Stephen G. AdubatoMay 14, 2021
Image by Alberto E. Tamargo for AP

Born in the Bronx to a Puerto Rican mother and Dominican father, Anthony Santos, who goes by Romeo on stage, first started singing in the choir at his family’s Catholic church. Though he initially joined the choir to meet girls, he quickly discovered he had a gift for singing. In 1994, he and his cousin Henry Santos formed the band Los Tinellers with brothers Lenny and Max Santos (no relation to Anthony and Henry), which in 1996 became Aventura. The band blended bachata—a bluesy guitar-driven style of dance music born in the Dominican countryside—with R&B, hip hop and rock, the sounds they heard playing on street corners in the Bronx.

After reaching international fame with their hit “Obsesión” and selling out Madison Square Garden, the band went on hiatus in 2011, giving Romeo a chance to work on his solo career. His debut album, “Fórmula, Vol. 1,” was successful both commercially and with critics.

Santos has made a name for himself with his high-pitched falsetto, which lends a sense of vulnerability to his songs. Thematically, the music he has written—both his solo work and with Aventura—continues in the tradition of heartbroken, love-sick bachata artists that precede him, but with more of an edge. Though Santos does not speak much about his personal faith, he uses religious imagery that borrows from the Catholic imagination of his youth, exploring the paradoxical nature of the human desire for love.

Though Santos does not speak much about his personal faith, he uses religious imagery that borrows from the Catholic imagination of his youth.

I first discovered Romeo’s music ten years ago when someone in the dorm room next to mine started playing one of his first solo singles. Though I didn’t realize it then, his music would accompany me through my journey into the Catholic Church. Santos’ music speaks of how the desire for love is embedded in the tension between ecstatic, supernatural joy and darkness, destruction. This reflects the Catholic understanding of desire as ordered toward the infinite, but also distorted by original sin. The tension inherent to human desire that Santos sings of so eloquently helped me understand the nuance and complexity of my own desire, and what it had to do with Christ.                                                     

For Romeo, who borrows his stage name from Shakespeare’s archetypal lover, the desire for women is hardly a benevolent force that ends in an idyllic “happily ever after” scene. Contrary to the lyrics of more saccharine bachateros like his peer Prince Royce, Santos’ experience of eros is tainted by the uncontrollable hold he feels that women have over him. In one moment his feelings rise toward ecstatic devotion to the opposite sex, and in others, toward abysmal, even diabolical, agony.

Since his days writing for Aventura, his lyrics have been rife with confessions of how his romantic ventures lead him into temptation and sin. In the intro track to “Fórmula, Vol. 1,” he converses with a priest (played by comedian George Lopez) inside the confessional. “There are so many things...I don’t know whether I’m good or bad,” he states, questioning whether God is disappointed with his sexual libertinism.

Since his days writing for Aventura, his lyrics have been rife with confessions of how his romantic ventures lead him into temptation and sin.

“We’re not supposed to be doing this,” Santos whispers to his adulterous lover in the intro to “Los Infieles.” “This is a sin.” He gives in to temptation, pleading God to forgive them, and remembers how Adam and Eve fell into temptation. He tells the woman, “you and I are no different” from them. At other times, he savors the “sweet taste of sin” in songs like “Sobredosis” when he speaks of his “addiction” to his lover as “the most divine sin.”

Alternatively, Santos intuits that his attraction to his beloved, as in the song “Inmortal,” is on a trajectory toward the infinite. In “Años Luz,” he extols his beloved’s sacredness, which is second only to God. But even this intuition—that attraction to a woman can be a sacramental sign calling us to spousal union with God—is often twisted into worship of the beloved. In his song that is perhaps most chock-full of religious imagery, “Mi Santa,” he cries out, “You are my goddess,” to a lover for whom he will go as far as bringing her to the moon, or shedding his own blood. He kneels in his closet, “lighting a candle and praying a prayer for” she who is his “heavenly blood, bread and wine,” and sings of being “baptized” in the “sacrament of her bed.”

Santos’ sacramental ethos hints at what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the distinction between the enchanted and disenchanted universes. In the enchanted realm, humans are “porous selves” who are impacted by the spiritual charges—both holy and demonic—of forces outside of themselves. The “magic” of the universe does its work on us. Our disenchanted “secular age,” on the other hand, produces “buffered selves.” These buffered selves are able to avoid being impacted by spiritual forces. In this state, we determine the meaning of things on our own, rather than allowing our lives to be affected by forces beyond our control and dealing with the unpredictability of such an existence.

He questions whether God is disappointed with his sexual libertinism.

The allusions in Santos’ music to sin and repentance—adoration and spite—gesture to the fact that the forces of love and sexuality are far from value-neutral, things whose meaning each individual determines. Sex and love are not simply a means to express one’s feelings. Instead, they are enveloped in the potential of both generating and ending life.

