Stimulating Desire: Reggaeton, Desire and Sex in the Songs of Bad Bunny.
For those lagging behind, Bad Bunny is a Puerto Rican musician primarily producing reggaeton and trap. He started to blow up in Spanish speaking countries around 2018, and in 2020 and 2021 he was the most listened to artist on Spotify, ahead of Taylor Swift, Drake and BTS, well, ahead of everyone else for that matter. Unlike more traditional reggaeton musicians, Bad Bunny has produced a more aware music that does not engage with the usual problematic aspects of the genre and has used his music as a political tool that changes them. Reggaeton is still a genre dominated by male artists where women are restricted to objects of desire without agency or reason to be other than being desired by men. Any instance of autonomy is often frowned upon and condemned, making the woman responsible for the suffering of the man. The desire these songs express is possessive and reductive, in a lot of ways selfish, I am concerned with me and me alone and everything that she is doing must be connected in some form to me. Justifiably so, this is what turned many of us away from reggaeton in the first place, despite being fully aware of just how electrifying the rhythms were. Now, with a new generation of artists, the shiniest among them being Bad Bunny, it finally feels like enjoying this music does not have to come at the cost of celebrating arseholes.
In many ways reggaeton is the waltz of the twenty-first century: a repetitive and infectious rhythm that composers play with to keep their audience engaged, designed for a party setting, and with a set of associated moves that are inseparable from the music. Some will already be frowning that I have dared compare the artistic achievements like the Blue Danube, with the monotony of contemporary reggaeton, lacking in any substance. These people, I think are either not attuned to the simple pleasure of life that is to move one’s body to pure rhythm or too proud to admit to themselves that Daddy Yankee makes them want to move their hips. The legendary Puerto-Rican band Calle 13 wrote that “el reggaeton se te mete por los intestinos” (reggaeton gets inside your intestines); its rhythm infects your every cell, luring even those most attached to the wall towards the dancefloor. In truth all music can hit you like a drug. It can make you lose control over yourself, guide your every move, become a slave to the rhythm. For some this is the source of anxiety and a reason to avoid it, but in many ways it is freeing; you get comfortable and let yourself feel more, laugh more, cry more and inevitably desire more.
There is of course nothing new to this, music has played a part in social (and mating) rituals since its inception, a catalyst that allows the often-suppressed desire to surface by promoting secretion of the all too elusive happy chemicals. This desire must not be necessarily sexual nor romantic, or even interpersonal; desiring is just wanting something, be it as complex as intimacy, or as simple as happiness. The romantic and sexual counterparts have however been something that parties are particularly good at fostering. Think of the balls from Jane Austen’s novels where getting asked to dance with the person you have been writing letters to your cousin about would be the source of joy and gossip for the weeks to come. Those grandiose halls are not much different from the clubs and living rooms we dance in today, both being spaces where we go to live our happiness and satisfy our romantic and erotic needs; what has changed are the social norms around what is and isn’t proper to do an explore.
Dancing has been the language in which we can best put our words. Dancing breaches that gap between mind and body, manifesting desire in a material form. If this desire is interpersonal, you are expressing your desire for someone else’s attention, love, admiration, etc, It is then also inherently sexual in nature for t is through your body that you are making yourself desirable. Reggaeton is a genre particularly interested in this aspect. Among the variety of music you might find designed for a party setting few are as centred around sex as reggaeton is. Take for example “Perreo” which is used as synonymous to dancing within the genre. Traditionally it’s a dance intended for two people, a man and a woman, where she places her ass on his crotch and they both move their hips to the rhythm of the music. It is unapologetically sexual and dangerous for that same reason. Its traditional form is brutally static, in an abstract sense: it's good for one thing and one thing only, to encourage and satisfy horniness, and limiting how much you can explore your own desire through it. It doesn’t necessarily create unequal access to pleasure to either the man or woman by itself, but in a context where some parts have been systematically denied access to pleasure, as it is the case for women, a structure that prevents exploration is actively preventing change. This principle applies as much to gender as it does to race and sexual orientation (this one in an even greater manner for perrear is an inherently heteronormative practice). We should also not forget about the persisting objectification of women that the perreo is acting within. Can we truly explore our sexual desires in a climate with such worrying past and present? My answer is a resounding yes, and for that I thank a new generation or reggaeton artists that have worked hard towards what Residente (one of the members of Calle 13) and Bad Bunny called un perreo “bien bellacoso, pero sin acoso” (plenty horny, but without harassment).
