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Until recently, two constants have defined Elvis Crespo's career: a chin-length bob and choruses built on the same three-note melody. That's all over now. The waifish merengue megastar has traded in the familiar hairdo for a sophisticated layered cut and exchanged producer Roberto Cora, who oversaw Crespo's first two blockbuster CDs, 1998's Suavemente (Softly) and last year's Píntame (Paint Me), for Jan Duclerc. The merenguero's long-time musical director, Duclerc shares production credits with Crespo on his upcoming release Wow! Flash!, a radical departure from the singer's string of nearly identical hits that scored incessant radio play on nearly every station on the dial over the past two years.
At certain moments in 1998, the Spanish-language version of the monster hit “Suavemente” could be heard simultaneously on both tropical-music stations in Miami, while the Spanglish and remix versions played on two or more English-language stations, making the song seem as much a part of the city's atmosphere as the humid air and brutal sun. The double exclamation in the title Wow! Flash! announces a new sound that should make South Florida's audio environment a bit more bearable.
“This is a total evolution,” declares the Puerto Rico-bred New York native of his latest project, as he relaxes on a recent afternoon in a room at the Delano Hotel on South Beach, taking a break from the recording studio. His once poker-straight hair looks downright rumpled, with tufts curling about his ears and tickling his neck. Instead of the flowing white garb he favors on his album covers, 29-year-old Crespo is draped in a crisp windbreaker. Jaunty shades hide his piercing black eyes.
Just how Crespo came upon his new look says a great deal about the technology and serendipity behind the making of a contemporary pop superstar. Eager for some kind of change, the singer was presented with a number of possibilities generated by a computer that superimposed digital hairstyles onto the image of his slender face. None of the virtual portraits, he says, seemed quite right. Then a friend took the merenguero's song “Píntame” literally, producing a painting of an alternative to the trademark bob. ““That's what I want,'” Crespo recalls telling the painter-stylist. ““Give it to me right now.'” Out came the scissors and, in an inversion of the biblical story of Samson and Delilah, the diminutive dance-music machine grew, if not stronger, at least different.
Crespo earned the right shared by few artists to pick and choose not only his grooming style but his material, after Suavemente sold in record numbers for an exclusively Spanish-language disc. “People told me: “Don't sign with Sony. They really butt into the recording,'” he reveals. “Instead I've had a very good experience. The day the disc doesn't sell, maybe that will change. But for now they're bringing me beautiful songs, and they work in this [business] every day.”
The Puerto Rican hit-maker has never aspired to the avant-garde. His adolescent yearning for a spot on the Menudo roster is well-known, as is his claim that his songs are inspired by everyday life. He worked out his first original number, “Arbolito” (“Little Tree”), by tapping out the rhythm on a cracker box at the age of fourteen. The arbolito is a Christmas tree, and the young boy singing the song confesses to his father that he has seen Santa Claus misbehaving (a dysfunctional version of the holiday standard “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”). “The dad thinks the little boy still believes in Santa Claus,” the songwriter explains, “but the little boy knows that it is his father who is behaving badly.” “Arbolito” sends a social message that contrasts sharply with the professions of love that make up the bulk of Crespo's repertoire, with the exception of “Luisito,” the ballad on Píntame that tackles child abuse.
The romantic lyrics fit in with the simple refrains typical of the party bands with which Crespo began to work at age seventeen, with band leaders including Willie Berrios, Lenny Perez, and Toño Rosario. He made the big time as a singer with Grupo Mania, with whom he made his professional songwriting debut. “We were in the cafeteria one day,” he recalls, “and this estribillo (catchy chorus) came to me: “Que linda es” (“How pretty she is”). Once he surrendered the song to the group, however, he had no control over how it would be recorded. “That's one of the reasons that I wanted to go solo, because otherwise I could not make any decisions,” he explains. Until recently the singer had decided to follow the deadly dull pop maxim: “If it sells, do more of the same.”
As a wise and somewhat grumpy German philosopher once observed, in pop music familiarity often is mistaken for quality. On the phone with New Times one year ago, Crespo grew exasperated when asked the question he had heard in nearly every interview, with varying degrees of politeness, since beginning his solo career: “Why do all your songs sound alike?”
Delivered in Crespo's nasal style, which he has described as stained with plantain from the Puerto Rican countryside, “Suavemente” bore a striking resemblance to the singer's first composition, “Linda Eh.” The relentless 4/4 beat and the rise and fall by thirds in the chorus made “Linda Eh,” “Suavemente,” “Luna Llena” (“Full Moon”), “Tu Sonrisa”(“Your Smile”), and “Píntame” seem like one long song that would never stop. And people loved it. “When you make a total change, your fans don't like it,” complains Crespo. “But when you stick with the same musical line, the critics don't like it. It's very difficult to please both the people and the critics.”