When “Bailando por el mundo” by Juan Magan, ft. Pitbull and El Cata, comes on the car radio I can’t help but squirm in my seat in a poor pantomime of dance. Unless you’re dead inside, the hard rhythms of the song push your shoulders and hips back and forth, moving you across an imaginary dance floor in a graceful glide that you could probably not easily reproduce in real life. The lyrics also put you in the close company of a partner and here memories fill the mind with all those sensations of dancing near someone whose smell makes you dizzy with lust, whose accidental touches seem to electrify your skin.
But the song also takes me to other places in the past. It reminds me of block parties in Santa Ana, El Salvador in the 1970s. There were moments in those evenings when a crowd-pleasing rump-shaker like La Sonora Dinamita’s “El ciclón” would come on and everyone would rush in and start dancing. And even if you thought of sitting this one out some feverish laughing fat aunt, her hairline soaked with perspiration from dancing, her silly pink rouge nearly washed off her brown skin, would grab you by the arm and pull you out into the dance floor. I was a small child, and I remember the mix of embarrassment and joy as I was dragged out to dance. She would take one of your hands in her chubby fingers and place the other one in the small of her back, where you could feel the sweat evaporating through her thin, polyester dress—I know I was not alone in feeling some relief when in the 80s the “Poque-Poque,” a dance you did solo by pivoting on the balls and heels of your feet, displaced couples' dancing in Santa Ana. Then you and your aunt would take your place in the throng of dancers, everyone turning this way and that, the crowd shifting deliriously and unpredictably like leaves blowing in a swirling wind. The block parties were always in July, during a month-long municipal celebration that coincided with the rainy season. The damp air enveloped you, contained you as if in a palpable medium, and promised rain. I have no memories of storms interrupting the parties, just of everyone dancing under the threat of rain.
Are “Bailando por el mundo” or “El ciclón” great songs? How do you answer that question through an abstract definition of art that separates the aesthetic experience of music from the social experience? Under scrutiny as isolated aesthetic objects, dance songs do poorly. Their lyrics are often not very sophisticated and their musical structure tends to be simplified and repetitive. But to treat them like this confuses the issue. It’s on the dance floor, among a community of listeners, where these songs reveal their true intention. They aim not to transfix the individual listener but to get everyone to participate in the musical experience. They are the truest, most democratic kind of popular music: they intend to engage the most people in a shared form of artistic enjoyment. (And yes, this is why they are the most commercial form of music. And yes, this is also why record companies try to homogenize and package them for easy consumption.) The quick rejection of commercial dance music among some smarty-pants-a-holes I know signals, in my mind, an affirmation of the solipsistic tendencies of modern life and a rejection of the social and collective practices contained in the word “popular.”