Skip to main content
Ages 13+
Under 13

“Despacito,” a Pop Call to Slow the Pace of Life


The song’s success may have resulted from more than just a well-oiled publicity machine.

You may like it or not, but you’ve probably heard it on the radio, on the internet, on the bus, at a party, or on the streets: Luis Fonsi’s Despacito, and later covers by Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber. It’s already the most played streaming song of all time, and it was the fastest to reach Billboard’s Top 100 since 1996’s Macarena by Los del Rio.

The numbers alone made it an unprecedented success in popular music. But this can’t be merely an accident. Spanish producer, Nahúm García, put forward a theory that Despacito is especially sticky because of the rupture of the rhythm at minute 1:23 of the song. At that moment, the music stops, and we hear Fonsi whispering the syllables, “des-pa-ci-to.” On his Facebook page, Nahum says,

[T]he rupture in cadence is so radical that it emphasizes both the hook of the refrain, and the sensual intention of the lyrics, creating a unity between intention and effect, and that’s what makes it work so well.

In other words, your brain notices that indeed the rhythm stops completely. Then it begins again but “slowly,” very slowly. The way our brains perceive music is crucial to understanding the success of the song. According to composer and marketing professor James Kellaris, in an interview with the BBC, Despacito has elements that work like an earworm straight to your brain: a sticky melody, an irregular beat, and unpredictable arrangements. Pop music, though, is based on the idea that rhythm is predictable so that the brain feels rewarded for following the regularity of the beat. This eventually gets tiring but becomes unpredictable thanks to Fonsi’s pause, described above. It forces the brain to reproduce the beat again, through memory, then again and again, and to generate a predictable pattern that, of course, never arrives at all.

It’s not just a series of tricks nor an invasive marketing strategy that quickly grew into Despacito’s success. The song is also free from reggaeton’s tendency toward sexually explicit lyrics and cadences (sometimes called “reguepop” by specialists). This invites us to listen with the body and a sense of sensuality in a less aggressive way and to enjoy that pause that’s given life when a new object of desire enters in.

In an age where speed and haste are exalted and rewarded as values, both in employment and in personal relationships, (think of Tinder, for one example), Despacito might be an invitation to slow the pace of the present down. We pause from the radical in the expectations we hold for ourselves and others, and finally we let ourselves be carried just for a moment by the gentle unfolding of the very origins of existence.

Related Articles