a dramatic pre-dawn raid. At the time, Isabel Preysler was getting kidnapping threats of her own, so she sent all three of her kids to live with their father, who’d moved to Miami two years earlier. Since their father was usually traveling, those kids were mostly raised by their nanny. These, I suppose, are the drawbacks of having parents who are enormously rich and internationally famous.

Enrique went to prep school, acted in musicals, and eventually studied business at the University Of Miami for a year. The whole Enrique Iglesias origin story, which sure seems like something cooked up in a public-relations laboratory, is that Enrique wanted to become a singer but didn’t want to trade on his last name. Enrique claims that he kept his ambitions secret even from his father. Instead, Enrique got in contact with his father’s old publicist, borrowed some money from his nanny, and went to Toronto to record a demo. While shopping that demo around, Enrique concocted a whole fictional backstory, claiming that he was really Enrique Martinez, a singer from Guatemala. Those demos got him signed to the Mexican label Fonovisa, and the people at that label must’ve been very happy when they found out that they could put the word “Iglesias” on their new artist’s record covers. Enrique released his self-titled debut album in 1995.

Enrique Iglesias instantly became a sensation throughout the Spanish-speaking world. He sang grand, aching pop ballads, and he looked exactly the way that he still looks today. Enrique’s debut single “Si Tú Te Vas” reached #1 on the Billboard Latin chart, and Enrique then followed that song with an unbroken string of seven more #1 hits. To date, Enrique has racked up 27 #1 hits on that chart — the most of anyone ever. His first three albums all charted in the US, and his 1997 sophomore LP Vivir even went platinum. (Enrique’s self-titled debut also went platinum, but that didn’t happen until 2000.) When Enrique first went on tour in 1997, he played stadiums all across Latin America.

When Enrique Iglesias was blowing up across Latin America, Universal had the rights to distribute his records in Europe. That’s how he came to the attention of Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling, the two British producers behind Cher’s massive hit “Believe.” The producers flew to Miami, saw Enrique live, and realized that he was about to become huge. The producers roped in Paul Barry, one of the writers who’d worked on “Believe.” Barry figured that the best way to help Enrique break in the English-language market would be to write a song in English that included some Spanish — the same formula that fellow international megastar Ricky Martin used in “Livin’ La Vida Loca” the same year. But there was one problem: Barry didn’t speak Spanish.

“Bailamos” is the product of a bunch of English songwriters and producers doing their best to sound Spanish-ish. If you’ve ever heard “Bailamos,” this should not exactly be a surprise. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Paul Barry says, “I asked someone how to say ‘let’s dance’ in Spanish, and they said, ‘Bailamos.’ I put the accent in the wrong spot because I thought they said, ‘Bai-la-mos,’ and of course it’s ‘bai-la-mos.’ It’s funny because Enrique says people tell him it’s cool how the accent is on the third syllable. It’s my ignorance.”

Once you know that “Bailamos” comes from the same team responsible for “Believe,” you can’t unhear it. Both songs come drenched in squiggly dance-pop keyboards, and both of them have huge, unstoppable choruses. “Bailamos” also has flamenco guitars, presumably to signify Spanish romance. Barry and Taylor’s lyrics are about as on-the-nose as you could ever get with this kind of thing: “We take the floor! Nothing is forbidden anymore!” The message of the song is pretty much just: Enrique Iglesias wants to dance with you. That’s all the song really needs.

In the hands of a singer with even the tiniest iota of self-consciousness, “Bailamos” would be a borderline-offensive mess. But with Enrique Iglesias giving the song everything, it achieves a certain cheesy majesty. Enrique leans all the way into the song’s exoticist erotic rapture, whispering in Spanish on the intro and then belting the titular word out with cinematic brio. The song works mostly through Enrique’s sheer determination. He wails out that he wants to reach for the stars, and I believe him.

In a way, Enrique Iglesias and “Bailamos” were made for one another. Enrique’s favorite move is that thing where you throw your head back and to the side while swishing your hands back into a Jesus Christ pose. You can only do that move when the song you’re singing hits a vast, dramatic swell. “Bailamos” is almost nothing but big, dramatic swells. It affords Enrique multiple chances for his big move. And in the various “Bailamos” videos, Enrique does that move again and again.

“Bailamos” first came out as a bonus track on some editions of Enrique Iglesias’ 1998 Spanish-language album Cosas Del Amor, and that’s part of the reason that the song has three different music videos. When it first came out, “Bailamos” had a fairly low-budget clip, with Enrique wandering through Miami and watching people salsa dancing in the streets. Then Will Smith caught one of Enrique’s live shows and asked Enrique to contribute a song to the Wild Wild West soundtrack. (That’s why Enrique is in the “Wild Wild West” video.) A slightly different mix of “Bailamos” appeared on the movie’s soundtrack, and Enrique made another clip for the song with “Baby One More Time” director Nigel Dick. That video was shot partly in Mexico and partly on a Hollywood backlot, and it naturally featured Enrique as a sexy gunslinger.

While “Bailamos” was bubbling, Enrique Iglesias signed to Interscope in a six-album mega-deal that was reportedly worth $44 million. That’s when Enrique shot the “Bailamos” video that hit TRL hard. Future Bulletproof Monk director Paul Hunter shot that video, and it told a glitzy story about Enrique working in a nightclub and stealing a gangster’s impossibly hot girlfriend — essentially adapting the first couple of verses of Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana (At The Copa).” (“Copacabana” peaked at #8 in 1978. It’s an 8.)

Interscope basically strapped a rocket to Enrique Iglesias. “Bailamos” served as the first single from his English-language album Enrique, which came out in November 1999. Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling produced much of the album, but it also had a few songs that Enrique recorded with longtime Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard, as well as a David Foster-produced Whitney Houston duet on a Diane Warren song. Interscope was determined that “Bailamos” would not be the only Enrique Iglesias song that English-speaking Americans would hear, and Interscope was successful. Enrique’s career has been long and fruitful, and we will see him in this column again soon enough.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: In 1999, the makers of the Furby, the squeaky computer-voice Gizmo-looking robot thing that became a hugely popular late-’90s Christmas present, made Furby Mix, an album of Furby-sung pop tracks that was only available in Spain. Naturally, that album featured a Furby covering “Bailamos.” Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Sean Paul’s 2000 song “Tiger Bone,” which featured frequent collaborator Mr. Vegas interpolating the “Bailamos” melody on the chorus:

(Mr. Vegas’ only Hot 100 single, the great 2004 track “Pull Up,” peaked at #98. Sean Paul will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: I’m sorry to do this to you, but here’s William Hung’s 2004 “Bailamos” cover:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: On a 2020 episode of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Alex Newell and Patrick Ortiz sing “Bailamos” to each other on the dancefloor. I’ve never watched this show before, but this scene has me wondering if maybe I should start. Here it is:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

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