Gods, humans, happiness — The video of ‘Despacito’ is a Campbellian masterpiece
Between January and August 2017, the music video of the Puerto Rican pop hit Despacito — by Luis Fonsi featuring Daddy Yankee — was viewed three billion times on YouTube. Today the count is up to six and a half billion, an all time record-breaker. While we don’t know how many unique users this means, we can ballpark it around the populations of India and China combined.
I have long been fascinated by the success of this seemingly innocuous internet phenomenon — a crosscultural study opportunity, at scale — and so decided to explore its themes which seem to resonate so strongly with so many people around the world. Humans are most enthralled by art they can deeply identify with — something they would be happy to inhabit. If we can assume that each and every one of us wants a good life then, well, Despacito seems to have it.
I have been wondering if we can unpack Despacito’s secret if we submit it to semiotic — even Panofskian — analysis; instead of Melancholia, Hedonia:
What is going on in these 4 minutes and 41 seconds, and why does it all feel so good whoever and wherever you are?
What are the themes, images and archetypes this harmless pop novelty happened to have conjured, and what is so very inviting and comforting about them?
What do people want…?
We are in the La Perla neighbourhood of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. A man, the hero, is singing on the beach; he appears to be claiming the territory. Around him unfold scenes of everyday, domestic life; a world to which he belongs. A woman arrives from the outside, through doorways, on foot — she enters his scene. There is anticipation in the air…
The first time I saw Despacito on YouTube, and as someone who did postgraduate-level art history and then taught at a national university for two years, I concluded that this music video was about butts. Then I thought, wait a minute, there are millions of music videos on YouTube about butts, and they don’t get viewed billions of times! So there must be something here, something important, maybe even deep.
The popular wisdom attributes Despacito’s massive success, which surprised its writers and performers the most, to its music. The song, which was quite aptly written by a man and a woman, started out as an ad lib between Luis Fonsi, singing “Vamos a hacerlo en una playa en Puerto Rico” and co-writer Erika Ender improvising “Hasta que las olas griten ‘Ay Bendito’” as a response to it. The two built the song, first as a romantic ballad, around this couplet. (The title, “despacito”, means “slowly”.)
Vulture, Vice and NPR did excellent deep-dives into the structure and melody of the song (Genius also filmed a making-of video with the producers); these discuss the contrasting elements in the instrumentation of the track (Puerto Rican cuatro + electro) as well as its mixing, which seems to lightly break both reggaeton and Latin Pop rules and thus creates a tension between familiar musical staples and surprises. As I will argue later, the entire Despacito experience is about a second-to-second negotiation between exploration and exploitation — safety and excitement — in short, the human condition, and so this tension is going to be at the centre of our analysis.
If you watch the video on full screen and with the right headphones, the opening sequence will give you goosebumps. We are in a shabby old-town and yet looking out, into the future... Something is about to happen!
This sense of hopeful preparation, which is so enticing and enjoyable to humans that highly addictive drugs like cocaine seek to recreate it in the brain, is also emphasised by the fact that, very unusually, Despacito doesn’t arrive at its chorus until over one minute into the song. Of course, we don’t know this yet…
What we do know immediately, as we physically respond to the musical intro, is that something weird is going on with the melody. Of course, this is because the chord progression used by Despacito is the notorious “vi-IV-I-V, which begins on the minor chord and then cycles through the major ones, creating a sense of suspense and unresolvedness”, as pointed out by Wayne Marshall in Vulture. The progression, which has been nicknamed the “heroic signifier” in film soundtracks, reached general popularity during the online attention competition of the past 20 years as it literally glues your ears to the music. (You will also remember this musical feeling of always-rising-never-arriving from movie trailers.)
On the linguistic level, Despacito’s triumph was aided by the relatively easy-to-pronounce and often repeated Spanish title of the song — remember the Macarena? While the video discussed in this essay is quite explicit, its song lyrics are very explicit, which to me means that either most people in the world don’t speak Spanish or that we grossly misjudged mankind’s free speech preferences.
As far as the creators were concerned, the artistic ambition behind Despacito’s music video wasn’t to paint a tableau of everything that’s good about human life, but to compose a visual love letter to a specific place, Puerto Rico. (Thanks to the video, tourism to the island increased 43% by mid-2017, with organised trips to La Perla becoming a thing.)
