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Stephen G. AdubatoAugust 25, 2022
Singer Bad Bunny (Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio) at Soldier Field on August 20, 2022, in Chicago, Illinois (Photo by Daniel DeSlover/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)Singer Bad Bunny (Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio) at Soldier Field on August 20, 2022, in Chicago, Illinois (Photo by Daniel DeSlover/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Despite having only made music in Spanish, Bad Bunny is on his way to becoming a household name in the United States. The global pop star has become ubiquitous, from topping Spotify’s annual international charts two years in a row to appearing on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Saturday Night Live.” He has collaborated with artists like Drake and Jennifer Lopez and even made a foray into professional wrestling. His viral social media posts and unconventional, sensational promotional methods have proven him to be a master of the spectacle.

All of this raises a question that extends to the tendencies of popular culture today: Is there anything of substance behind the spectacle? Bad Bunny’s new album “Un Verano Sin Ti” (“A Summer Without You”), and his broader body of work, speaks to what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman would call “liquid modernity,” the idea that fixed truth claims are dissipating into more arbitrary and changing ones.

The songs on Bad Bunny’s new album reveal the sensation of emptines and existential dread that nothing can truly satisfy him in the long run.

Born Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio in Almirante Sur, Puerto Rico, in 1994, Bad Bunny demonstrates the fluid nature of our postmodern cultural moment. After his early days working as a bagger in a grocery store who posted songs on his SoundCloud account, he managed to be signed with Universal Entertainment and skyrocket to international fame in a matter of three years.

The emergence of Bad Bunny’s music and public image represent the replacement of stable, fixed values with attitudes and behaviors that oscillate between extremes. These extremes create a paradoxical unity: of libertinism and despair, forgetfulness and self-conscious introspection, pleasure and melancholy, the demonic and the sacred. Taking a page from existentialist philosophers like Camus and Sartre, his music reflects the cultural sensibility that eschews eternal truth claims as absurd—and concludes that the only way to face the absurdity of the universe is to live in the moment. As much as Bad Bunny embodies a carpe diem attitude, his music also unveils the darker, more pessimistic side of this cultural sensibility.

The songs on his new album reveal the sensation of emptiness, existential dread and fear that nothing can truly satisfy him in the long run. He despairs of a lack of permanence, which turns out to be not as alluring as it might have initially appeared to be. He has become a voice for his generation, namely for younger millennials and “Zoomers” who are disillusioned with the so-called virtues of moderation and bourgeois respectability. His music speaks to those who veer away from the middle of the road toward the fringes of what’s considered commonplace. This proclivity for extremes opens the door to more frank and transparent conversations about human nature, desire and passion, alluding to universal questions about eternal spiritual truths.

One is left wondering whether the people questioning him are his haters or himself.

Listeners can hear this thematic tension on his earlier albums, with songs like “Estamos Bien” (“We’re All Right”) from his debut album “X100PRE” (an online way of writing “Por Siempre,” or “Forever”) embodying the libertine pole of what he calls his “Nueva Religion.” “Everything’s fine,” he raps, “today I woke up content and happy,” as he continues to cite the parties, jewelry, money and beautiful women he gets to enjoy daily. And if anyone questions whether he is truly fulfilled, he has no problem telling them “where to go.” One is left wondering whether the people questioning him are his haters or himself.

If “Estamos Bien” represents the extreme libertine pole, “RLNDT” (or “Rolandito”) represents the other extreme. Taking the title from a child who mysteriously disappeared in 1999 in Puerto Rico, Bad Bunny reflects on his existential crisis spurred by his rapid rise to fame, repeating the phrase, “Who am I? I don’t know, I forgot.” He goes on to ask whether he should turn to God or to astrology, and whether his confusion is rooted in psychological trauma from his childhood.

His one side wants to live in the moment and forget his problems, while the other is plagued by questions, doubt and fears, wondering whether he will ever find a lasting sense of love, meaning and purpose. This liquid-like back-and-forth between extreme forgetfulness and extreme self-consciousness speaks to the experiences of so many young people who lack a context through which they can make sense of their experiences and find solid answers to their questions.

His one side wants to live in the moment and forget his problems, while the other is plagued by questions, doubt and fears, wondering whether he will ever find a lasting sense of love, meaning and purpose.

This tension continues on “Un Verano Sin Ti.” The breakout single “Titi Me Preguntó” (“Auntie Asked Me”) begins with him bragging about all of the girlfriends he has had. He jokes about taking a selfie at a nightclub with all of the girls he slept with to send to his aunt, who keeps asking him why he’s had so many girlfriends. After a brief interlude featuring a voice mail from his aunt encouraging him to settle down already, he cries out in desperation about his fear of commitment and rejection. “I’d like to fall in love, but I can’t. / I don’t trust anyone, I don’t even trust myself… / now that it’s cold you want to stay with me, / and then tomorrow you’ll leave.”

