Lovin’ La Vida Loca

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They looked so good, Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin, as only the truly beautiful can, and even then only by the genius of the hairdressers to the truly beautiful. Skintight, designer suedes and leathers gave way to lacy nothings and tighter leathers. A hand crept here, a hip dipped there. But even so, all was not right in the Manhattan photo studio. With each progressively slinkier outfit, Lopez stopped for a reaction from Sean (Puffy) Combs, who was along to offer support and direction. Lopez describes the rap impresario as just a friend. Now he demonstrated the range of his friendship. The earpiece from his mobile phone dangling from one ear, he approached Lopez, silently, palm extended. Everything froze. The actress parted her perfectly glossed lips and deposited her chewing gum in his hand. Jennifer and Ricky were now ready for their close-up.

Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez–does it get any hotter than this? His new album, “Ricky Martin,” his first in English, debuts this week at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, and his in-store appearances have stopped traffic on both coasts. Lopez–star of “Out of Sight” and “Selena”–releases her debut album, “On the 6,” next week. Multiskilled, multilingual entertainers, Martin and Lopez are riding the first important demographic wave of the next millennium: by 2009, Latinos will pass African-Americans as the largest minority group in the United States. Sales of Latin music in the United States neared $600 million in 1998, and are up 46 percent so far this year. In her plush hotel suite in New York recently, Lopez made light of the timing. Hugging her knees to her chest, bare ankles peeking out from her tight Capri pants, she smiled mischievously. “It’s always,” she said, “a good time to be Latin.”

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Before Ricky Martin began his English-language album, his managers called for an anthem in Spanglish: something Anglo audiences could rock to, with enough Spanish to gratify his core Latino base. “Also,” says the veteran songwriter Desmond Child, “we wanted to write the millennium party song from hell.” They came up with “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” a caffeinated rock number drenched in swing. Before the English-speaking public even knew his name, Martin, an alum of the Puerto Rican boy band Menudo and later “General Hospital,” had launched an enormously successful solo career. His previous four albums, all in Spanish, sold more than 15 million copies worldwide and scored No. 1 hits in 30 countries. “Livin’ La Vida Loca” made it 31. After a decade of grunged- or thugged-out male pop stars, here was a wholesome, safe-sex symbol for all persuasions. “If you go to a concert of mine,” he says appreciatively, “you can see the guy taking the girl, a bunch of guys alone, parents and grandparents. I want people to see that.”

In a luxe villa on Lake Como, Italy, Martin offers an Indian greeting called a namaste. The reverent bow, which also closes every performance, is a humble counterpoint to his global-size ambitions. He has come here to perform the English songs for the first time, small challenge for his European fans: they’ve already loved him in Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese. He picked up the namaste on a recent trip to India, which he calls a spiritual awakening. “I felt a comfort I never felt before. If you listen to Hindi music, it connects to the Gypsy music from Spain, which connects back to Latin America.” A volcanic live performer, in person he is soft-spoken and formal as few American pop stars are. After 15 years in the spotlight, he still seems to enjoy it. “I meditate every morning,” he says. “The adrenaline you deal with every day can be fatal. Not to be dramatic, but there’s a lot of people in the entertainment business who aren’t [around] today.”

Martin’s songs are less Latin workouts than frothy cocktails of global pop styles. “La Copa de la Vida,” which he sang at the Grammy Awards, is vaguely Brazilian in rhythm and instrumentation. “Be Careful (Cuidado Con Mi Corazon)” features Madonna, mother to the most famous Latina baby in America, singing in Spanish, while Ricky responds in English. “I play with cultures,” says Martin, who was raised in Puerto Rico, where he discovered Journey and David Bowie before Tito Puente. “I can play with Anglo sounds, but in my blood, in my veins, it’s Latin.”

Martin takes pains to assure his Latino audience that he isn’t deserting them to sing in English. But his fans live a crossover existence: translating ideas and experiences from Spanish into English, then back again, every day. At a CD signing in Miami’s South Beach, Leana Villareal, 21, a student at the University of Florida in Gainesville, is tired but eager after waiting in line since the night before. “I became Ricky’s fan when he was on a Mexican soap opera called ‘Alcanzar Una Estrella II’,” she says. Villareal met her friend Maribel Alicia, 24, online at the Ricky Martin Web site. “I love the way he’s always true to himself and true to Puerto Rico,” says Alicia, who is half Chilean and half Cuban. “You’ve got to be proud of the way that he’s broken down so many barriers.”

In the pantheon of Latina America, Lopez cuts a very different profile. “Jennifer’s butt,” says Nely Galan, the first female president of the Spanish-language TV network Telemundo, “is to die. [Latina] girls grow up with hourglass figures and big butts, and the women you see become movie stars are tall, thin and hipless, more like Gwyneth Paltrow. Now all these Latina girls are going, ‘Good, my butt is hot’.”

