09/25/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

McCain Craves Reggaeton (Hard!)

By M.S. Bellows, Jr. and Gabriel Beltrone

Yesterday John McCain, eager to garner youth and Latino votes, grinningly accepted the endorsement of Puerto Rican music star and sex symbol Daddy Yankee (real name: Ramon Ayala) at a Phoenix, Arizona, high school while teenaged girls swooned, gasped and giggled in the audience behind him.

McCain seemed less than aware, however, of the impact Ayala's endorsement could have on women's votes, given the sexual, misogynistic and violent themes found in some of the musician/actor's work. The timing of this endorsement is especially questionable given McCain's strenuous efforts to recruit women's votes during this Democratic Convention week, as Republican operatives work diligently to win over disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters.

Ayala is a pioneer in reggaeton, a musical genre that developed in Puerto Rico from indigenous, Portuguese, Caribbean, rap, and hip hop roots. Raised in a gang-dominated barrio, Ayala suffered a serious gunshot wound as a teenager that spoiled a potential baseball career, and turned to music instead. In his personal life, he seems to have left that world behind; in his public image, however, those themes remain. A typical Daddy Yankee lyric, "Papi dame lo que quiero," translates as, "Daddy, give me the thing I want." He "plays" a DJ in one of the violent "Grand Theft Auto" video games; has acted in extremely violent movies; and his production company's website opens with graphics of handguns and the sound of loud, realistic gunfire.

Misogyny, in particular, is a recurring issue for reggaeton in general and Ayala in particular. In 2002, a prominent Puerto Rican politician active in women's rights, Velda Gonzalez, led a crusade against reggaeton, holding public hearings that, as Frances Negron-Muntaner and Raquel Z. Rivera report, were

aimed at regulating reggaeton's lyrics and the dance moves that accompany it, known as el perreo, or "doggy-style dance," in which dancers grind against each other .... Using her reputation as a champion of women's rights, Gonzalez chastised reggaeton for its "dirty lyrics and videos full of erotic movements where girls dance virtually naked," and for promoting perreo, which she called a "triggering factor for criminal acts."

In 2006, Rivera, a sociologist who is an expert in the history of reggaeton, wrote that the genre's early lyrics were "not just explicit, but violently explicit" and "extremely misogynistic."

Reggaeton's popularity in Puerto Rico has made it a political necessity for politicians like Gonzalez to back away from attacking it, much like American politicians eventually had to learn to love first rock 'n roll and more recently hip-hop. But many of their criticisms remain valid -- and Ayala's signature song "La Gasolina," which McCain referred to in introducing Ayala to the high school students yesterday, is a good case in point. Its music video features fast cars, but also gyrating, scantily clad women touching themselves suggestively. The song's Spanish lyrics are laden with double and triple entendres based on Puerto Rican slang that range from the humorous to the pornographic. For example, the song's title "Gasolina" -- gasoline -- can also refer to alcohol -- or semen. The song's recurring lyric -- "a ella le gusta la gasolina" ("she loves the gasoline") -- therefore refers simultaneously to a girl who likes to ride around in boys' cars; a girl who enjoys dressing up and going to rum-fueled parties with fancy cars and sexy dancing; and a girl who enjoys vigorous sex and craves both her own and her lover's climaxes. One lyric uses the word "zumbale" ("rag him") or "sumale" ("add him"), but those are rough homonyms for "subele" ("raise him"). Later, the lyric continues:

Get ready to catch what's coming (hard!)
Little mama I know you're not going to leave me (hard!)
It pleases me that you like to be taken away (hard!) ...
She likes gasoline (woman: "give me more gasoline!")
How she loves gasoline (woman: "give me more gasoline!")

When questioned about the song's lyrics today, McCain answered wryly that the song referred to "energy independence." But, as The Caucus' Michael Cooper neatly pointed out, the song has little to do with offshore drilling.

The idea that a pop star would project a "Conrad Birdie"-style public persona and sing sexually provocative lyrics is unremarkable. And despite reggaeton's roots in the drug and gang cultures of Puerto Rico -- drug dealers were early investors in record production -- Ayala himself seems to live an exemplary personal life, keeping his family out of the limelight and talking respectfully about his love for his wife and children. McCain emphasized those good facts in introducing Ayala. But the fact that McCain had to mention them at all suggests that someone in his campaign was well aware of Ayala's oversexed public persona -- a persona that Ayala himself put on display during his appearance with McCain, hugging and kissing all the young girls he could reach and referring, with a wry smile, to his fondness for "action" (at which all the kids laughed knowingly).

The message McCain is communicating by embracing "Daddy Yankee" in front of adolescent Latinas, in Arizona and elsewhere (the two flew off together in McCain's campaign plane) is decidedly mixed. What place does a misogynistic message about the attractions of shallow, flashy-dressing, oversexed, promiscuous young women have in the campaign of an assertively pro-life candidate who is working desperately to sell himself as strong on family values and sensitive to women's issues? McCain is wooing one narrow demographic group, in the hope that other voters, with different priorities, won't be paying enough attention to see the hypocrisy.