He laments his weaknesses and the fleeting nature of love on other songs like “Un Ratito,” when he sings:

This is only for a little while, 
don’t get used to this, babe. 
Love is pretty, 
but there’s always something that interrupts it. 
I was born to be alone, 
there isn’t a crazy girl made for this crazy guy. 
Time moves quickly and doesn’t stay long, 
so let’s do it again, sleep together again, 
because maybe there won’t be a tomorrow.

Similarly, he sings in “Neverita” about a girl who is never alone because her lovers “come and go like the waves.” He waits for her to notice how much he likes her, but she “puts her heart in the cooler” because “playing with me, she finds it entertaining.”

The synthesizer-heavy production of the album and chirping of seagulls in the background evoke nostalgia for a summer that has yet to come—a kind of premature FOMO. It comes off as an attempt to grab onto the fleeting pleasure of the summer before it even comes and to bypass the inevitable “summertime sadness.”

His allusions to God, astrology, spiritism and esoterica speak to young people who find themselves bored with middle-of-the-road secularism.

His tendency toward extremes and paradox strongly shape his way of singing about sexuality. Several of his sexual adventures veer toward machismo and, at times, absurdity, in songs like “Safaera,” and in others from the latest album like “Party,” “Aguacero” and “Otro Atardecer.” Bad Bunny takes up the tradition in reggaeton and Dominican dembow of making sexual innuendoes that are so outlandish that it becomes hard for the listener to take him seriously, implying that his lyrics are meant as an ironic critique.

In other songs, he inverts the macho male gaze, opting to create narratives about the inner lives of the women who captivate his attention, rather than merely objectifying them for the sake of his own pleasure. In songs like “Callaita” and “Andrea,” he tells the stories of women who are misunderstood and struggle with insecurities and emotional wounds. This inversion—or rather internalization—of the male gaze evokes the ubiquity of social media and its ability to “filter” our gaze. His frequent allusions to watching girls’ Instagram stories seems to incite him to start to reflect on these girls’ life stories and inner worlds.

Bad Bunny’s unconventional sexual expression extends to his own wardrobe. He can often be seen with painted nails, wearing a skirt or carrying a purse, he has appeared on his Instagram account totally nude, and he was dressed in full drag in the video for “Yo Perreo Sola.”

Bad Bunny’s affinity for the fringes of respectability raise some important questions about spiritual realities.

Meanwhile, the promotional content for his album releases is rarely your run-of-the-mill advertisement campaign. For his second solo album, “YHLQMDLG,” he wore the release date on the back of a basketball jersey while playing at an N.B.A. All-Star game, followed by a series of cryptic tweets hinting at the title and number of tracks on the album. For the release of his third solo album, he gave an impromptu concert while riding on top of a truck in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York.

His viral social media posts are iconic, spawning all kinds of unofficial merchandise, including shirts, pillows, car air-fresheners and party favors on Etsy featuring reproductions of his Instagram photos. Echoing Marxist critiques of the fetishizing of commodities, his public persona challenges us to look at the sensationalism and constant barrage of spectacles in our late-phase capitalist moment. It challenges us to question if there is anything of substance behind it.

Bad Bunny’s affinity for the fringes of respectability raise some important questions about spiritual realities. His music and public persona critique the secular bourgeois worldview that sees people as simplistic, autonomous entities, devoid of internal blemishes and existential neediness. Though Bad Bunny never explicitly defines the tenets of his “Nueva Religion,” they are made clear in the themes of his music and the type of imagery he uses in his music videos and live performances. His allusions to God, astrology, spiritism and esoterica speak to young people who find themselves bored with middle-of-the-road secularism.

We can easily see this in the proliferation of content on internet platforms like TikTok and Reddit about different spiritual “extremes,” from “rad trad” Catholicism to occult practices like tarot readings and harnessing energy from crystals. Bad Bunny’s popularity taps into postmodern craving for brands of spirituality that embody opposing poles and paradoxes. Though he may veer more toward brands of New Age spirituality and occultism, one could argue that his affinity for paradox is partially indebted to his Catholic upbringing, which places at its center the paradox of the God-man.

Soon after the newest album’s release, TikTok went wild after a rumor spread that Bad Bunny and his girlfriend Gabriela Berlingeri were in an open relationship. Whether or not the rumors are true, the social media fanfare itself is a commentary on Bad Bunny’s ability to stir up questions about whether commitment, lasting truth and meaning are available to us in an age where we are bombarded with sensationalistic public spectacles.

Can anyone deliver us a promise of stability or certainty in our fluid culture, let alone provide us a space where we can explore the existential questions that have plagued human beings throughout times and cultures? Bad Bunny’s music opens the door to the intuition that these questions are worth asking in the first place.

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