                                                  

The cultural critic Camille Paglia writes often about whitewashed “Western” accounts of sex, which “naively” assume that human nature is innately good, and even pure. She contrasts this with what she considers the more-apt approach, namely the view that human nature, including our sexuality, is bent toward something more volatile—either ecstasy or destruction. To think otherwise, says Paglia, entails “a displacement of cosmic realities. It is a defense mechanism rationalizing forces ungoverned and ungovernable.” These forces include Augustinian concepts like the “restless heart” and original sin, to which Romeo Santos’ romantic musings are more akin.

Romeo’s depiction of the double-edged effect women have over him speaks to the “sexual persona” of the femme fatale, which Paglia claims “expresses women’s ancient and eternal control of the sexual realm.” The man under the sway of the femme fatale, says Paglia, is tormented by her “flirtatiousness...manipulations and changeableness, [and] humiliating rejections.” In “Magia Negra,” Santos expresses how he gives himself over to his beloved “how and when [she] wants” because she has power over his whole system. She, in turn, seems to love his pain. In “Su Veneno,” he recognizes that in the process of trying to leave behind a “poisonous” lover, he has “returned to ask for forgiveness.”

Camille Paglia describes our sexuality as bent toward something more volatile—either ecstasy or destruction.

The spiritually charged depiction of the highs and lows of erotic desire pay homage to Santos’ Carribbean roots. In an interview for America, the Dominican author Junot Diaz commented that “the Caribbean...is a site of empire and a site of the starting point of New World slavery and all of the inhumanities and survival responses that that produced.” Diaz said he grew up with “the entire spectrum of epistemologies and ontologies,” which “provoked an open mystery in me that I don’t think has ever closed.” A syncretic folklore developed in response, one that combines both Catholic and African imagery, creating a sort of “New World cosmology.”

This cosmology ascribed a mystical significance to the body and sexuality, which was in some ways an attempt to achieve liberation from the bondage of slavery and colonialism, as well as from the oppressive political regimes of the twentieth century. “The body,” Diaz said, “in such a murderous regime, under such nightmarish conditions, becomes chapel, cathedral, dogma. It becomes nearly everything.”

Romeo’s romantic adventures with “saints” who cure him and she-devils who bewitch him speak to a rich consciousness of the experience of sexual attraction, where the body can become everything. He finds himself both consumed—even possessed by—the pain of what he does not have, and enamored by the “sacraments” of the woman’s body.

Flights of Christian religious experience and bursts of erotic impulses are part and parcel of the same movement.

The philosopher Georges Bataille asserted that “flights of Christian religious experience and bursts of erotic impulses are… part and parcel of the same movement.” Among his favorite subjects were mystics like Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross, whose moments of ecstasy he compared to “a pure inner fall into a limitless abyss.”

The use of spousal imagery in their love poems to Christ place emphasis on the drama of the “I”s longing for the presence of and consummation with the “Thou,” and highlight the all-consuming pain of the other’s absence. Romeo’s music mirrors the back and forth between the bride and bridegroom in St. John’s Spiritual Canticle, the interplay between presence and absence to the point of near obsessive pining. In “Un Beso,” the presence of Santos’ beloved can dominate his emotions with a mere touch and lead him “to the Infinite” with a mere kiss, sending him “to heaven and speak with God.”

I remember first pondering the spiritual implications of Romeo’s music in the late summer of 2017. Up to that point, I was already well familiar with both his and Aventura’s musical catalogue, having seen Santos in concert in 2012. But there was something about that August when he released his third album, “Golden.” I was starting my last class of a theology masters program whose focus was the spousal imagery of the mystical saints.

I spent my free time either blasting Romeo’s new album or flipping through the collected poetry of St. John of the Cross. Something about that warm, late summer stirred up a mix of emotions—something ranging between expectation and sadness, nostalgia for times past and lament for the loss of people to whom I was far too emotionally attached. Being well into my teaching career and at the end of a graduate program forced me to confront my passing youth and come to terms with adulthood, its responsibilities, its sacrifices.

I spent my free time either blasting Romeo’s new album or flipping through the collected poetry of St. John of the Cross.

“Where have You hidden Yourself, And abandoned me in my groaning, O my Beloved?” writes John of the Cross. “You have fled like the hart, Having wounded me. I ran after You, crying; but You were gone...If you shall see Him Whom I love the most, Tell Him I languish, suffer, and die.”

Although I did not find a cure for that sensation, I found that by listening to Romeo and reading St. John, I felt less alone—perhaps even accompanied. They remind me that I am a creature of longing. We are an incarnate desire for unity, a desire that, tangled up in original sin, is subject to chaos. Sometimes our desire leads us into trouble, sometimes we become possessive and even obsessive—driven to madness and to ecstasy.

The enchanted universe that Romeo alludes to is full of unpredictability and surprises. It is hardly neutral, but instead overflows with forces both benevolent and malevolent. Above all, Santos’ music is a reality that speaks of a Creator, a Beloved, whose presence looms on its surface. In the midst of my messes, my madness and obsession, I join Romeo, I join Teresa and John, longing for the presence of this ultimate Other to reveal itself.

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