Think of Latin pop as existing in two even playing fields: music that’s as good as, and almost indistinguishable from, anything you’d hear on American Top 40 radio (except for the Spanish lyrics), and music with the power to transport you to another place. When it comes to the former, start in the late ’60s with Julio Iglesias. The ultimate crooner, Madrid-born Iglesias came equipped with a sultry vibrato, movie-star looks, and multilingual skills, which he'd later put to good use. Backed by soft drum machines, gentle keyboard synths, and the occasional sax, Iglesias became the template for global success, inspiring future iterations of Latino balladeers (including his own son, Enrique, of course). In Puerto Rico in the late '70s, Menudo ignited the boy band craze, characterized by cotton-candy hooks and tightly synched moves. The group provided the perfect launching pad for Ricky Martin, who would later seduce audiences as a fully bilingual, bon bon–shaking adult. Menudo’s success inspired other Latin American countries—most notably, Mexico—to churn out teen pop idols in the ‘80s. As Madonna’s brand of provocative dance-pop took over the charts, Spanish-language singers like Thalía and Paulina Rubio took notes, making fashion a critical part of the package. Around the same time, Vikki Carr, who'd started in the ‘60s singing soulful tunes in English with layered, Wall of Sound–type symphonic arrangements, captivated a whole new audience by singing in Spanish, effortlessly switching between pop and traditional Mexican music. These days, whether relying more on visuals or powerhouse vocals (or both, à la Spain’s Natalia Jiménez), the female-empowerment aspect remains in Latin pop.
Stateside, something big was brewing in 1985 that would forever change the course of Latin pop. Using barrel-shaped drums of African origin from their native Cuba, The Miami Sound Machine created a sound that wasn't straight-up pop, nor was it in Spanish—but it was the closest thing to a carnival as mainstream American radio had ever experienced. “Conga” cemented Gloria Estefan’s status as the world’s first Latin crossover queen, opening the gates for other global superstars (male and female) to emerge during the second Latin pop explosion at the turn of the 21st century. It’s a period we can affectionately call A.C. (After “Conga”), and it proved that you could remain true to your Latin roots while still reaching the masses—regardless of language. To this day, artists like Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, Pitbull, and Juanes keep worldwide audiences dancing to the rhythm of success.