5 Moral Panic! At Halftime: Legacies of the Latin Boom Meet Gendered and Regional Latinidades
Published on Latinx Talk on April 7, 2020
María Elena Cepeda
On February 2nd, 2020, roughly 103 million global television viewers witnessed perhaps the most hotly discussed Latina/o/x live musical event since the electrifying performance of “Livin’ La Vida Loca” by Ricky Martin at the 1999 Grammys. More than twenty years after Martin’s memorable performance, the spectacular Latinidad on display this year was distinctly female, Colombian, and Puerto Rican: Shakira and Jennifer Lopez headlined the Super Bowl halftime show, making them the first two Latinas in history to perform on it together (US Cuban Gloria Estefan enjoys the distinction of being the first Latina to ever headline the show not once but twice; first in Minnesota (1992) and then in her hometown of Miami (1999)). Like most popular phenomena, this year’s halftime show was shot through with contradictions and competing tensions. We can most completely account for the show’s dynamics when we consider it through the following distinct yet overlapping perspectives: by means of a longer historical view; via an analysis of Latinidad, and inter-Latina/o/x dynamics; through a focus on the articulation of regional Colombian identity within the context of the halftime show; and via an examination of the moral panic that the performance provoked amongst many middle class, white female viewers in particular.
Much like the Latin music and media “boom” that initially ushered in the emergence of both Shakira and Lopez as household names more than twenty years ago – a period characterized by marketers’ attempts to index and profitably harness the economic, political, and cultural influence of the nation’s rapidly expanding Latina/o/x population – this year’s halftime show relied on well-worn historic tropes regarding Latina gender and sexuality to appeal to non-Latina/o/x audiences. Indeed, while in some regards visually fresh and sonically arresting, the show exhibited a deep familiarity characteristic of cultural texts that reference representational frameworks in which global audiences are already fluent: the Latina dancer gifted with “natural” rhythm; the sensual, curvaceous Latina physical form; and the Latina whose presence is marked by a seemingly innate expression of hypersexuality. Moreover, much like the preceding “Latin booms” that dotted the twentieth century cultural landscape, the Super Bowl halftime performance materialized at a time of heightened public discourse regarding the growing Latina/o/x population and its increasing political, cultural, and economic influence. Characterized by profound xenophobia, ethno-nationalism, and expanding income inequality, the Trump Era, much like previous Latin booms, warns us of the folly of simplistically conflating the power of media visibility and audibility with genuine political clout.
From a global music industry perspective, the inclusion of urban music stars Bad Bunny (from Puerto Rico) and J. Balvin (from Colombia) in the performance underscores the centrality of reggaetón and trap in the current Latin music industry, as well as the power of Puerto Rico and Colombia as key production centers in global Latina/o/x urban music. We cannot ignore the potent symbolism of having two white/light-skinned individuals such as J. Balvin and Bad Bunny occupying the stage to perform a musical genre that has historically been associated with sharp critiques of anti-Blackness. Much like the most recent Latin boom of the late 1990s, at this year’s Superbowl we witnessed the white face of the Caribbean, ironically in the midst of constant musical and kinesthetic references to the region’s Afro-diasporic cultural production. I would note here the strong critiques of the show’s privileging of Latina/o/x whiteness that quickly emerged from Latina scholars, such as Petra Rivera-Rideau, who questioned the effectiveness of Lopez and Shakira’s calls for Latina/o/x unity within a context in which only a small fraction of that same community was racially represented. In a similar vein, I cite the words of Zaire Dinzey-Flores, who stated: ”I’d suggest that the performance exhibits the seduction of whiteness and the continual ability for non-Black Latinas/os/xs to imagine a world where Blackness is part and parcel of their community and not a root or influence.” While Jennifer Lopez and Shakira certainly share some of the responsibility for the problematic racial dynamics of the show, singularly focusing our discontent on them as individuals inadvertently robs some much-needed nuance from any consideration of the structural issues at hand. When addressing the question of just how and why gendered white Latinidad has been centered in mainstream media representations once more, we need to think in terms of interlocking institutions and capitalistic systems such as the music industry, mainstream US media outlets such as Fox Sports, Latina/o/x-centered media, Jay Z’s Roc Nation, and the NFL, among others. Those collectivities bring to bear enormous power and influence – more so than any individual actors, be they superstars or not, particularly within an entertainment industry and mainstream media culture that hypervalorizes heterosexual cis-gendered masculinity, whiteness, and the cultural production of the Anglo Global North.
When read relationally through the prism of Latinidad, we can note the more overt political stances adopted by Jennifer Lopez, such as her use of the Puerto Rican flag, and the sampling of Bruce Springsteen’s classic “Born in the USA” as performed by a large group of young girls wearing bedazzled US flags emerging from prop cages, led by Lopez’s own daughter. Framed by an overhead shot of the main stage lit up by the Venus symbol, this segment of the performance suggested that it is precisely Latinas who possess the power to effect change in the present political context. We must also consider Lopez’s exhortation at this moment in the performance for Latinas/os/xs to “get loud,” a phrase that simultaneously recalls her early hit “Let’s Get Loud” off of her 1999 debut album On the 6, just as it faintly echoes James Brown’s 1968 Black Power funk anthem “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” (which, much like the halftime show, was also a performance that emerged during a period of profound ethno-racial, cultural, and political upheaval in the US).
