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‘Despacito’, song that keeps giving

How multiple online versions added value to the original track and helped the song become a global hit

Daddy Yankee and Louis Fonsi in the single ‘Despacito’.
Daddy Yankee and Louis Fonsi in the single ‘Despacito’.

Despacito, a single by Puerto Rican singer Louis Fonsi featuring rapper Daddy Yankee, is the latest record-breaking international hit. The Latin pop number became the first Spanish-language song to top the Billboard Hot 100 since the dance hit from 1995, Macarena. Accompanied by jaunty reggae rhythms, and contrary to what it may sound like, the main refrain of Despacito—Pacito Pacito—in fact means “slowly slowly". And the music video, shot in a crowded pub and the graffiti-walled lanes of Puerto Rico, is “exotic" enough to be the flavour of the season. Released in January, it is the first video on YouTube to get two billion views within five months.

The song, which initially made a splash largely in Latin-speaking countries, grabbed international attention when a remix featuring Canadian pop star Justin Bieber came out in April. He added some English lyrics, retained a lot of the Spanish portions and brought a more universal pop shine to it.

It isn’t a global hit, however, just because of Bieber’s version, which is the most streamed song of all time. From fans of local football clubs in Tunisia, Brazil, Korea and Israel to the Filipino brother-sister dancing duo Ranz-Niana, everyone has a share in its success. The Filipino version has 18-year-old Ranz playing the song seemingly out of the blue—in a departmental store, an elevator, a restaurant, on the street—for his nine-year-old sister Niana, who can’t help dancing to it.

The football fans were encouraged to appropriate Despacito as their anthem after supporters of Argentine sports club San Lorenzo de Almagro started it—there are thrilling YouTube videos of fans singing in unison in stadiums. There is an Indian classical version featuring a flute, a tabla and an iPad GeoShred, which sounds like an electric sitar.

Following Ed Sheeran’s Shape Of You and The Chainsmokers’ Closer, this is a new internet phenomenon, a musical equivalent of the ice-bucket challenge. There are no copyright violations because with each new rendition, the original song gets bigger; Fonsi, who hasn’t tasted this sort of global fame before, has expressed his gratitude to some of the creators of these covers. It’s like a shared game among YouTubers and social media influencers: A thing is passed from one person to the other and everyone keeps adding their own thing.

It doesn’t matter that the Spanish lyrics have sexual overtones, which could have been a hindrance to its acceptance across ages and cultures. One of the lines apparently translates to something like “You know what this babe wants from me is bam-bam." But as Niana tells Ranz in one of their videos, “It does’t matter, it’s catchy."

Despacito isn’t the first song the world has danced to without knowing what it means—remember Gangnam Style from 2012? It won’t be the last either.

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