We descend from the air onto the island, to La Perla beach, where Fonsi, our protagonist, awaits. This is pronouncedly not a holiday, yet Fonsi seems to be very excited about something. Intercut, we see children tending to animals, etc., highlighting the main character’s ties to this land. He most likely grew up here.
Fonsi is standing on familiar ground but looking out at the open sea, an age-old symbol of the new and the unknown, as if ready to depart. Rightly, the new and the unknown arrives to him (from the back, hehe) in the shape of a woman.
We see her descend stairs and come through a pink doorway (khm) next to a statue of the Virgin Mary, the Western goddess of fertility and motherhood. Those familiar with the genetic — and Freudian — concept of exogamy nod at her appearance from the outside approvingly, and we will remember our earlier point about the tension between the old and the new.
The female character who arrives to La Perla, played by former Miss Universe Zuleyka Rivera, is emphatically not a girl, but a woman. Rivera, who is a well-known media personality in Puerto Rico, was 30 during the filming of the video, and a mother. This is a very important fact about a video that, as we will soon find out, explores equality between humans from various angles: we intuit that the more grownup a person is the more informed their decisions and, therefore, greater their agency, will be. This is fair game.
Fonsi’s words and gestures display and augment the anticipation contained in the music. We are aware that while we’re in familiar territory, today is special. We are in ritual space, this is festival time, in the original, pre-Reason sense: today something significant will happen that will alter the course of the lives of those who participate.
In the era before human communities settled down, festivals were the meeting — trading, mate-finding — occasions between various roaming groups, designed to enrich and renew human life (in both culture and gene pool). Later, market days and yearly agricultural and religious festivals drew people into the larger settlements for the same purposes. As we moved into bigger and bigger cohabitation systems throughout history, religious, patriotic, art- or sports-related, and, of course, private-life-changing, celebrations have kept their important role regarding our existence and identity.
As Fonsi sings on, the first people Rivera’s character encounters in this environment are local children. If we were under the impression that she’s merely here as decoration, we should by this time have let go of our assumption. She is very emphatically warm, friendly and initiating, and jokes with the kids (the protagonist’s locals, emblems of his past self). It should be added that in mate-selection, humans — correctly — see a sense of humour as a proxy for high intelligence, while Rivera’s openness (humility) signals she could happily fit into the new community which she has just entered.
Fonsi may be singing about dancing and flirting, but by around 54 seconds into the video half of the world’s population wants to marry this woman. By the time we get to close-ups on her figure, on the deep level where humans are affected by universal imagery we have understood that this story is not about sex, but marriage. This is very good filmmaking.
We have understood that the cause of the anticipation is that we’re invited to a betrothal, one of the oldest fiestas human communities ever created. If you noticed that Rivera walks into Fonsi’s turf as a guest, bringing with her the happy duty of having to “show her around”, you might also remember that brides arrive last to their own wedding (and often surrounded by kids that aren’t theirs).
In narrative structures, guests also tend to be stand-ins for us, the viewer/reader, and so we’re at this point quite excited that Fonsi will be our guide during the memorable moments about to take place.
Okay, so we get what all the fuss is about! But is it going to happen?
As we leave behind the video’s beach prologue, we are introduced to Daddy Yankee, the popular reggaeton artist and Fonsi’s sidekick in the song and the video; a kind of narrator in the story. In Western dramaturgy, the “wing-men”, the Mercutios, have a very important function as a kind of outsourced aspect of the main (male) character’s personality. (In fact, in drama — and in some startups’ hiring process — all non-protagonists are outsourced aspects of the protagonist’s personality and inner conflicts.)
In this story, Daddy Yankee contrasts Fonsi, and thus strengthens his position, in two fundamental ways: he is not sexualised (he will not dance with any woman in the video) and he raps but doesn’t sing (melody would = emotion). Add to this reassuring noncompetition his cocky, weapon-invoking dance moves and it becomes clear that Daddy Yankee represents the protagonist’s more aggressive, immature side (another past self), which said protagonist will kindly put aside to enter a union with this woman.
In Part I, the Despacito video has to deliver on two promises made during the intro by the man and the woman we’re rooting for. On the one hand, Fonsi has to indeed show her, and us, around, and prove that this place he was so proud of on the seashore is indeed wonderful. On the other hand, Rivera has to live up to the expectations she created with her kindness and her beauty when she arrived: it’s one thing to be nice to one kid, but what about the entire neighbourhood? (No wonder people don’t betroth each other too often; this seems exhausting!)
