Despacito Broke New Ground for Latin Pop – and for its Female Songwriter

Despacito has been steamrolling records – most streamed song of all time, most played song on Youtube, most weeks topping Billboard’s Hot 100 (in the version featuring Justin Beiber with original singers Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee), most popular song in Spanish. On a more subjective metric, it may be the most pegajoso earworm ever – you just can’t get that song out of your head.

Now add another marker to that list: in an overwhelmingly male-dominated Latin music world, Despacito’s co-writer is a woman. Erika Ender, a Panamanian-born songwriter living in Miami, wrote the mega-hit with Luis Fonsi, a friend and frequent collaborator, at the pop star’s Miami home one afternoon. People have written lengthy analyses of what makes Despacito so irresistible – its break with dominant EDM-style hits, its rhythm, its melody, etc. But Ender and Fonsi weren’t analyzing. They were improvising. (And proving the truth of an old music industry adage “a hit is a hit is a hit.”)

“I go to his house around 2 p.m., and he goes I’ve had this idea “Despacito, vamos a hacerlo en una playa en Puerto Rico”,” Ender said last week at the Gibson Guitar Showroom in Wynwood. “And I go “hasta que las olas griten Ay Bendito.” And we just started brainstorming.” (Translation – “Slowly, let’s do it on a beach in Puerto Rico. Until the waves shout oh my God.”)

By 6pm, they’d finished. And Ender’s female sensibility turned out to be essential to the song that’s conquered the world.

Erika Ender at the Gibson Guitar Showroom in Miami. Photo by Jordan Levin.

“[Fonsi] wasn’t that clear what kind of romance it would be,” she says. “I said that’s the way women like to be seduced, despacito. Why don’t we bring this to a new way of seducing a woman, giving her the respect she deserves in a genre that’s very aggressive to women. Let’s write a song about a guy who’s telling a woman what he wants to do but giving her her place and her space and the option of accepting him or not.”

Ender is already a highly successful veteran of the U.S. Latin pop world. The daughter of a Brazilian mother and Panamanian-American father, both doctors, she came to Miami from Panama, where she was a successful TV personality, in 1998. Fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and English, she’s been inducted into the Latin Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, won Latin Grammy and other major awards, recorded many albums of her own, and written for numerous top artists, including Chayanne, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Victor Manuelle and Ednita Nazario.

On a rainy recent weekday afternoon, Ender breezed into Gibson, a combination rehearsal space, media studio, and showroom for the legendary line of guitars, animatedly kissing and greeting people in English and Spanish, and teasing a Gibson executive about the pop star branded guitars on display. “Where’s my guitar?” she demanded, laughing, as he promised to get her one soon.

But in a Latin music business where – even more than in the U.S. mainstream – women are almost always singers, rather than musicians, producers, executives, or composers (except for themselves), and a culture still frequently dominated by traditional roles for women and men; the success of Despacito feels transformative to her.

“It empowers women,” says Ender, who is now the first female songwriter with a #1 on the Billboard Top 100. “It shows women everything is possible. My standards have always been big, my goals have always been big. But the song itself went way beyond where I thought it would go.”

“Women have sung forever. But writing or producing isn’t as normal. The music business is more a male industry. But it is changing. It’s not about competing, it’s about capabilities, and as long as you show results and that you’re good at what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter.”

Photo by Jordan Levin

Three years ago, another irresistibly catchy song in Spanish, Bailando (from Enrique Iglesias and Cubans Gente de Zona and Descemer Bueno) swept the pop world, with 2.3 billion youtube views. But Despacito is not only a much bigger hit, it’s conquered the U.S. (although it took Justin Bieber’s participation to bring it to the U.S. Anglo market and radio, that version is still almost 80% in Spanish) at a moment when xenophobia and anti-immigrant feeling, encouraged and led by the president, have reached scary new heights. In a summer Latino immigrants are being deported at an unprecedented rate, a song in Spanish, led by two Puerto Ricans, is the country’s biggest hit.

“I think this came at a perfect time,” Ender says. “To let people know we as Latinos are very valuable and rich in a lot of things. Maybe people are not thinking about it, but it is right there. You’re singing a song in Spanish. You’re dancing to a Latin rhythm. There are different ways to get through.”

A single breakthrough success, even on a global scale, doesn’t transform a system or a culture. But it can crack the wall (or glass ceiling.) The video for Despacito, with its conventionally gorgeous female dancers snaking to the camera and front-bumping their partners, uses all the typical (albeit authentic-looking) sexy Latin/urban pop moves and imagery. Ender is too much an industry veteran to say anything too provocative. But she offers some interesting ideas on writing as a woman.

“I believe women like empathy. If I’m telling a story that you feel is yours as well, you would feel that empathy and buy a song I would sing or write. But when you’re superficial and just sell your body, and you have no story and no empathy, why would I buy a ticket to go and see you? Most of my fans are women, and I think it has to do with that. I’m trying to write your story, which is mine as well.”

Ender says Fonsi was mostly responsible for Despacito’s melody, and she for the lyrics. The Puerto Rican star has mostly sung typically sentimental Latin pop and ballads, and the sexuality of reggaeton was a stretch for him. Ender cloaked blunt sensuality in teasing wordplay and playful metaphor, adding humor to the expressive extravagance of Spanish and Latin pop songwriting.

For instance:

“Dejame sobrepasar tus zonas de peligro, Hasta provocar tus gritos y que olvides tu apellido” (Let me trespass on your danger zones, until I make you scream so you forget your name.)

“Que le enseñas a mi boca tus lugares favoritos” (Teach my mouth your favorite places.)

“Yo no tengo prisa yo me quiero dar el viaje, empecemos lento, despues salvaje” (I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the trip, lets start slowly, then go wild.)

“Firmo en las paredes de tu laberinto, y hacer de tu cuerpo todo un manuscrito” (I’ll sign the walls of your labyrinth, and make your whole body a manuscript.)

You can take a minute to cool down now.

“It’s very sensual but it’s very classy,” says Ender. “You’re saying it all, but you’re not explaining it in a direct way.”

Despacito has brought other kinds of recognition to Ender. On September 17, she’ll speak at the Social Good Summit, presented by the United Nations and Mashable in New York City where most of the speakers are from global aid organizations and businesses. She’ll talk about her Panamanian foundation, Puertas Abiertas (Open Doors), which promotes free music and dance classes as well as an elaborate competition, TalenPro (Talent with a Purpose), a nine-month long program where high school students compete for full university scholarships, not just via talent contests, but with community leadership, organizing to help others with projects such as rebuilding schools.

“I’m talking about how music changes everybody, what Despacito has been able to do, and my way of seeing life,” Ender says. “Telling people not about the success, but what we do with it.”

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