As streaming music services become more ubiquitous, the ability to configure new listening experiences through the creation and sharing of playlists has implications for how culture and identity is communicated and understood. The rise of streaming is plotted concurrently with the changing demographics of the United States and the ongoing formation of U.S. Latino racial and cultural identity. This paper examines the transformation of Latino communities in America from distinct regional and ethnic groupings, with unique musical genres and tastes, towards an increasingly pan-ethnic Latino identity as Latin musical genres are remixed and mashed up. In particular, this paper asks how users of the popular Spotify streaming service construct their own “Latino” playlists. Embedded within these evolving cultural artifacts are the politics of a Latino population in flux, with social forces attempting to shape Latinos into a marketable and voting entity and marshal its cultural resources towards those goals.
Alongside tabs for EDM, Hip-Hop, Workout and Chill in the “Genres and Moods” section of the Spotify application there is a tab for “Latino.” Neither classifiable as a genre or mood, the inclusion of a Latino tab nonetheless does not seem out of place. Adorned with the silhouette of a Spanish guitar, this tab houses playlists from a mishmash of genres from across Latin America along with top “Latino” hit playlists.
While gathering more mainstream attention, prompting some to say Latino music has “arrived,” U.S. Latino musical styles have historical legacies in the U.S. stretching into Latin America. The overarching signifier Latino obscures its diverse histories, as “Latino music making has always entailed crossing musical, geographic, racial and ethnic boundaries” (Pacini Hernandez 2010). Yet as an emerging category, “Latino music” deserves some scrutiny.
Examining “Latino music” as social phenomena cannot be separated from the ongoing political reality. There is surging attention in the political mainstream by pundits and politicians towards the “changing demographics” of the nation and the so-called “emergence” of Latinos (Taylor, Fry 2007). The Latinization of America is being met with anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric (Chavez 2013) and paradoxically, a budding optimism that Latinos will rejuvenate and transform American politics (Barreto, Segura 2014).
The nexus of Latino politics of assimilation, protest, immigration and citizenship and Latino musical expression is apparent in the Salsa scene in New York (Padilla 2004) and the popularity of Narcocorridos on the U.S./Mexican Border describing the drug trade (Wald 2002). For an underrepresented community, there are few prominent Latino political leaders, the onus of speaking up for the gente falls to popular musicians. Spikes in nativist attitudes periodically arise in American political feeling during times of economic uncertainty (Higham 1955). In 2015, the anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric of leading presidential candidate Donald Trump ® prompted the popular bands Maná and Los Tigres de Norte to hold up a banner that read “Latinos unidos no voten por racistas” during a performance of “Somos Más Americanos” at the 2015 Latin Grammys. Although both bands are based in Mexico, their popularity in the U.S. allows them to make political claims on the behalf of U.S. Latinos. Following their performance, the Maná lead singer said to Rolling Stone, “We took this iconic song [of Los Tigres del Norte] and are using it as a weapon of protest to what’s happening here with immigration reform and all the xenophobic remarks made by Donald Trump” (Raygoza 2015).
The other side of privileging popular musicians to speak for U.S. Latinos reveals however that they are not simply avatars for Latino communities but also avatars for commercial interests seeking to create and corner the Latino market. This marketing logic is apparent when Pitbull, a Cuban-American rapper with large crossover appeal, is “shown shilling vodka, Bud Light and Dr. Pepper and says in an interview, ‘We’re a very loyal culture, that’s why products want us so bad because we’re loyal consumers’” in the HBO documentary “The Latin Explosion: A New America” (Hale 2015). This is not an innocent remark on the peculiarities of Latino consumers, the supposed loyalty of Latino consumers is a marketing fiction created by early Hispanic advertising firms to justify mainstream product marketing budgets (Davila 56-87 2010). Corporations and other commercial interests have taken notice of the “emerging Hispanic market” in the United States and seek to capture the immense buying power of over 50 million people. For marketers, Latino attention and consumption is “hot”- engendering a 5 billion dollar marketing industry with growth outpacing general audience marketing (Davila 1-22 2012).
Thus the gaze of industrial and power relations within and outside of Latino communities cannot be separated from the act of listening to, sharing, remixing and ultimately creating a Latino genre of music in the America. This paper examines how the practice of creating Latino playlists on social music streaming applications such as Spotify by users and sharing them contributes to the construction of the overarching racial signifier Latino.
Users created playlists on streaming applications are fertile ground for critical analysis because they represent creative expressions of everyday people and feature low barriers of participation. Constructed as public representations of musical taste, they also serve as grounded perceptions of what Latino music is versus what professionally curated playlists purport to present. At the same time, even as popular representations of taste, hegemonic categorization of what Latino music is filters in throughout people’s ways of knowing.
This paper presents a literature review covering the key concepts necessary to understand the research problem, a section detailing the data collection and analysis, and concludes with a discussion of the results and other final thoughts including the limitations of the research and future directions.