Not His Cross to Bear

Crossover. Record executives dream of it. Most Latin performers covet it. The very thought of it makes Marc Anthony a little sick.

"Every time I hear the word 'crossover' something goes off in my stomach," says Anthony, who last year became the first salsa artist to sell out Madison Square Garden. He is currently at work on an English-language album for Columbia Records. "The perception is that you create an entire body of work [in Spanish] but the ultimate goal is to cross over [to the English-language market.] That makes me uncomfortable, because it sends out a message that the love my fans give me just isn't enough, which is totally false. Recording in English is just an extension of what I do."

It's not a far reach. Anthony, born Marco Antonio Muniz, grew up in East Harlem, in a neighborhood he has described as one where he might hear Ruben Blades, Gloria Gaynor, and the Doobie Brothers coming from the windows on one block. He was also exposed to Puerto Rican music from an early age by his father, Felipe Muniz, a guitarist who plays jibaro music, a popular folkloric style. Anthony, who turns 30 next month, has performed professionally since he was twelve. He recorded with "freestyle" dance artist Sa-Fire and has sung with Menudo. His 1991 solo debut was an English album, When the Night Is Over. A dance single from the album, "Ride on the Rhythm," went to number one on Billboard's dance chart.

But Anthony became a superstar by performing a fresh kind of salsa that combined soulful vocals, pop-style melodies, and Latin rhythms with the urban edge of hip-hop. A logical end-of-century mix, it was something no one had done with such success. On his breakthrough album, Todo a Su Tiempo, Anthony worked with Sergio George, the New York mastermind behind DLG and other urban Latin groups that have broken down the barriers of mainstream dance music. Todo a Su Tiempo was the first salsa record to go gold. Anthony's latest record, Contra la Corriente, has been one of the top fifteen albums on the Billboard Latin chart since it was released ten months ago. Also among Anthony's firsts: the first tropical (salsa, merengue) artist to have a record on the Billboard 200, a cross-genre list of the top-selling albums in the United States.

"The whole concept of crossover doesn't exist in my mind," he says on the phone from New York. Why should it? "Ninety-five percent of my fan base is bilingual."

Anthony's music has obviously reached a wide audience. But his listeners are principally people much like himself -- MTV-era Latins who reject the stereotypical image of Spanish-language singers as soap opera studs with slicked-back hair. On his album covers, wearing loose black clothes and wire-rim glasses, Anthony exudes the understated cool of an Armani model.

"There's a whole bicultural vibe that he brings out in his music. He's made salsa a little more hip, a little more relevant," says John Lannert, Billboard's Caribbean and Latin bureau chief. "He's a reflection of his audience, someone's who's grown up listening to hip-hop, pop, R&B, and salsa, and that's what comes out in his music. He has a charisma and a vocal delivery that the younger generation of Latins can relate to in a way that isn't possible with salsa artists from Puerto Rico. For a lot of Latin kids in this country, listening to tropical music has been something that's relegated to relatives' parties. I think he's made young Caribbean Latins proud of their musical heritage."

Anthony has helped make salsa more acceptable for a Latin generation raised in the United States, but he hasn't alienated their parents, either. By all accounts, Anthony is a boy any mother could love. He brings the Puerto Rican flag onstage, ends a phone conversation with "God bless you," and talks passionately about family values (he has a young daughter but is not married.) Still, some members of the old guard have failed to find Anthony endearing -- namely, music critics who are fans of the old-style salsa that came out of New York in the Seventies. They have frequently maligned Anthony as being a proponent of "romantic salsa" style, which favors lovesick crooning over the harder rhythmic melodies and upbeat, improvisational vocals that descended from Cuban son.

Granted, not everyone wants love songs. But Anthony's detractors don't seem to be listening to the music. Make no mistake, it is music, not the drum-machine drivel that has come to characterize contemporary, commercial salsa. The songs on Contra la Corriente start off slow and moony, blowing out into a twisting montage of Latin dance rhythms, with instrument solos performing duets with Anthony's voice.

"The salsa purists should just shut up and get over it," Anthony huffs, traces of a tough barrio inflection suddenly coloring his voice. "The salsa my generation does has already become standard. It's totally accepted. There are a lot of kids who are taking it to new levels now, playing with the rhythms. It's inevitable that music is going to evolve every ten years. As long as you do any music that's pure at heart, that's fine. If you do something for commercial reasons, that's a sin. I love what I do and I'm honest about what I do. I don't make commercial decisions, I make heart decisions."

Anthony has started to select the songs for his upcoming album, which he says will be one of powerful pop ballads. He talks excitedly about working with producer Walter Afanasieff, who has also worked with Celine Dion, and he says the style will thus be somewhere along the lines of Dion, Michael Bolton, and Mariah Carey. This may lead to suspicions that his motives are rather more commercial than Anthony lets on, but keep in mind this is a guy who cites Air Supply as one of his biggest influences.

The singer's desire to take on projects for art's sake is evident in the roles he's taken as an actor, another area in which he has effortlessly crossed ... oh, never mind. Suffice it to say that Anthony spent most of the past year preparing for his role in Paul Simon's musical The Capeman, in which he starred with Ruben Blades. The play was mercilessly trashed by critics during its short-lived run on Broadway. Anthony, however, will remember it as a "fantastic" experience, if only because of the talents involved and the professional scale of the production. "It was like going to Harvard," he says, noting that not so many years ago he had a gig as Ruben Blades's concert water boy and there they were sharing a stage.

Bone-thin and a little homely in person, Anthony projects a leading-man handsomeness onscreen. In Big Night he played the shy waiter. In The Substitute, with Tom Berenger, he was oustandingly nasty as a gang leader. He has just signed up to do a movie with "one of America's greatest directors." Details to come.

Anthony is inarguably a born performer. Even his vehement critics are fans of his live shows. The Los Angeles Times has compared his stage presence to Mick Jagger's. He tours backed by a thirteen-piece combo of New York musicians, and he gives them room to play, a rarity in today's Latin music scene where chart-topping acts often appear onstage with a makeshift band and perform the same hit song three times during one set.

"I've always concentrated on concerts, not on records," he says. "Songs grow when you perform them. Music is like wine -- when you let it breathe, it just gets better. And that's what singing live is all about." One staple of his show: a salsa-ed up version of "I Will Survive."

Anthony is currently on his first tour since the release of Contra la Corriente. On Friday and Saturday he will perform here, where he logically has a lot of fans among the bilingual community (the Saturday show is sold out.) Anthony's girlfriend lives here and he visits frequently enough that he plans to buy an apartment on the Beach. "You can really feel life in the air," Anthony says of our town. "There are all kinds of cultural exchanges going on."

On a recent trip to Miami, Anthony showed up late one night at Cafe Nostalgia with a posse of friends. At first he sat in the corner, a baseball cap pulled down over his face. Cajoled by the band, he eventually relented, but would only sing backup. He was last spotted at 4:00 a.m., dancing down the middle of Calle Ocho, twirling around and around. The moment captured his fancy-free nature.

"I'm just unafraid. The trick is not to put yourself in a bind. You can do as much as you want as long as one project isn't enough to make or break you. I haven't put all my eggs in one basket. I think you can walk into any situation and say, 'Look, man, I just want to learn,'" he says with a gusto that suggests he could have another crossover career as a motivational speaker. "What can go wrong?"

Marc Anthony performs Friday, August 21, at 9:00 p.m. and Saturday, August 22 (sold out), at 8:00 p.m. at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts, 1700 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 305-673-7300. Tickets are $25 to $45.

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Judy Cantor