America Goes Mucho Loco for Ricky

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For a Latino pop sensation, Ricky Martin looks a lot like a preppy Ralph Lauren model. And his current smash single, the pulsing, horn-driven "Livin' La Vida Loca," might as well have been penned by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones after a boozy night in Juarez. But to be a big thing in pop music, you've got to be a new, fresh big thing. So next week, when Martin's first English-language album, "Ricky Martin," fulfills expectations and becomes the biggest debut seller of 1999, it'll be official: The Latino invasion has arrived.

"Sony gets the credit for a lot of this," says TIME entertainment correspondent David Thigpen. "They did a great job of marketing, and they had the muscle to get the radio stations playing the single." Of course, Sony's checkbook didn't climb onstage for that Elvis-the-Pelvis-on-speed star turn at the Grammys in March, which had Rosie O'Donnell talking about his "tushy" and a whole lot of viewers -- even in white-as-snow Salt Lake City -- emptying the shelves of Martin's other work. (After cutting his teeth in teenybopper factory Menudo, Martin recorded a handful of Spanish-language albums in Purto Rico.) Now he's a star, and the Latino music bandwagon, about to deliver albums from Colombian rocker Shakira, Puerto Rican salsa star Marc Anthony and booty-blessed actress Jennifer Lopez, will be rolling all summer.

Latino music -- or the Latin-ska-Ameripop fusion that's passing for it -- may well be here to stay. Latinos are the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S., and as a rule, they tend not to complain too loudly when one of their own crosses over. And as the Salt Lake City bin-clearings demonstrate, Anglos are ready too (Thigpen estimates that only half of the screaming teens at Martin's New York City record signing last week were Latino). Will Martin be in it for the long haul? Thigpen dares to doubt it. "Pop sensations tend not to be around too long, especially ones that blow up at this magnitude," he says. But he is sure that for at least a turn or two of pop music's wheel of fortune, Martin will be on top of el mundo. "His voice isn't great. But he's got the looks, he's got the energy, and he's got the backing," he says. "And he's not too Latin." When the road to superstardom runs through Utah, that always helps.