If you're older than 30, you probably remember one of the most ubiquitous pop songs and dance crazes of all time: the Macarena. If you're younger than 30, you probably have no clue what the Macarena is, since it evaporated from the zeitgeist about as quickly as it burst onto the scene.
For the Spanish pop group Los del Rio, the song was a life-changing one-hit wonder. Two middle-aged men who'd been in the music business since the 1960s became worldwide pop stars. The song spent 14 weeks at the top of the Billboard charts, which makes "Macarena" one of the longest reigning songs in history, behind only "Despacito," "One Sweet Day," and "Old Town Road."
The rise and fall of the Macarena is an improbable story that encapsulates all that was wild and wonderful about the 1990s.
Antonia Romero and Rafael Ruiz started performing together in Spain as Los del Rio in 1966. There was no reason to assume the group would ever extend their cultural reach beyond the popular music of their native country. At the time, they were mostly known for flamenco and lounge music, and bummed around Madrid playing club gigs.
But everything changed for Romero and Ruiz during a chance meeting with the Venezuelan businessman Gustavo Cisneros. According to an interview with Spanish Vanity Fair in 2015, the two men saw a flamenco dancer by the name of Diana Patricia Cubillán. Her moves so impressed Romero and Ruiz that, on the spot, they set about writing the lyrics to the song that would become their biggest hit.
In classic one-hit wonder fashion, they say the writing took a grand total of about five minutes. For the purposes of the song, they named the protagonist "Macarena," after Romero's daughter, Esperanza Macarena. It may come as a shock to those who danced to the song at weddings and cruises to discover the lyrics tell the tale of a promiscuous woman named Macarena who is unfaithful to her husband while he's away in the army.
It all could have ended here, with a catchy, if unmemorable Spanish flamenco record. But thanks to a series of fortuitous events and near-misses, "Macarena" would become one of the biggest songs in history.
The original flamenco version of "Macarena" was a huge domestic hit in Spain in the early 1990s. That led the record company to request a more mainstream dance remix with English-language lyrics. This is where the history of "Macarena" gets hazy.
A Spanish dance duo named Fangoria claimed for years that they were owed money for work done to arrange and remix the song back in the '90s, but Los del Rio deny those claims. The conflict went as far as court proceedings in Spain, but a Fangoria version of "Macarena" didn't end up becoming the crossover smash we all remember.
Today, "Macarena" has been remixed countless times and in multiple languages, but the remix that caught on was produced by Mike Triay and Carlos de Yarza, who were known as the "Bayside Boys."
As legend has it, Triay and de Yarza were asked by radio DJ Jammin’ John Caride of Miami's Power 96 FM to create a version of the song with English lyrics that could appeal to American audiences. Caride was fielding numerous requests from listeners for "Macarena," but was forbidden from playing anything on his radio station that was exclusively in a language other than English. The song's new verses would be in English, but retain the Spanish chorus as sung by Romero and Ruiz.
This new version slowly started catching on with listeners in heavily Latinx areas like South Florida, but there was still one piece missing from the puzzle that would change the course of Los del Rio's career forever.
The Music Video
The music video for "Macarena (Bayside Boys Remix)" dropped in July 1996, launching the song into the American popular consciousness. One month later, the song had shot up to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, a spot it would not give up until the fall of that year.
In an era with elaborate, expensive, high-concept music videos from superstar artists like Michael Jackson, the video for "Macarena (Bayside Boys Remix)" was self-consciously low-tech. It's nothing more than a parade of women lip-syncing the song in front of a white backdrop. When the Spanish chorus kicks in, Romero and Ruiz pop up in three-piece suits and the widest grins you've ever seen.
The director, Frenchman Vincent Calvet, told the Huffington Post that he had to fight the record label, EMI, for the minimalist style he wanted for the video. "I thought the music video could provide somewhat of a dance lesson," he said. "I proposed this simple concept, with the artists singing and surrounded by beautiful dancers from around the world."
The choreographer for the video, Mia Frye, explained the origin of the dance to HuffPo in 2016:
I knew it had to be crystal-clear, and that it was very important that people could relate [to the dance]. Meaning: If a child, an old person, a king, a [peasant], or a president saw my "Macarena" dance only one time, [they] would remember the moves, soul, joy, and happiness spilling out of the video!
The video for "Macarena (Bayside Boys Remix)" became an MTV staple in 1996, spawning a variety of parodies like this one from the Kids' WB Saturday morning cartoon Animaniacs or the infamous scene of Dr. Evil trying and failing to appeal to his angsty son, Scott, in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.
Out of nowhere, Los del Rio went from modest Spanish clubs to selling out arenas and meeting Pope John Paul II.
The Phenomenon (And The Backlash)
For 14 weeks, "Macarena (Bayside Boys Remix)" remained at No. 1, staying on the charts for a whopping 66 weeks.
The song and dance were impossible to escape. The New York Yankees set a record for the largest mass performance of the Macarena dance, with 50,000 people swiveling their hips in unison on August 16, 1996. The Macarena even wormed its way into that year's presidential election, as the Democratic National Convention that took place that summer was interrupted so participants could perform the dance live on C-SPAN.
By that point, the Macarena's place in pop culture was already starting to wear thin. Come autumn, the song was public enemy No. 1. When a song like that is everywhere, annoyance is bound to set in. A September 1996 column in the Orlando Sentinel, not far from the Miami epicenter of the phenomenon, mocked the trend, going as far as to explictily beg, "Enough, already, on the 'Macarena' song and dance!"
A Rolling Stone reader poll from 2011 would list "Macarena (Bayside Boys Remix)" as the second-worst song of the '90s, losing out only to "Barbie Girl" by Aqua. By 2022, antipathy for the song was so embedded in society that it was featured on a playlist used by New Zealand authorities to drive away protestors.