Justin Bieber and “Despacito”: When Crossover Songs Go Wrong

Justin Bieber

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Justin Bieber is no stranger to accusations of not being respectful of races and cultures other than his own. Since the day the little pre-teen sensation was discovered by Usher, videos have popped up of Bieber making racist jokes, changing the lyrics to his early songs to include the n-word, and other off-color (no pun intended) shenanigans that some chalked up to his young age and not knowing any better (I disagree), but were magnified because of his level of stardom. Since then, he has been one of countless celebrities caught in the appropriation wars for wearing hairstyles such as dreadlocks and cornrows, among other accusations of cultural and racial insensitivity.

The version Justin Bieber sings on is actually a remix of the original track recorded by Luis Fonsi and featuring Daddy Yankee. Before Bieber was involved, the song had already topped the charts in several countries and become a huge hit. Once the Bieber remix was included, the song reached new heights and became the number one song in the United States.

If you haven’t heard it, Justin Bieber’s feature on the song has him singing parts of the song in English, but surprisingly singing the song’s chorus in Spanish, much to the delight of many of his Spanish-speaking fans, who were proud and excited to hear a reggaeton song featuring Bieber speaking their language. Fonsi, the main artist on the song, even stated that it was Bieber’s idea to do the chorus in Spanish, and fans were proud that he took the time to learn how to pronounce the words correctly. Seems like a good step, right?

Well, naturally, such a successful song with a unique aspect like Justin Bieber singing in a different language would warrant demands for him to sing it at his live shows, right? Apparently Justin Bieber didn’t think so, or at least didn’t think ahead for if it happened.

He doesn’t actually know the words.

Several incredibly awkward videos of Bieber’s live performances show clearly distraught fans acting out (read: throwing water bottles at him) after Bieber admitted he would not be performing “Despacito” as requested because he couldn’t. He didn’t remember the words.

Alright. So maybe more ignorance than insensitivity, right? Maybe he didn’t expect that an already-famous song would be made more famous by him singing on it, and really didn’t think he’d ever have to sing it again, not even a mere few weeks later during the height of its popularity. Since he doesn’t speak the language, he just forgot the words after he recorded it. Bad foresight and a little ignorant, but maybe not malicious.

But there’s more. After you view the videos of the anger at his live shows, maybe flip over to the videos where he’s caught doing the same thing he was in trouble for at the beginning of his career—changing the words of the song to be culturally insensitive, but this time instead of racist jokes and n-words, he fills the real lyrics in with stereotypical words like “Dorito” and “burrito.” There are several videos of him doing this, both in public and private, and laughing about it afterwards.

The same fans who were once proud that he appeared to be celebrating cultural diversity and including a somewhat niche genre like reggaeton into mainstream United States radio were then horrified, claiming that he didn’t really care in the first place and just wanted the popularity and profit that would come with doing the song. Bieber was accused of making fun of the language and ended up insulting a large part of his Spanish-speaking fan base.

Huffington Post claims that Luis Fonzi is not upset about him messing up or forgetting the lyrics, stating that, “That chorus is not easy to sing, even for fluent Spanish singers like myself.” But does that make it okay?

We already cringe when stars flub the lyrics to their own songs in their own languages—should cross-cultural attempts like Bieber’s get more scrutiny, or are they on the same level if he had forgotten the words to “Sorry” or “Baby”?

In my opinion, if you aren’t going to actually learn the lyrics and do them justice, just don’t do it. If you’ve already got a cringeworthy reputation of being disrespectful and laughing off what others take seriously, a dodgy PR move like this isn’t going to save you if you don’t follow through.

What do you think? Should Justin Bieber be held accountable for not knowing the words to the song and poking fun at the fact that he didn’t? Are you a native Spanish speaker or from/living in a Spanish-speaking country? Is this offensive or just stupid?

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Published on: August 9, 2017

Filed Under: Voices of the Community

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