Outside a Tower Records store in Manhattan, a chorus of screams is going up. Mostly sopranos, a few altos, no tenors and certainly no basses. "Riiiiiickyyyyyyyyyyyy! I love you!" The crowd of 5,000, mainly young women between the ages of Dawson's Creek and Felicity (with a few Rugrats and Ally McBeals mixed in), have gathered to catch a glimpse of the latest heartthrob, their corazon. The fans at the front of the line enter the store and stumble out with a signature scrawled across a CD or on a poster or even on their skin. Some leave crying tears of joy. At a multiplex across the street, Fox is holding one of the first screenings of The Phantom Menace. You can see a flicker of hesitation on the faces of a few Phantom ticket holders. I thought I was in the red-hot center, the flicker seems to say. What's going on over there?
Ricky Martin is what's going on. The hip-shaking Latin pop star has the No. 1 song in America, Livin' la Vida Loca. His self-titled new CD is setting sales records at stores across the U.S. And Martin is at the center of something bigger than himself. A host of other Hispanic performers, including vocalist Marc Anthony and actress turned pop diva Jennifer Lopez, are poised to release highly anticipated Latin-tinged CDs soon. Martin, in an interview with TIME, was so euphoric over his success he bordered on being Roberto Benigni-esque. "What are you kidding me?" says Martin. "I'm flying, I'm flying!"
Ricky Martin is a fresh face, but he is not an entirely new one. For 15 years now the 27-year-old singer has enjoyed a kind of second-tier, ESPN2 level of fame: he was a member of the teen group Menudo, he once co-starred in Les Miserables on Broadway, has appeared on the ABC soap General Hospital. The cultural wave Martin is riding--Latin pop--we must admit, is also not an entirely new phenomenon. Salsa, rumba, mambo and other Latin musical forms have made inroads on American pop music--Celia Cruz, Ruben Blades, Gloria Estefan, Ritchie Valens, Los Lobos, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Machito, Willie Colon, Tito Puente and many, many others have, for decades now, scored hits, excited crowds and pioneered new sounds. TIME's "discovering" Latin pop would be a bit like Columbus discovering Puerto Rico.
What is new is this: as the century turns to double zero, a new generation of Latin artists, nurtured by Spanish radio, schooled in mainstream pop, are lifting their voices in English. Of this group, Martin is the hottest; Lopez, 28, the most alluring; Anthony, 29, the most artistic. With Hispanics poised to become America's largest minority group within the next few years, this music could be the sound of your future. Latin-tinged pop is blowing up because it fits the musical times: it has a bit of the street edge of hip-hop (Lopez worked with rapper Sean ["Puffy"] Combs on one track on her CD), some of the bouncy joy of dance-pop (Martin is hunkier than all the Backstreet Boys put together) and the fizzy fresh feel of that ever sought-for thing in modern pop, the Next Big Thing.