Released: 16th August 1999
Writers: Geri Halliwell / Andy Watkins / Paul Wilson
Peak position: #1
Chart run: 1-3-7-11-16-23-30-38-49-66-56-61-71
After missing out on the top spot by a mere whisker with her debut single, Geri Halliwell was not leaving anything to chance with the follow-up as she made a play for the Latin-pop bandwagon that was rolling through the charts.
It was remarkably easy to lose perspective of what qualified as a success during the late ‘90s due to a ‘#1 or bust’ mentality that labels adopted. And it did – inevitably – trickle down so that the media picked up on it, as did the record-buying public. Few acts experienced that pressure quite so intensely as the Spice Girls, even as they splintered apart to forge solo careers. Now, nobody was writing Geri Halliwell off after Look At Me peaked at #2, but there were undoubtedly some awkward glances and a sense of ‘what now?’ And you’d feel that even if EMI were not fixated on her landing a #1 single (which they probably were), then Geri Halliwell most certainly was. For it was the ultimate validation of any artist – not least one who had been a part of one of the biggest girl groups of all time – and she was not in this game to be a runner-up.
As it happens, the perfect opportunity came – quite fortuitously – in the shape of Ricky Martin, who had released Livin’ La Vida Loca in July 1999. Suddenly, Latin-pop was at the forefront of the public consciousness. And wouldn’t you just know it, Geri Halliwell had already composed a track perfect for this moment. There may be some scepticism that Mi Chico Latino was almost too conveniently timed, but credit where it’s due. Purely on a logistical level, it would have been challenging to have this single on the market within two months of Livin’ La Vida Loca’s release if it hadn’t already existed in some form. And during her time in the Spice Girls, Geri Halliwell had always been fiercely proud of her mother’s Spanish heritage, even channelling it into songs like If U Can’t Dance and Viva Forever. So, while it was undeniably serendipitous that she had a track like Mi Chico Latino up her sleeve, it’s not difficult to believe that this would always have ended up being recorded – if not released – regardless.
With Geri Halliwell now essentially free of the scrutiny that accompanied her debut single as to whether she could fill an entire song by herself (she can), Mi Chico Latino feels like a more confident pop song. Or perhaps it’s just that we – the audience – have more confidence in Geri Halliwell. Either way, the starting point here is not to automatically judge Mi Chico Latino on the strength of her vocals because, in many respects, she is the song, and it’s structured around the tools she possesses. The verses – which tell of a fleeting, sensual passion – are delivered with sledgehammer-like emphasis: “I’ve got a SECRET, I cannot KEEP IT, it’s just a WHISPER of a distant MEMORY; just a DREAM, or so it SEEMS, take me back to the place I’d rather BE”. Similarly, the pre-chorus – with its dramatic guitar strums and hissing maracas – feels like it should be accompanied by a flourish of jazz hands: “Now there’s FIRE in my EYES, I break AWAY and say GOODBYE, I’m free to BE, I’m letting GO, I’ll find my way so…”. As a fair reflection of the Latin-pop phenomenon – even with a spoken Spanish middle-eight – Mi Chico Latino is questionable. But as a Geri Halliwell song, it is bang on the money.
Yes, there are shades – and not particularly subtle ones – of Madonna’s La Isla Bonita running through Mi Chico Latino. Still, there was enough distance (12 years) between the two songs that younger pop fans wouldn’t necessarily make the connection in any meaningful way. And even if they did, would it make a difference? If you like Geri Halliwell, then you’ll forgive an awful lot more than that. As much as it’s impossible to imagine anyone else performing the song (and honestly, why would you even want to?), that doesn’t mean there aren’t some wobbles. It’s not always clear which key some of the lines in her lower register – “Dónde está”, in particular – are aiming for, and the ad-libs (“Take me BA-ACK”) are undeniably, endearingly flat. But you know what, a few bum notes is a small trade-off for everything else that Geri Halliwell brought to her craft. If it was a choice between her level of commitment to being a pop star or a pitch-perfect singer merely going through the motions, Geri would win, hands down, any day of the week.
It’s testament to how well Mi Chico Latino works that the song manages to get away with cherry-picking phrases from other languages, like Italian (“Find my love, my dolce vita”) and convincingly sell them as part of the vernacular. Indeed, you don’t need to be fluent in Spanish to realise Geri Halliwell’s pronunciation is quite heavy. You can sing along phonetically: “DÓN-de está, me chee-co latee-no-oh, la la la la, ay-ya-ya-ay, la la la”, and feel quite confident that you do – in fact – sound like a flummoxed holidaymaker frantically leafing through a phrasebook. It’s okay, though, because that’s how the song is delivered; Mi Chico Latino doesn’t ask any more of the audience than an absolute minimum – almost clumsy – level of application to the Spanglish lyrics.
While there’s no doubt that Look At Me made a bold visual statement with its (mostly) black-and-white aesthetic, Mi Chico Latino feels like a proper homecoming for Geri Halliwell. If there was any flicker of concern that she didn’t get the memo about what we wanted, nay, needed from her as a solo artist, then it’s immediately dismissed here (as if we ever should have doubted). The video bursts onto the screen, with the azure seas and skies of the Sardinian seascape, realised in vivid, eye-popping colour. High concept this is not. We have Geri Halliwell draped over the back of a yacht (with a knowingly on-brand Union Jack flag flying from it) flanked by male backing dancers wearing tight black swim shorts. They swim, they dance, she pulls a guitar out of nowhere and plays it during the middle-eight. In essence, Mi Chico Latino perfectly encapsulates Geri Halliwell’s appeal. The video is playfully sexy but make no mistake, she’s astute enough to know most of her audience was looking in the other direction and caters to that (one of the B-sides to the single was G.A.Y., and you can only imagine the pushback she’d have had for that). Instead, she sells a performance; the video oozes charisma and feels like an exact realisation of all the potential that Geri Halliwell held as a solo act.
Having been burned by a misjudged chart battle with Boyzone for her debut single, there was no repeating the same mistakes this time around. As a result, Mi Chico Latino was issued on two CDs (Look At Me would almost certainly have reached #1 if the same strategy had been adopted) and without any serious competition for the top spot. Subsequently, Mi Chico Latino sold 132,500 copies and ascended to the summit of the charts. It doesn’t really matter whether this was a consequence of good timing, Geri Halliwell’s hunger for success or a mixture of both. Whatever the reason, Mi Chico Latino is a terrifically judged track that remains her second-biggest selling single. And with good reason, because this was the song that really cemented – in the UK, at least – Latin-pop as a ‘craze’, rather than a fad confined to one single.
Mi Chico Latino is one of those triumphant moments where everything went in the right direction. Geri Halliwell turned all the speculation, pressure and commentary about her solo career into a #1 single, while the Schizophonic album exploded back into the top 20. And from there, the hits just kept on coming…