Romeo Santos Da Gawd: How the King of Bachata Has Become a Crossover Pop Icon on His Own Terms

Tonight's inaugural Latin American Music Awards offer another career benchmark for the King of Bachata, but his role as a Latin pop star crossing over on his own terms is already well-established.

Oct 8 2015, 2:59pm

Romeo Santos performs in Brooklyn / Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage

“If I lift up your skirt, will you give me the right to measure your sanity?” seductively croons the hottest Latino in America, Romeo Santos, against a menacing bachata backdrop on “Propuesta Indecente.” The salacious and wildly popular song is from his best-selling record yet, 2014's Formula, Vol. 2. Nearly two years since its music video released, it has accumulated a staggering 790 million YouTube views (far beating Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies and Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River”), was noted Argentina’s most watched video in a decade, and continues to become a global chart-topper. The video features the 34-year-old self-proclaimed King of Bachata on a quest to seduce and titillate—a quest that has clearly proven successful.

Santos’s fame hasn’t gone unrecognized. He’s already made waves by becoming the first Latino in history to headline at Yankee Stadium, with two sold-out dates in 2014. (Pink Floyd or Metallica couldn’t pack it; Jay Z did, but with the help of Eminem and Justin Timberlake.) He made a high-profile cameo in Furious 7 and will feature as the voice of Early Bird in the upcoming film Angry Birds. Headlines like “You’re Not a True Pop Fan Unless You Know Romeo Santos” continue to invade the blogosphere. And tonight, he’s up for four awards, including Artist of the Year and Song of the Year (for his hit “Hilito”), at Telemundo’s inaugural Latin American Music Awards. Could Romeo Santos be a Spanish-language pop tipping point for America? And how did a Bronx-born Dominican/Puerto Rican vocalist become the bachata phenomenon, the poster boy of Latin music, and a pop icon in the making?

Importantly, too, how did a rural style of Dominican music rise to worldwide prominence? Well, it all started in 1993 when a group of four first-generation American teenage boys attending South Bronx High School formed a band called Los Tinellers (a.k.a. The Teenagers). Together, Romeo, Lenny, Henry, and Max Santos sung the music of their ancestors, with original compositions in traditional structures. Embellished in leading nylon guitar riffs (a playing style knows as balada), sultry bongo rhythms in 4/4, and backing youthful harmonies, their self-produced LP Trampa de Amor released in 1995. True to the bachata tradition, their storytelling touched on love, but mainly heartbreak.

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In fact, back when bachata originated in the countryside of Dominican Republic in the early 20th century, it was known amargue (bitter music). Associated with the subordinate class, bachata was viewed as crass by those privileged. Oftentimes, the lyrics chronicled the harsh, quotidian realities of the lower classes, and the music played in bars and brothels around Santo Domingo—unlike its counterpart, merengue, which was once considered the national identity of Dominican music by decree and often received posh and lavish treatment in nightclubs during the 30s and 40s. It took approximately 40 years for bachata to gain acceptance, but it finally did, perhaps thanks to its first superstar, Blas Durán, who became known for the hilarious, sexual double-entendres in his lyrics and for plugging in electric guitars. In the 90s, Juan Luis Guerra’s Bachata Rosa celebrated the genre and gave it a new image of sophistication by fusing it with merengue. Thus, it reached the wealthier and launched beyond the Caribbean, throughout the Americas.

Los Tinellers took tremendous influences from these legends from the island. By the time their second album, Generation Next, dropped at the start of the millennium, the Santos men had changed their moniker to Aventura. Continuing to use traditional bachata as the foundation of their music, they added new ingredients to the old recipe: flirtatious R&B vocals and a New York hip-hop attitude. Not everyone took the innovative sound to great likings, especially bachata purists. However, when 2002’s We Broke the Rules was released, all hell broke loose. Aventura solidified their swoon-worthy bachata city swag brand and became international stars.

Through their heady discography, Aventura globalized bachata, arguably making it bigger than merengue, even salsa. Thereafter, a slew of young generation bachateros—Prince Royce, Leslie Grace, Bachata Heightz— followed in their footsteps. In 2011, the four-piece disbanded to work on individual projects. Lenny released 2012’s Aventurero, later joining brother Max to form the band Vena, while Henry dropped 2011’s Introducing Henry Santos and 2013’s My Way. Yet even though their solo careers experienced reasonable success, it wouldn’t compare to the tremendous feat of the ex-Aventura frontman’s solo path.

Unleashing his superpowers via two solo albums (2012’s Formula, Vol. 1 and 2014’s Vol. 2) combined with rousing live performances and star-studded collaborations, Romeo Santos has quickly gone on to make an unprecedented achievement in Latin music. And he’s redefining the meaning of crossover, setting aside the pretense that he needs to assimilate or cater to the white Anglo market (think Shakira—since Laundry Service, the Colombia singer dyes her hair blonde and makes all-English albums).

Instead, America is crossing over to Latin music, listening to Santos sing in Spanish as he makes Dominican bachata. Besides collaborating with Latin icons Juan Luis Guerra, Tego Calderon, and Carlos Santana, he’s pulled America’s biggest superstars—people like Usher, Lil Wayne, Drake, and Nicki Minaj—onto his songs to sing with him, in Spanish. There’s an undeniable market for it: In his home city of New York, where he sold out the two nights at Yankee Stadium, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans alone account for around 1.5 million people. And nationwide the share of Latinos will reach 18 percent by 2020.

Numbers aside, Romeo Santos’s music is enrapturing. His spine-tingling, tender vocals are enough to make admirers lose their shit, even little boys—it’s almost witchcraft. His songs are more thematically complex than much of American pop music: “Eres Mia,” from his latest album, tells the tale of a man’s mission to lure a married woman, and “Hilito” chronicles the heartache of love lost, and how he hangs by a thread to get it back. Meanwhile, bongos sinuously interplay with slinky guitar riffs. While performing live, he will typically invite and serenade a lucky lady on stage, which will frequently lead to some level of kissing, groping, or thrusting—whether provoked by him or them. Like a quixotic Don Juan-meets-boyish dreamer à la Shakespearean Romeo but with the charismatic assertiveness of a Latin chivalry, Romeo Santos has made a sensational career out of all things pasión. He has become the epitome of what a “Latin lover” should be.

He is also breaking the macho stereotype that has surrounded Latino culture for centuries. The chilling, heart-rending “No Tiene La Culpa” is about a gay teenager with a homophobic, abusive dad. For bachata traditionalists, this is a highly unconventional song theme. Many people have expressed some form of disapproval, sometimes calling Santos gay, but largely the results are seen as progress for equality within the bachata milieu. When asked why he made such a statement, Santos responded, “The message is that we shouldn’t worry about anyone’s sexual preference, color race, language or anything because we are all equal.” He also stated that he wanted to go beyond the commercial, which for bachata has long been songs about love and heartbreak.

Romeo Santos is making a significant yet meaningful dent not just in bachata, but also in Latin music—and evidently American pop. For the millions of first, second, and third generation Hispanics living in the US, and Latinos worldwide, Santos is a symbol of Latin pride with humane substance. He’s crossed over on his own terms, not those proscribed by the Anglo-American establishment. While award shows and comparable benchmarks offer an opportunity to formalize his accomplishments, Santos’s status is already clear. His rags-to-riches story of a self-made millionaire gives hope to Latinos that we too can conquer the world embracing our culture—and be fucking sexy while doing it.

Isabela Raygoza is a writer living in New York. Follow her on Twitter.