Sweet Tooth

When Olga Tañon was a teenager, her beloved dance instructor made her spend hours in front of the mirror, dancing with her reflection until she could see herself generate enough energy to entrance a stadium. Sitting with Tañon in any given hotel room along Collins Avenue (and we've sat together in a lot of them as she's met with the press to discuss her roughly annual releases and almost as regular Grammy Awards over the past three years), it's hard to believe such training was ever necessary. Tañon sets off a series of little explosions right there on the sofa, her rumbling rasp of a voice powering through stories of her childhood, her favorite video shoot, her English lessons, and her picks for producers on her latest album Sobrevivir (Survive) as fast and furious as she rips through merengue hits onstage.

But the little Puerto Rican girl who honed her chops in government-sponsored voice classes, and parlayed a dance studio scholarship into a back-up gig with Jose Esteban and the Patrulla 15 that would quickly launch the most successful solo career of any woman in merengue, now has the clout -- ten albums out -- to hold back.

"I always wanted to do ballads," the once brazen bad girl of merengue reveals.

There is only the slightest trace of Dominican rhythm, restrained and almost decorous, on Sobrevivir -- and Tañon admits she didn't even know that was going to be there.

"[Producer] Kike [Santander] put those keyboards in afterward," she says of "Por Tu Amor" ("For Your Love"). "Imagine, a Colombian arranging a merengue."

But if Santander did slip the slightest hint of tropical frenzy into Tañon's latest disc, he is also responsible along with Humberto Gatica (Alejandro Sanz, Celine Dion, Michael Jackson, you get the idea) for dousing some of the heat that Tañon has been famous for since her breakthrough 1993 release Mujer Del Fuego (Fire Woman).

There are worse fates that can await a singer than backing tracks seeming remarkably similar in sound and sentiment to those of the biggest-selling artists in Latin and Anglo pop, but Tañon's voice is so powerful, her delivery so adventurous and fresh that it is a letdown to hear her sing to such generic accompaniment. Maybe the world does need another love song ... but does it always have to sound like this?

Not that the similarity will hurt Tañon at the cash register. On the contrary, Santander and Gatica know what they are doing -- and what they are doing is selling records.

Record sales aside, though, no amount of flattery on her vocal prowess can persuade Tañon that she deserves more original arrangement and production.

"Don't make a mistake," she warns. "There's a lot [on this album] that comes from inside here, that comes from Olga Tañon. I am involved in the arrangements. I have the opportunity to choose what I will sing, what producers I will work with. I told Humberto what I wanted and what I didn't want. We work very closely together."

It just so happens that what Olga wants has nothing to do with those romantic theories that demand the artist invent an original medium to express her unique vision to the world. Nope, she might be singing ballads now but her philosophy is pure merengue: Give the people what they want.

"People love to cry," she claims. "So [on this album] there are a lot of vein-cutting ballads."

Is that part at least autobiographical?

"Oh, please," she says, dismissing the question with a wave of her hand. "People get so dramatic. Everyone is asking me, why is the album called Sobrevivir? What have you had to survive? There's no drama. Still I want to perform the song with as much emotion as possible, so I ask the songwriters, 'What were you feeling when you wrote this song?'"

But aren't the songwriters just play-acting too?

"Oh, no!" Tañon says in wide-eyed mock seriousness. "I know the whole story behind the songs!" Then she smiles: "But that, as they say, is off the record."

Although Sobrevivir never approaches the raw energy unleashed by any of the earlier songs collected in the live album from 2000, Olga Viva/Viva Olga, the album does have some upbeat moments to go along with all the vein-cutting.

"A record has to have a balance." She demonstrates: "Now I'm happy. Now I'm sad. That's not because you [the artist] are feeling that way, but because there are always people who are passing through these things and you have to give them something they can identify with. There is the song 'Mentiras' ['Lies'], because who hasn't been lied to? Then there is the song 'Caramelo' ['Candy'], because people like a vacilón, to let loose and flirt."

Oddly enough "Caramelo" and "Beso a Beso" ("Kiss to Kiss"), the two tracks produced by Tañon's long-time collaborator Manuel Tejada, are musically the most exciting on the disc. "I wanted something from my own little island," Tañon says of Tejada's departure from merengue, "so ['Caramelo'] is a guaracha, almost a guaguancó." (Cubanologues, please send your objections directly to Tañon c/o Warner Latina Records -- it's not my job to judge which rhythms belong to which country, especially when a Dominican is adapting a Cuban style for a Puerto Rican star who lives in Orlando.) The traditional groove funked up with a dragging bass stands up to Tañon's quirky vocalizations.

"Every day you get to know yourself better," she says of her singing. "There are things that maybe I wanted to do before but I didn't have the guts. This time around I said, Caramba, are people going to like this? And then I did it. And people love it. Like what I do on 'Caramelo.' Or on 'Ojos Negros' ['Black Eyes'], where there's the innovation of alternating lines in English."

Tañon can't help herself; she has to sing, letting loose an over-the-top Broadway belt in an English accented with exaggeratedly rolled 'r's: Give me your love foreverrrrr/Now, please, my looooooove.

"The engineers, they were all American," she laughs, "and they said, 'I love it!'"

Maybe next time around Tañon will find that if she gets as loose with the production as she does with her singing, people will love that too. I know I will.

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Celeste Fraser Delgado