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The grown-up’s guide to 'Despacito,' the most popular YouTube video of all time

August 07, 2017
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Over the weekend, the global reggaeton smash “Despacito” became the most-viewed YouTube video of all time, a cross-cultural milestone that came as a total shock to the vast percentage of us who have never consciously heard “Despacito.” Released in January and now boasting more than 3 billion views, the track unseated the previous most-viewed thing in the history of Earth, Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again,” which unseated the previous previous winner, and there’s no way to accurately get across how hard we’re sighing while typing this, “Gangnam Style.”

“Despacito” is performed by Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi and reggaeton star Daddy Yankee, two very famous and accomplished musicians whom we would not recognize in the slightest. And while we are experiencing strange sensations of cultural optimism about how America’s wall-happy culture still allows for global-reach music performed in “other languages,” we have no idea what this song is. So, for those of us who confess to being out of touch with this particular milestone (read: are old as hell), a primer to “Despacito,” as written by a guy who will hear it for the first time in approximately 15 seconds:

What does “Despacito” sound like?

It’s basically “Hotel California” for about 30 seconds. But then, the evocative steel-string guitar hook kicks in, a sharply stuttering reggaeton beat falls in behind it and … you know what, for those of us who haven’t been subjected to it all summer, it sounds fresh and great. Except for the irritating part about Justin Bieber, but we’re getting to that.

What is “Despacito” about?

It’s a richly nuanced, surprisingly political look at the irony of a piece of primarily Spanish art becoming dominantly popular in Trump’s America. Ha! Just kidding it’s about sex, duh. “Despacito” translates into “slowly,” so it’s about slow sex, duh. Three billion people don’t jump on YouTube for Arcade Fire.

Has Justin Bieber done anything humiliating regarding it?

GLAD YOU ASKED. Though Bieber specifically asked to record a remix, he’s made clear on at least three occasions that he has no idea what the song means: once on this ugly TMZ-dream viral video (why yes, he is saying “burrito” and “Dorito” instead of the “actual Spanish words”), once in an Instagram story and once in a concert where he announced to fans that he couldn’t perform “Despacito” because he didn’t know it. (The Bieber version doesn’t even have a video, because imagine all the memorizing, but his audio-only YouTube has a nice-in-its-own-right 464 million views.)

What do the lyrics mean?

According to the Internet/Google Translate, your teens are singing these lyrics: “I want to breathe your neck slowly” (weird), “I want to strip you off with kisses slowly” (kisses don’t do that, but OK), “Sign the walls of your labyrinth” (cleverly introducing a Greek-mythology subplot, interesting), “and make your whole body a manuscript” (which is either a smooth, erudite way of comparing a woman to art, or the only word that rhymes with ‘labyrinth’).” Oh, also: “We will do it on the beach in Puerto Rico” (neck-breathing is very popular there), “till the waves scream ‘Dear Lord’” (they are also screaming “Please get all this garbage out of us”), and “so that my seal stays with you” (given that this is happening on the beach, we assume he means an actual seal).

What’s the video like?

Well, whereas the previous record holder involved a cartoon Korean man fake-dancing on a hobby horse, this is … a well-conceived and smartly directed view of Puerto Rican culture, shot in what the New York Times calls “a storied Puerto Rican slum called La Perla” and featuring a diverse, multiracial cast, and you know what, we are starting to get really happy that this thing is so popular. Apologies for Luis Fonsi for not knowing who you were 20 minutes ago.

Why has this been viewed 3 billion times?

Fantastic question, and Fonsi and Daddy Yankee are on record as having no idea. But they do know this: It took “See You Again” two years to unseat “Gangnam Style,” and “Despacito” claimed the crown in just over seven months, meaning there are plenty of views left to come. But centuries from now, when the dark history of Most-Viewed YouTube Videos is written, “Despacito” will be a high point. It’s solid sun-pop, it represents an unusually gifted blending of cultures, it probably annoys racists and it doesn’t feature a single person on an imaginary horse.