When the Latin trap superstar Bad Bunny performed on “Saturday Night Live” this month, he appeared in a couple of sketches — including a turn as a wisdom-dispensing plant in the pandemic-panic throwdown “Loco” — and performed two tracks from his latest album, last year’s chart-topping, rock-tinged “El Último Tour Del Mundo.” As he perched on a step and sang “Te Deseo lo Mejor,” a bummed-out ballad punctuated by fluttery snares, a championship belt, green leather with gold plating, lay across his lap.
That wasn’t just pop-star posturing; the Puerto Rico-born Bad Bunny is, as of this writing, among the roster of champions in World Wrestling Entertainment. He’s been the 24/7 Championship holder since pinning the Japanese grappler Akira Tozawa backstage during the Feb. 15 episode of “WWE Raw”; true to its name, the 24/7 Championship can be won — and lost — at any time, inside or outside the ring. (Previous holders include former Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, the masked EDM DJ Marshmello, and former Boston College and NFL quarterback Doug Flutie.)
Bad Bunny, born Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, has been appearing regularly on WWE programming since late January, when he performed his “Último” track “Booker T,” named after the wrestler, on the free-for-all special the Royal Rumble. His involvement with wrestling is no joke; he’s name-dropped Eddie Guerrero on a track and invited Ric Flair to style and profile alongside him in a video, and he even sported a Sting necklace while being interviewed for a Rolling Stone cover story. It’s also a coup for WWE — last year, Bad Bunny was the most-streamed artist on Spotify, and in addition to being on the cover of Rolling Stone last spring, he’s headlined arenas and clinked bottles with Snoop Dogg in ads for Corona.
Some anglophone observers have been confused by Bad Bunny being deemed as a pop star, though, despite all the above achievements as well as three Top 5 singles on the cross-genre Hot 100, including a featured role on Cardi B’s salsa-driven 2018 No. 1 “I Like It.”
In a way, this is indicative of how streaming-era music has become a lot more chaotic, with widespread availability of music on services like Apple Music and Spotify as well as platforms like the white-label service Bandcamp and the crate-diggers’ paradise Discogs — not to mention traditional record stores like Newbury Comics and Coolidge Corner’s Village Vinyl & Hi-Fi. Adding to that, customized stations and highly specific genre playlists allow listeners to completely immerse themselves in a particular style of music.
At the same time, it also shows how the notion of “popularity” has splintered and become a lot less beholden to the whims and biases of radio programmers and record-store merchandisers. Since the turn of the century, the Hot 100 has updated its methodology multiple times, first to include paid digital downloads at outlets like the iTunes Music Store in 2005; data from streaming services was added in a significant way in 2012, and YouTube streams were added a year later. Radio airplay still plays a role in Hot 100 placement, and radio programmers are still fairly conservative when it comes to adding non-anglophone artists to playlists. But user demand, now measurable with regards to any song available digitally and not just those deemed as important by label executives and programmers, is more directly measured than it was 25 years ago.
Latin trap — a Puerto Rican-born fusion of Southern hip-hop and reggaeton — has been one of streaming music’s biggest success stories over the past few years. But when “Último” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in November, it became the first album recorded entirely in Spanish to top that chart. That’s a surprising stat if you think about how Latin-inspired music has become a huge part of the American pop spectrum in the past quarter-century — although it becomes less of a shock when you notice that Spanish-language albums by massive artists like Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez received relatively less fanfare. (As it turns out, Bad Bunny beat his own record: In February 2020, his album “YHLQMDLG” had become the highest-charting Spanish-language album of all time when it debuted at No. 2, supplanting albums released in the mid-2000s by the Mexican rock band Maná and the Colombian singer-songwriter Shakira that peaked at No. 4.) It’s probably worth noting that a few days before Bad Bunny’s “Último” milestone, the blockbuster boy band BTS achieved a similar feat when their single “Life Goes On” became the first Korean-language No. 1 on the Hot 100; BTS, too, has been a hugely popular act for years, and the charts have caught up to that fact.
Measurements of consumption have changed and become more (if not totally) accurate, even while seeming confusing to those who equate “popularity” with “having heard of it.” There are simply too many subcultures, and too many people, out there for that assertion to be true.
Professional music listeners aren’t immune to this effect, either: I first heard about “Drivers License,” Olivia Rodrigo’s quivering breakup ballad, when someone I follow on Twitter confidently asserted that its debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100 was imminent. They were right; and as of this writing, it’s still at the top spot, buoyed by TikTok lip syncs and repeated plays for tear-drenched moments. (Upon listening, I realized that it’s very effective at depicting the hollow realization that comes when a relationship ends, with Rodrigo’s half-whispered vocal communicating just enough pathos to be perfect for extended wallowing.) The manner in which pieces of culture, whether they’re somber ballads or wrestling shows, become designated as “popular” is a lot more varied than it was even 10 years ago — and the picture being painted is a lot richer as a result.