As a US Colombian, Shakira on the other hand requires the representational frameworks of Latinidad in order to remain legible to non-Latina/o/x and even many Latina/o/x viewers, most of whom have little understanding of the visual and musical cues associated with Colombian identities. Shakira’s more subtle identity markers, as exemplified by her use of the greeting “Hola Miami!” at the beginning of the show – a gesture that discursively identified Florida as a US Colombian, as well as a US Puerto Rican and generally Latina/o/x space – also included the incorporation of various uniquely Colombian and specifically costeño/a/x (of the Colombian Caribbean) musical genres and references. Even in a performance that generally underscored the centrality of Colombian contributions to global popular culture – indeed, both Lopez and Shakira were flanked by racially diverse Colombian dance troupes, and the aforementioned J. Balvin made a noteworthy appearance – in some regards the uniquely Colombian and costeña/o/x facets of the show remained illegible to many, including other Latinas/os/xs. One primary example of this illegibility that surfaced in public responses to Shakira’s performance was the erroneous reading of the high-pitched, warbling cry (known in the Arab world as a zaghrouta) that she released at a key point in the show. Captured in an endless series of memes picturing Shakira with her tongue out and peering into the camera, many viewers interpreted the sonic gesture as a form of sexual display. Those familiar with Colombian regional cultures, however, quickly recognized the zaghrouta as emblematic of Shakira’s deep roots in the large Lebanese-origin population of Barranquilla, the largest city of the country’s northern Caribbean coast. Within that specific regional context, Shakira is best understood as a diasporic subject two times over: she is the daughter of two migrants and a migrant herself, a positionality frequently witnessed in Colombia’s Caribbean port cities, yet one that may also go mis- or un-recognized due to viewers’ lack of knowledge regarding the unique specificities of Colombian culture. As what Angharad Valdivia has referred to as a “radical hybrid” Latina subject, Shakira thus persists, much like the Colombian diaspora, as paradoxically hypervisible yet unseen in her ethno-racial complexity and regional specificity.
Juxtaposed against the racial tensions of the post-Colin Kaepernick National Football League and the rampant anti-Latina/o/x sentiment of the Trump era, white, female middle-class concerns about the ostensibly “vulgar” spectacle of two unapologetically sexy and talented Latinas comprised a noteworthy, if unsurprising, reaction to the halftime performance. In what constituted a veritable moral panic, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) received more than 1,300 consumer complaints of vulgarity in the days following the program (a significant number but one that still pales in comparison to the more than 540,000 FCC complaints registered by the public in the aftermath of Janet Jackson’s 2004 Super Bowl halftime “wardrobe malfunction” – not coincidentally, an incident involving the accidental exposure of a Black female performer’s breast). Registering dominant fears of potential Latina/o/x demographic and cultural ascendancy, these responses included comments forwarded to me by one Latina contact in Italy who witnessed white female US nationals online classifying the halftime performance as “pornography” harmful to “young boys,” and as an invitation to human sex traffickers, among other comments. Such discourse, which abounded in the days after the Superbowl, illustrates the enduring global power of media representations historically linking gendered Latinidad to hypersexuality. Simultaneously, they reflect long-standing cultural norms that prize white, middle-class Anglo femininity over women of color subjectivities – evidence of the fact that for many in the white majority, even light-skinned Latinas exist beyond the boundaries of “true” femininity. These reactions to the halftime show exemplify how gendered bodies are unevenly policed across ethno-racial categories. This includes the bodies of Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, whose claims to whiteness are still provisional in the eyes of many non-Latinas/os/xs.
Given the tumultuous US political and cultural context in which it was situated, this year’s halftime performance by Jennifer Lopez and Shakira was never going to be just another show. Indeed, we might concede that in the risk-adverse US music industry, nothing about it was unplanned or left to chance, including the strong uptick in streams and sales that both artists enjoyed in its aftermath. Blackness, Latinidad, and Arab American gendered identities materialized in the show as overlapping constructs worthy of examination for their own historical, cultural, and political specificity. Yet concurrently, these identities were often flattened or erased in the performance and audience reception of it, reflecting the ways in which difference is often managed within mainstream US media and society at large. This leads to the questions: What would Latina/o/x Studies pedagogies and scholarship that move beyond an understanding of Latina/o/x identity as a simple question of “Spanish + Indigenous + African” look like? What proactive steps must scholars and consumers of Latina/o/x popular media take to decenter whiteness in our everyday analyses of Latinidad? How do we approach the emergent study of South American-origin populations in a manner that respects their specificity, yet does not fall into the often rigid nationalistic paradigms of traditional Latina/o/x Studies approaches? And how might we critique Latina/o/x popular culture in a measured manner that acknowledges its shortcomings, while simultaneously recognizes its contributions? Fortunately, the 2020 Superbowl halftime show and its stars offer us a rich opportunity to address these vital questions, and many more.