The good news is that Part I, which takes place during an afternoon of socialising in La Perla, with old gents playing dominoes, kids running around and getting haircuts, and couples dancing, is like an anatomical atlas of All the Things People Like. It also makes some incredibly strong, visceral statements about humans that we should explore…
Fonsi’s community likes children, encourages romantic love, and shows kindness toward old people. Families aren’t directly depicted in Despacito, but we get plenty of allusions to familial peace.
Even during the intro, when we first felt the heroic signifier’s thrill and saw the chickens and the bike, we suspected that the world of Despacito would be cyclical. That Fonsi sings about the future right where he grew up, and that in some ways we’re not going from A to B here, but this is about the circle of life.
Now, with children, adults and old people all playing together and looking after one another, we understand that we’re indeed in some innocent state of community; this state might seem Utopian, but it is in fact indispensable for any adult to build a future. You will want to be an adult member of a community that encourages partnerships between adults, takes care of [present and future] children and is caring toward old people, since you too will soon grow old.
As Rivera maxes out on her coolness dancing, laughing and gently flirting with the old gents, and we understand that Fonsi enjoys the support of his friends and community who allow him to sing in the front (and they also seem to have seized the one means of production: a car!), we accept the fact that existing in this group is good, and that starting a new family in it is possible.
Therapists argue that a problem with dating apps like Tinder is that they reduce meetcutes to one on ones: in order to choose any type of partner we want to — and should — see the other person interact with others. It is through observing a variety of interactions that humans can form their moral judgement of each other. In the 21st century, we like to forget that our intimate relationships are not modules but nodes: any friendship, collaboration or sexual relationship exists in a wider context; within concentric circles of family, neighbourhood, industry, nation... While there are limiting, even oppressive, shadows to this system, when done right, as an alignment, it can bring great comfort and support to those who are part of it.
People do like to be on the world’s side, provided that world is good.
As the golden ratio curls underneath every endeavour of physical nature and human psychology, writers of drama use an odd number of acts in order to express there is a beginning and an end to their stories: Aristotle insisted on a one-day arc (Unity of Action, Time and Place), Shakespeare used a five-act structure to dare us through his long plays, and Hollywood screenwriters to this day choose a three-act narrative (which consists of 2+4+2 discrete parts). But some innovators in drama such as Chekhov decided to play around with the odd numbers: what if instead of satisfaction/completion you wanted to signal to your audience an endlessness, or a circularity? As such, Chekhov’s works play out in four acts, and we’re left with a sense of hopelessness or unresolvedness at the end (some theorise Chekhov borrowed this trick from the mystic Swedenborg).
You will not be shocked by the fact that the music video of Despacito consists of 4 parts: intro, Part I, Part II, and outro. At the end, we will see how this structure illustrates, beautifully, the circle of life idea so present in every detail of this pop product.
The first human we see in this video is the little boy tending to the chickens (i.e. helping out the adults, bless him), and so we know right upon arrival that we’re not in a world of opulence. I don’t think that Despacito tries to glorify poverty. It shows us a world, in fact, where there is no money.
In the microcosm of these 4 minutes and 41 seconds, there seems to be the utmost harmony between the sexes, and the generations and ethnic groups represented. There seem to be no social classes, and no money with which to create them.
It is in this context that a stranger like Rivera can appear and, as long as she is open and participating, win the trust of the community and be included. The vulnerable balance between known and new, familiar and alien, successfully survives this process of inclusion.
The wealth that is being highlighted over and over in Despacito is that of humans and of nature: ocean, music, smiles, customs, children. The beauty of the human and her surroundings.
For a whole array of evolutionary reasons, people are thrilled to see other people move in unison. One function of music, and perhaps the reason why we came up with such a thing in the first place, is that it aligns movement across as many humans as can hear it. So, naturally, when we get to the few moments in Despacito where camera-facing choreographed dancing takes place, we see this community as even more coherent (and totally want to join it).
Before we move on, two things should be pointed out. One is that, quite unrealistically, no one seems to be drinking or smoking in any of the scenes in Despacito.
The other thing is that in this music video — is this a Sunday? — no one seems to work. (Which would explain why there is no money.)
But let’s see what they do instead…
At 2 minutes 17 seconds Part II of Despacito begins. We’re in a dim nightclub. The woman, again, enters through a door, parting the curtain to two sides. A motif… And yet, in Part II things are very different.