The song “yo perreo sola” (I perreo alone (said by a woman)) was a small-scale cultural reset in Spain. The whole premise is about a woman entering a club and dancing alone, teasing men without any intention to follow it up. Bad bunny writes: “Que ningún baboso se le pegue / La disco se prende cuando ella llegue / A los hombres los tiene de hobby / Una malcriá” como Nairobi (No creep get close to her / the club catches on fire when she arrives / She has men as a hobby / A Spoiled girl like Nairobi).” It wasn’t the first time that a song was being written about a woman dancing alone and owning her sexuality (be it in a very masculine, playboy understanding of it) but it was the first time an explicit invitation to reclaiming the practice of perrear was topping the charts. Bad Bunny understands more than other top artists that dancing has an enormous emancipatory power, politically and sexually. A tool to shape sex and desire from the inside.
What about objectification? Consider the following lyrics “Y ese culo ya lo tengo estudiao ya mismo me graduo/ y en la cara me lo tatuo. (And i got that ass studied up, I'm about to graduate/and get it tattooed on my face).” Hot. There are for sure a lot of objections that can be raised to this blatant objectification and many of them should be accepted, but when listening to this I cannot help but feel aroused. There should be no doubt that a person is more than their body, but they are also bodies. Desire can take many shapes and for some, even the most romantic of desires will be completely devoid of sex, the value for them being something more intellectual, independent of their bodies. For most of us however, that bodies are hot as fire is part of the fun, and this shouldn’t be something to change about ourselves because of a troubled genealogy full of unethical objectification. We ought to accept that desiring someone’s body is desiring an intrinsic part of them, and that it is OK to just desire that as long as we are not reducing their infinite complexity down to it. The dance floor is not the place to write poetry, it is the place to perrear. We go there to explore that part of ourselves and explore that part of others, to dance and not get complicated, because sometimes the sexual can be the most romantic.
Despite the overall celebratory tone of a lot of reggaeton music, a lot of Bad Bunny’s songs are about heartbreak. Surprisingly, these songs are equally as full of sexual references, for example: “Y es que estoy arrebatao / pensando en todas las veces que te lo meti / Pensando en todas la veces que estuve pa ti” (I am crying away / thinking about all the times that I put it inside of you / thinking about all the times that I was there for you). When we think of love songs we think of balads or cries for love, romanticism tends to get separated from sex as if the latter would murky the pure waters of love. This is wrong. Sex can be murky there is no doubt but it can be just as pure, not only a source of pleasure but a language that can operate where there are no more words to express the love you have for someone. In my favourite Bad Bunny song he writes: “Mami concedeme esta pieza. / No somos na no somos na. / Pero con un perreo se empieza (Mommy grant me this piece. / We are nothing we are nothing. / But a perreo can get things going.)” These lines encapsulate a refreshing acceptance of the place of sex within romance that don’t land very far from many of the pop music popular today (Doja Cat, Lil Nas X, BTS, Cardi B and the wonderful Carly Rae Jepsen among many others) if maybe a on a more explicit end. The difference to me is that Bad Bunny is doing this in the context of reggaeton, to make us love better through a genre that actively encourages toxic practices. Sex has been put at the forefront of his efforts, not as the iceberg that lays underwater and influences our every moves, but blasting it into the open for everyone to see with all the pyrotechnics that reggaeton, and for that matter parties, have to offer.