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By Laurie Charles
Back in 2001, Ricky Martin was invited to perform at the Presidential inaugural for President George W. Bush. On that cold and snowy eve, Martin sang his hit "The Cup of Life" in front of the Lincoln Memorial. To everyone's surprise, the ultimate Latin party boy invited Dubya to join him onstage for a dose of booty-shaking action.
That implausible instant of male bonding was captured in one unforgettable Kodak Moment: Sporting matching black winter coats, Martin and the newly selected, er, elected President stood on stage with their eyes locked in a curiously sensuous gaze, performing some kind of Latin-Texan hokey pokey dance.
In a sense, though, Martin and Bush made for a perfect pair: Bush had run as a centrist who promised to pull the nation together with his oft-touted brand of "compassionate conservatism." As for Martin, he was the ultimate centrist. His radio-ready Latin pop appealed to everyone from soccer moms to club boys. The sight of the ex-governor and the ex-Menudo dancing together seemed, however briefly, a kind of promise: a visual reassurance that the new administration would indeed meet Americans somewhere in the middle. The Latin heartthrob was so proud of his presidential photo op that he even mentioned it in his 2003 ballad "Asignatura Pendiente" ("Pending Assignment").
Ricky Martin is singing a whole different tune these days. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say he's singing the same song with a whole different attitude. During a February concert in his native Puerto Rico, the 35-year-old singer offered a new version of "Asignatura Pendiente," thrusting his middle finger high into the air as he sang the words "a photo with Bush." The gesture received an immediate and emphatic roar of approval from the crowd.
For some, Martin's bird-flipping came half a dozen years too late. His longtime (and now former) songwriting partner, Robby Rosa, excoriated Martin for playing the inaugural. "Singing 'The Cup of Life' at George Bush's inauguration is like playing the fiddle while Rome burns," Rosa said, back in 2001. "This is a president who has people in his Cabinet who would obstruct the exercise of civil rights, human rights, consumer rights, the right to choose, the right to be free of gun violence, and the right to a clean environment."
Still, Martin made no effort to back down from his gesture. "My convictions of peace and life go beyond any government and political agenda, as long as I have a voice onstage and offstage," Martin told the Associated Press, via e-mail, "I will always condemn war and those who promulgate it."
For casual fans, this sort of blunt moral declaration came as something of a shock. After all, throughout the Nineties Martin had staked his reputation on a kind of joyously apolitical party-boy image. Dance anthems such as "Living La Vida Loca" and "The Cup of Life" topped the charts in every country imaginable. More than one billion people watched his sizzling performance at the 1998 French World Cup. MTV played his videos nonstop. His ass was considered a national treasure.
But even as Ricky Mania reached its peak, the superstar quietly set out to reinvent himself. Suddenly Ricky was immersing himself in Buddhism. His newfound spiritual outlook led him to the position of Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. The ultra-good-time chico was clearly growing up. His nonprofit charity, the Ricky Martin Foundation, became a major force in the field of child advocacy, particularly in its efforts to curb child exploitation in developing nations.
As it turns out, from his vantage point, the Iraq War is a matter of exploitation, too: the exploitation of troops. As Martin explained to a Canadian reporter, his one-finger antiwar statement was spontaneous, a reaction triggered by having relatives over in Iraq.
"You don't want to see your people hurt, and I guess that was what it was all about," he said. "At the same time, that's not my priority at the moment. I've never been political about anything. Right now, the only thing I'm political about is my [child advocacy] foundation."
Even so, it's easy to forget that just a few years ago such flagrant anti-Bush statements would have earned Martin the wrath of the American media. Just ask the Dixie Chicks, who became the whipping gals of the right-wing hate machine for more than a year.
By contrast, Martin's gesture has attracted nary a peep of protest. Fox News did its fair and balanced best to whip up a controversy and failed. This is partly due to the fact that Martin and his fans are not, by nature, political creatures. But it's also a powerful index of the nation's shifting political winds. According to the most recent Newsweek poll, the President's approval rating stands at a record low of 28 percent. Many of the citizens who, like Martin, supported Bush, feel a deep sense of betrayal at his mismanagement of the war and the country. Which is to say: They'd love the chance to offer him a middle-finger salute, too.
In fact, the issue that has dogged Martin throughout his career has to do with his sexuality, not his politics. Gossip Websites are full of speculations and allegations about his orientation, some going so far as to slime him for pretending to be straight. For his part, Martin continues to plead for privacy. He recently told a snooping Barbara Walters, "I think that sexuality is something that each individual should deal with in their own way. And that's all I have to say about that."
All the tongue-wagging is an unfortunate, if typically American, distraction from Martin's music. His North American tour has been playing to packed audiences and glowing reviews. The show offers four distinct musical themes: African, acoustic, pop-rock, and dance music. All the hits are given their due airing, with lots of dancing, most of it by Martin, who can still shake his renowned Latin bon-bon.
His Miami show will be a homecoming of sorts. Last August Martin came to Miami to record a much lower-key performance, which later become the unsung but excellent live album Unplugged.
Martin may not have the courage to openly discuss his sexuality, or to sustain his criticism of the President, but even his staunchest critics would have to agree that he's become a much more thoughtful citizen than the hunk who took the stage at the inaugural back in 2001. If only the same could be said of his dance partner.