By Daniel Garrett
Columbia Records/Sony, 2005
I have thought of Ricky Martin as an extraordinary performer more than an exceptional singer. His collection of songs called Life does not embarrass him, and it suggests new avenues of discovery for him in the multiplicity of its sounds, but more than that it seems to be a statement that says, Do not count Ricky Martin out: and it seems as much a career move as an artistic statement.
“I’m going to swim the mountains, I’m going to climb the sea” are among the first words on Ricky Martin’s album Life. The first song “Til I Get to You,” about dedication to finding a loved one, of going beyond all obstacles to do so, of using one’s imagination and flexibility, has an elaborate production and is very dynamic: if it is possible to be elegantly experimental, this song is, and so are some of the others on Life. “Sometimes it feels like every road leads me back to you. Sometimes it feels like the thought of you takes me home,” Martin sings in “I Won’t Desert You.” The song “I Won’t Desert You” is more impressive than the opening song—“I Won’t Desert You” samples a woman’s voice, possibly a “foreign” voice, and has an intricate arrangement featuring Martin’s yearning voice, a melodic vocal line, a subtle dance rhythm, tiny flickering beats, and a wonderful world music sound. (Is the woman’s voice that of Amichelle Winkler, or someone else?) Ricky Martin’s voice is exultant in “I Don’t Care,” a song about friendship that turns into love that turns into a mess, and Ricky Martin becomes an actor in a sung drama. The song features two cameos—by singer Amerie and rapper Fat Joe (Joe’s comment is surprisingly insulting to women)—and the song is full of dramatic exclamations: it is a bit hysterical, but it works, as the phrase goes, on its own terms. Ricky Martin co-wrote “Til I Get to You” with George Noriega, Danny Lopez, and Itaal Shur; and he co-wrote “I Won’t Desert You” with Noriega, Lopez, Randy Cantor, and K. DioGuardi, whereas “I Don’t Care” was written by Sean Garrett (no relation), and Scott Storch, and Joe Cartagena (Fat Joe).
Unfortunately, “Stop Time Tonight,” a Diane Warren song, is a melodramatic ballad about a cliché idea: wanting to stop time for romance—and Ricky Martin’s vocal limitation is evident: he has energy and his voice is flexible but not beautiful and he is not a singer who can summon profundity at will. The song “Life,” which gives the collection its title, was written by Martin with George Noriega and Danny Lopez and it has a see-saw kind of rhythm and a lyric of obvious statements about the common desire for freedom and the necessity of love. It is an attempt at an important and unifying statement, and it is only the presentation of the song that saves it. It is possible to make good recordings of weak songs: that’s one of the principal lessons of the recording industry.
I do not know that his music reveals who Ricky Martin is as a man any more than that of Elvis Presley revealed who he was: and really the purpose of music is not to reveal the artist but to reveal human experience and the human community (sometimes, not always, the artist can reveal the human by exploring the personal). While some of Ricky Martin’s songs refer to things that are important to many, such as love, friendship, and family, I would not say that the songs reveal their importance or add to the meaning of their importance. This—Ricky Martin’s Life—is a forcefully entertaining recording—rigorously planned and executed, and though performed with some charm and energy, I would not confuse that with spontaneity or deep sincerity. I like Ricky Martin and I like this recording, but he seems more like a corporate product than an artist, and this recording seems both corporate investment and publicity campaign.
“I Am,” written by Ricky Martin with Sean Garrett and J. Voltio, is a song of orchestrated shouts and sighs, of erotic suggestion, featuring male and female voices and also rhythms and bells. (Debi Nova’s and Vivian Perez’s voices are featured.) The song is, again, romantic theater. It has Spanish-language comments. Once more, that seems music constructed for an audience, to attract and please an audience, rather than any kind of private expression. It is a strange thing to say about a song when the subject seems to be erotic intimacy, but if one thinks about it, then it is not strange at all: today, so much of sex is about communal dreaming and collective ideology rather than impulse, affection, and exploration of desire and pleasure. There are also references to Spanish culture in the song “Drop It On Me,” and what we have here, I think, is not just cultural pride but recognition of a marketing demographic. This is song as social celebration and there are moments in it when Ricky Martin disappears completely. The song, an achievement and a curiosity, becomes a kind of cultural mirror—sharing pleasure in dance, concern with sex, and the need for group affirmation—so one senses both confidence and doubt. “Drop It On Me” was written by Martin with someone called will.i.am (of the Black Eye Peas) and the song is credited also to George Pajon Jr., Francisco Saldana, Victor Cabrera., T. Gad, M. Smith, Daddy Yankee, M. Robinson, and M. Dewese, which seems songwriting by committee. (The collectionLife concludes with two Spanish language versions of songs we hear in English: “Que Mas Da” for “I Don’t Care” and “Dejate Llevar” for “It’s Alright.”)
“It’s Alright” was written by Danny Lopez, S. Lamilla, Javier Garcia, and Jorge Pajon. (I wondered if George Pajon and Jorge Pajon might be the same person.) I hear “It’s Alright” and I become aware that each song of this collection is full of so much sonic detail that there is likely to be something of interest. It is as if Ricky Martin is colonizing our ears with a show of musical force.
“This Is Good,” by Martin with Noriega, Lopez, L. Christy, Graham Edwards, Scott Spock, and Scott Storch, is a song that acknowledges passing time and the desire to make connections and feel joy. The guitar playing is good; and there are choruses, percussive beats, polyrhythms. The song seems designed for club play. The collection’s last song (before the Spanish versions of two of the recording’s English songs) is “Save the Dance,” written by Martin with Noriega, Lopez, and Billy Mann. One of the best Ricky Martin performances is on “Save the Dance,” a ballad in which he asks someone to save a dance for him for another night as he’s with someone else when the two potential lovers meet, a song in which Martin’s voice is careful to the point of tenderness.
About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett is a writer of journalism, fiction, poetry, and drama. He wrote articles on the visual artists Henry Tanner and Edward Mitchell Bannister for Art & Antiques, and covered environmental justice and other environmental issues for The Audubon Activist. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, Cinetext.Philo,The City Sun, Film International, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Option, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. Author contact: firstname.lastname@example.org