At Sony recording studios in Manhattan, Lopez is feeling her roots. Today she is dressed in tight T shirt and jeans for an MTV interview in a subway station. The famous makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin and equally famous hairstylist Oribe are on hand to perfect the look: Latina girl from the Bronx. It is an easy stretch. Born and raised in the Bronx, the daughter of a Puerto Rican teacher and computer specialist, Lopez always wanted to be an entertainer, even back in Holy Family Catholic School. She got her first break as a dancing Fly Girl on TV’s “In Living Color,” and has simply added careers from there. “If I could describe myself in a few words,” she says, ” ‘strong’ would be one of them. I know what I want, and I’m willing to go after it.” Her album, a slick mix of R&B and Latinish grooves, is a testimony to that ambition, a funky extension of the Lopez brand. Singing almost wholly in English, Lopez carries the songs simply, without much fuss. “Now,” she says, “the world is starting to see what it’s like to grow up in a Latin family: the flavor and the culture and the passion and the music. We’re a very passionate people.” She laughs about having jumped a subway turnstile at the MTV interview. “I’ve gotta work out,” she gasps, patting her hip. “My ass!”

Will Martin’s success open the floodgates for other Latin musicians? Desmond Child is doubtful. “When people say the Latin music explosion, I beg to differ,” he says. “There’s been one artist, and his name is Ricky Martin.” Celia Cruz, the queen of salsa music, says of the American audience, “Si no entiende, no atiende: if they don’t understand, they don’t pay attention. They’ll play Gloria Estefan, and now Ricky Martin, who has recorded in English.” But salsa legends like herself and Tito Puente, she says, still “don’t get played. We’ve advanced, but we’re not where we want to be.”

The salsa star Marc Anthony, who is recording his own English-language album in the studio next to Lopez’s, stops in to say hello. Anthony sang a duet on Lopez’s album–all in the Sony family, under the eye of corporate impresario Tommy Mottola–and he has just returned from a meeting at the label. “I went shopping today,” he tells Lopez. “Oh, yeah,” she asks. “For what?” “Money.” This surely is where the real advances will be made, in the corporate suites. A decade ago Latin music was a niche business, as were rap, country and alternative. In the splintered new world order, says Mottola, “this is a core business for us.” Timing, after all, is everything. Ricky and Jennifer are ready for their crossover.

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LATIN MUSIC: A DOZEN OF THE BEST AND BRASHEST

PURISTS LOVE “BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB” (NONESUCH), AND “AMERICANOS” (ATLANTIC) PROVIDES A GREAT MULTIGENRE INTRODUCTION. BUT FOR THE BEST OF WHAT’S IN LATIN HOMES TODAY, FROM TRADITIONAL TO PURE POP AND BEYOND, HERE’S OUR FANTASY BOXED SET. COMPILED BY THOMAS HAYDEN AND ANA FIGUEROA.

Cubanismo!, ‘Reencarnacion’ (Hannibal) Cuban troubadours keep it real while updating traditional styles

Los Tigres del Norte, ‘Contrabanda y Traicion’ (Fonovisa) Norteno accordions, tubas. What’s not to like?

Vicente Fernandez, ‘Entre el Amor y Yo’ (Sony Discos) The King of ranchero, with the sombrero collection to prove it

Alejandro Fernandez, ‘Me Estoy Enamorando’ (Sony Discos) Takes Dad’s ranchero to new romantic heights

Marc Anthony, ‘Contra la Corriente’ (RMM) East Harlem singer-actor is most visible of the young salsa stars

Elvis Crespo, ‘Suavamente’ (Sony Discos) Seriously suave Puerto Rican provides deeply danceable merengue

Juan Gabriel, ‘Juan Gabriel en Bellas Artes’ (Ariola) Flamboyant balladeer celebrates 25 years in the biz

Luis Miguel, ‘Todos los Romances’ (WEA Latina) Swoon-inducing Mexican romantica crooner’s boxed set

Ozomatli, ‘Ozomatli’ (Almo Sounds) New millennium arrives; L.A. powerhouse plays the street party

Mana, ‘Suenos Liquidos’ (WEA Latina) Rock en espanol megastars channel the Police, add Latin flourishes

Shakira, ‘Donde Estan los Ladrones’ (Sony Discos) The Latin Alanis: frank songs, big pipes, solid riffs. All rock.

Big Punisher, ‘Capital Punishment’ (Loud/RCA) Top Bronxster boasts most rhymes per line in hip-hop

Photo: PUERTO RICAN PRIDE: Martin passed on starring with Lopez in a ‘West Side Story’ remake. ‘It would represent gangs and stereotypes about my culture.’

Photo: Lopez’s new video (above), Madonna and Martin at the Grammys. ‘Madonna’s a great salsa dancer,’ he says.

Graphic: Latin Music: A Dozen of the Best and Brashest

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