Mi Vida Loca

Oh, to be Ricky Martin. His face appears on MTV nearly 24 hours a day. Record executives salivate over his record sales. Madonna worships him. Members of both sexes lust for him. And the media have anointed him the prince of a rising Latin-pop revolution.

The Puerto Rican singer was anything but a household name just a few months ago. Then his hungry, grab-success-by-the-throat performance of “The Cup of Life” (the official song of the 1998 World Cup) at the Grammys in February resuscitated that musty mausoleum of a show. After the ceremonies, Madonna planted a very public kiss on the singer, and his record-label status was instantly upgraded from Sony Latin to Columbia. Martin’s English-language debut became a priority for the entertainment conglomerate, which set off a frenzied P.R. campaign that yielded coverage like Entertainment Weekly’s panting cover line ricky martin: crazy, sexy, drool.

But as with most overnight-success stories, Martin’s night was a long one. A child actor since age 8, he was recruited into the Latin boy band Menudo at 12. He spent five years with the group before he was let go because of Menudo management’s age restrictions. Avoiding a Behind the Music-ready life of drugs, self-pity, and excess, Martin kept himself busy with a recurring role on General Hospital and a brief stint in Les Miserables until he landed a recording contract with Sony in 1990.

Four Spanish-language albums followed, most notably 1998’s Vuelve, for which Martin took home the Grammy for Best Latin Pop Performance on the very same night he thrilled audiences with his performance of the World Cup theme. Martin had sold more than 15 million albums worldwide before the Grammy performance, but in a music industry where nonwhite artists are often ghettoized in “urban” or “Latin” departments, he still wasn’t considered a crossover artist.

All of which added to the storybook quality of the Grammy performance. Ricky Martin is the sort of underdog most Americans like rooting for, but as the 27-year-old singer’s self-titled English-language debut reveals, success carries a high price tag (though not in the typical crossover terms we’re so often taught to believe must define an ethnic artist’s rise to mainstream acceptance). Few outside the music industry realize that the air at the top of the corporate ladder is very, very thin indeed; at that level, all artists must succumb to market realities.

So instead of presenting an overlooked artist in a way that breaks with pop tradition, Ricky Martin offers the sound of market researchers at work. The album’s first single, “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” is a cartoonish mix of Gap-ad-era swing, Mighty Mighty Bosstones-style ska, and surf-rock twang that nearly pummels the listener into submission with its never-ending hooks. Much of the album is filled with the kind of soppy, aching balladry (like “You Stay With Me” and the hideously named “Private Emotion”) of boy bands like N’Sync and 98 Degrees that currently dominates the Top 40.

Martin’s serviceable voice (which ranges from sexy-boy whisper to Bono-esque croon) is buried under layers upon layers of strings, pounding drums, and synthesizers by heavyweight producers like Desmond Child, best known for his work with pop-rockers like Aerosmith and Bon Jovi. The songwriting, provided by Child, the ubiquitous Diane Warren, and Emilio Estefan Jr. (husband of Gloria), isn’t much better. There are cringe-inducing lyrics (“Up in the Himalayas / C’mon I wanna lay ya” from “Shake Your Bon-Bon”), and songs such as “Spanish Eyes” that present a Harlequin-romance-novel portrayal of south-of-the-border desire. (A benefit to singing in Spanish: Lots of people won’t know how crappy your lyrics are.)

Ironically, as much as Martin seems to have been prepped for the Anglo big time by his Sony bosses, the few Spanish songs on the record are the ones that work best. With its percussive, timbale-driven beat and call-and-response hook, “The Cup of Life” is an irresistible anthem. And on his much-anticipated duet with Madonna, “Be Careful (Cuidado con Mi Corazon),” Martin displays a vulnerability all too rare on this often insufferably macho record (another pitfall of Latin superstardom – just ask the constantly in-heat Antonio Banderas). When Martin croons in a sweet falsetto, “Be careful with my heart, you could break it,” while Madonna soothingly sings the chorus in Spanish, the effect is disarming and gentle. The record’s in-your-face production takes a rest here, too, thanks to U.K. electronica producer William Orbit (the mastermind behind Madonna’s own Ray of Light) who deftly meshes flamenco guitar-playing with rich, ambient soundscapes.

Of course, critical takes on the record will hardly matter when the product arrives in stores. Ricky Martin is certain to hit a bull’s-eye with the country’s most important demographics: teenagers and Latinos. (Need any more evidence about the importance of these demos? Just ask Time Warner, which has successfully launched both People en Espanol and Teen People.)

Ricky Martin will also set off a lemminglike race to sign so-called Latin-pop artists, a move typical of the perpetually asleep-at-the-wheel music industry, which tends to recognize musical trends and demographic shifts years after they initially take root. But Latin pop may turn out to be the rare case where “next big thing” status is actually deserved. The audience for Latin pop is mushrooming (Latin-music sales totaled $571 million last year), and new talent, like salsa singer Marc Anthony (who enlivened Paul Simon’s Capeman with his stunning voice) and actress turned aspiring pop star Jennifer Lopez (who’ll have a record out in June on Sony’s Work Group label), is in abundance.

As for Ricky Martin, well, his placid pop could use a dose of the kind of discomfort (and downright anger) he has already displayed at the music business’s Columbus-like discovery of Latin music. There’s a long history of angry, disillusioned-with-success follow-up records (from Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On to De La Soul’s De La Soul Is Dead). But that sort of renegade renunciation would be too much to hope for from Martin. After all, he’s never been in the business of creating art – he’s just been in the business.

Mi Vida Loca