It’s high summer, and we’re in the midst of wedding season. And if you’re going to a wedding this summer, then there’s a chance you’re going to find yourself doing the Macarena.
This is especially true if you’re attending that wedding in flyover country. The coasts, of course, are generally far too cool for this line dance-cum-hand jive, beloved of white people because it does not require them to move their feet. But in Middle America, the Macarena has carved out its place in the wedding DJ canon alongside the Hokey Pokey, the Chicken Dance, and the Electric Slide.
The Macarena has been around for such a long time now (the first Spanish recording of the song, recorded by Spanish lounge act Los Del Rio with a more traditional Latin feel, was released twenty years ago), and was once so ubiquitous and now such old hat, that it can be hard to remember that it was once a new, kinda-hip thing — even a little underground. Its Continental origins gave it an air of sophistication, as did its hybrid sound. The aggressively minimal electro-funk groove, all four-on-the-floor thump and propulsive phased synthesizer riffing, overlaid with the raspy, flamenco-style vocals evoked nothing so much as the Gipsy Kings jamming with Kraftwerk.
”Macarena” was the very model of a viral hit, and spread like influenza — even mutating along the way. Los del Rio’s rhumba-flavored version had a minor chart presence in Spain, Mexico, and Colombia; but the song’s ascent really began in 1995, when the governor of Puerto Rico adopted it as a campaign theme song. Just as the Clinton campaign’s use of Fleetwood Mac’s ”Don’t Stop” had returned that song to the airwaves in 1992, governor Pedro RossellÁ³’s use of ”Macarena” resulted in heavy airplay across the island. Because Puerto Rico is a hub for tourist travel, especially for cruise lines, the song gained inadvertent exposure to a broad international audience — some of whom brought the single home, or started requesting it on local radio.
The Spanish-language original started turning up in DJ sets around Miami and in New York’s five boroughs. A trio of Miami DJs rush-released a janky semi-remake, with the original verses replaced by the English-language cooing of local singer Carla Vanessa, whose iffy sense of pitch highlighted the cheap ’n’ dirty nature of the whole enterprise — and took it to the Hot 100 for an astonishing 60 weeks, including 14 weeks at Number One. Seemingly overnight, the hybrid ”Macarena (Bayside Boys Remix)” was everywhere; bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, Jazzercise, the Gap, the public swimming pool.
And we danced to it. (Okay, maybe not in the Gap.) We danced like little kids, without knowing the words. Which wasn’t hard, for most of us, because what we were hearing wasn’t the real lyric anyway; and even the fragment of the original refrain that remained was indecipherable even to many Spanish-speakers, as it was rendered rapid-fire in an Andalusian accent very different from the Caribbean and Central American dialects of most US Latinos.
For those who could make it out, the refrain runs:
Dale a tu cuerpo alegrÁa Macarena
Que tu cuerpo es pa’ darle alegrÁa y cosas buenas
Dale a tu cuerpo alegrÁa Macarena
or, roughly translated:
Give joy to your body, Macarena
Because your body is made for joy and good things
So: a song in praise of a sassy young thing and her body, made for pleasure. So far, so good. But take a look at those missing Spanish verses, and the plot thickens. Bad news, fellas — she’s got a boyfriend:
Macarena tiene un novio que se llama,
que se llama de apellido Vitorino
y en la jura de bandera del muchacho
se la diÁ³ con dos amigos…Aaay!
So, to begin with: ”Macarena’s got a sweetheart, and his last name is Vitorino.” Now, presumably things are pretty serious between them: novio can also be translated as ”fiancÁ©,” or even as ”bridegroom” — so they could, conceivably, be newlyweds.
Moving on to the next line: Vitorino is giving la jura de bandera, literally ”the oath of the flag.” But it’s far more than a simple Pledge of Allegiance — it’s a military swearing-in ceremony. Until 2001, Spain had a compulsory service requirement for all young men; Vitorino had been conscripted, and was beginning a nine-month hitch. It’s possible that he ended up in the Army, but in the last years of the requirement the majority of young Spaniards opted for alternative service instead. In any case, he was going to be busy — and likely out of town — for quite a while.
Now, militarization has been breaking up relationships since time immemorial. Until fairly recently, the human population was not particularly mobile. The majority of folks lived and married and raised their families and died all within a radius of a few miles. Military service afforded one of the few opportunities for mobility, and men were expected to make the most of it; the stereotype of the lusty, chronically unfaithful young soldier dates back at least to the days of the Romans.
The intersection of true love and military conscription — the two defining experiences of young manhood — has given rise to a great tradition of popular song, wherein the private world of lovers is disrupted by real-world politics. Sweethearts are parted by circumstance; they may pledge to be true, or leave it to the vagaries of Fate. Sometimes the cause of parting is made explicit, as with songs ranging from ”When Johnny Comes Marching Home” to the World War II hit ”Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me)” to the Shirelles’ ”Soldier Boy.” Sometimes it’s implied, as in ”The Carnival Is Over“ or ”We’ll Meet Again.” The Beatles’ ”All My Loving“ was recorded in peacetime, but it falls squarely into the tradition.
So Vitorino promises to be true, and goes off to the bright lights to take the king’s shilling… and the stage is set for him to forget his girl back home. But that’s not what happens. Those last two lines — and this is the first verse, mind you — tell us that while Vitorino is off giving the oath of conscription, Macarena is giving it up to two of his friends. She’s a very kinky girl, that Macarena.
And a thoroughly modern girl, too. Look at the last verse:
Macarena sueÁ±a con el Corte InglÁ©s
y se compra los modelos mÁ¡s modernos.
Le gustarÁa vivir en Nueva York
y ligar un novio nuevo…Aaay!
”El Corte InglÁ©s“ is a high-end department store chain, roughly equivalent to, say, Bloomingdale’s. So, translated literally, Macarena dreams of shopping in this swanky joint, and of buying the latest fashions (los modelos mÁ¡s modernos). In fact, she’s ready to leave Spain behind entirely — and poor Vitorino along with it: ”She would like to live in New York, and hook up with a new boyfriend.”
Aaay, indeed. Now, I ain’t saying she’s a gold-digger, but… well, yeah, I am.
So when this comes on at the wedding, by all means, dance. But cross your fingers for the happy couple, too, that they don’t turn out like Vitorino and Macarena.