The first difference is that the woman arrives to the nightclub — to the scene of the festival— ahead of the other characters. She is a flash-forward, a glimpse of the near-future, draped in gold. The Virgin Mary statue to blithely pass by is gone: Rivera is dressed up, in no uncertain terms, as the Fertility Goddess herself. A golden statue.
Human life, both on the individual and social levels, is an interesting, ongoing dialogue between transcendental values and ambitions, and practical reality. We are born as creatures of practice, and then we’re taught ideals to live by… Driven by these ideals, we gather partners and possessions in praxis, only to then fill our belongings with transcendental value once again. Your father, your homeland, your favourite author or city are such worldly containers of other-worldly value to you.
True to form (literally), Rivera, who first appeared as a promise of reality, has now dressed up for the special occasion: she became the goddess for the day of the ritual just like every man and every woman becomes a deity for the most important, life-changing moments of their lives, be those moments about life or death.
Intercutting the apparition of the Fertility Goddess with the children at 2:23–2:24 is as graceful an imagery as human symbolic or artistic activity could ever aspire to, and the reason why this short musical tale was watched 6.5 billion times in less than three years.
In this sense Rivera the Golden is not only a flash-forward in the narrative or ritualistic sense, but with regard to her own practical future too.
I find it very interesting about Part II that Rivera arrives first. The setup — the power — is flipped: this is the night, and it’s her rules, her territory. If in Part I we were worried that the community would swallow her and make her invisible, we can be relieved: in the entire night sequence of Despacito the men will be jumping around all over the place, but she will dominate.
After her entry into the nightclub, the first people Rivera passes — an elegant, Homerian moment — are the elders. Importantly, she doesn’t flirt with the old gents now but moves on, toward the man whose day is today.
Before Fonsi turns up, we also spot Daddy Yankee: another man who isn’t getting hitched today, he serves as the narrative glue between Part I and II, warming the seat for his friend.
When, at last, Fonsi walks in, the man and the woman continue to “ignore” each other like they did in Part I. But there’s a difference. When we first saw her, Rivera wore a reddish top; here Fonsi is wearing the red cloth, he is the target.
In the buildup of the nightclub seduction sequence Rivera dances by herself and Fonsi dances with other women. At first this difference puzzled me. Is it because viewers would be jealous if the female character danced with other men…? I was sure there was no way a pop music video could ever be sexist, but this did seem like such a double standard!
Then I realised that Fonsi is auditioning.
Rivera’s job in Part I was to prove that, despite being objectively in-demand, she isn’t a jerk. She has passed that test. Now it’s Fonsi’s turn to prove that, theoretically, other women would also want to dance with him: he has to show that he isn’t only a community bro but that he too, as a man, is sought after. Once this fact has been successfully established, the couple can finally meet. By this time Fonsi and Rivera have gone through all the fundamentals that will matter to their union, and so we’re massively happy when they finally begin dancing together, knowing this will work out.
One of the most remarkable things about this video is what happens after the characters of Luis Fonsi and Zuleyka Rivera have finally met, become a couple and left the scene.
Because the thing is the others aren’t in a rush to go home... In fact, the party, the ritual, continues once this one particular union of two particular humans has been sealed.
In Despacito’s a cappella outro we are reminded that we are, indeed, quite beautifully, in cyclical territory. That when love between individuals happens within the system of a community, it resembles a circle dance: everyone gets their time in the middle, and then is expected to allow others to take their place.
The Disney kiss is a fake a culmination — one union is not the end. There is no end in a four-act structure, only stops along the way which we all have to arrive at, and then move on from, within our individual lives. Patterns of value don’t mean an absorption into facelessness; no one can spare you your individual journey. No one can be born and be happy and be scared — and love and suffer and then die in your place.
But in the world of Despacito there is no suffering, because there is trust. Humans allow a little winning for everyone; everybody gets some. This naive, pre-growth, pre-competition communality may seem like something from the deep past to you, and yet it’s on YouTube and you’ve watched it multiple times. The title “Slowly” thus goes from referring to the mastering of one’s own desire to a desired lifestyle. Think about that the next time you’re planning a date.
With so many contemporary recording artists “remixing art history” for no purpose at all other than to be turned into a Twitter gif in someone’s comment thread, I remain jubilant that the most popular video on the internet ever is so very pure and so very ancient.
Despacito is unapologetically apolitical, uneconomic, natalist, communal and transcendental. I urge everyone to think about what this revealed preference implies about our nature, values and love affairs as humans.