Maluma, the refined monster who wants to kiss you
There are few things in life more entertaining than analysing reggaeton lyrics. The simplicity of the structure, the inarticulateness of the ideas and the forced rhymes end up generating expressions that seem closer to Dada and the comedy of the absurd than to mainstream pop.
Colombian star Maluma is the new king of irrational lyricism thanks to his latest release, ‘Felices los 4’ (Happy the Four of Us), which has climbed to the top of the Latin charts. The song’s peculiarity lies in a fundamental incoherence that has already been pronounced one of the greatest mysteries of Western civilisation: ‘Felices los 4’ is the story of a four-cornered love triangle.
OK, let’s get some context. The song’s video, which has already been watched more than 400 million times, appears to show a three-way romance between Maluma – now a hotel barman – Willy Valderrama – a friend of the singer – and Valderrama’s girlfriend.
That sounds pretty straightforward so far. The lyrics mostly back up the love-triangle interpretation. Maluma spends most of the song sweet talking Willy’s girlfriend into some polyamory fun and frolics, convincing her that they’re all friends and lovers, brothers and sisters in the garden of Epicurus, and that there’s nothing wrong with a spot of hedonism, thank you very much.
But then the fuck logic moment arrives: ‘vamos a ser feliz, / vamos a ser feliz, / felices los 4’ (we’re going to be happy / we’re going to be happy / all four of us).
Happy, okay… happy sounds good.
But… all four of you?
So who’s number four?
The readings made so far – collected in this article – are amusing but not particularly plausible. One idea put forward is that the girl is pregnant and the fourth member of this happy family is meant to be her child. Another, even wilder, theory is that the fourth member is actually his member: that’s right, Maluma’s penis.
Never ones to let a good challenge pass us by, we decided to trace the literary genealogy of romantic trios (and quartets) to see if we could discover the identity of the mysterious fourth figure who turns Maluma’s love triangle into a love square.
Curious – yes; impertinent – remains to be seen
OK, let’s get stuck in. At the beginning of the video, Willy Valderrama gives a little speech, imparting a nugget of the profound wisdom he’s acquired during his life: ‘You know what? When you’ve lived as long as I have you meet a lot of people. And for every wonderful, beautiful woman in the world there is someone who is tired of being with her.’
No comment. But as if his little speech weren’t predictable enough, he ends it with a ‘ah, I almost forgot’ and takes his wedding ring out of his pocket. And therein lies the rub: how are we supposed to interpret this gesture?
To help us get a better understanding of this, let’s look at the ‘History of the Curious-Impertinent’, one of the stories Cervantes inserted into his novel Don Quixote. The story tells the tale of two friends, Anselmo and Lothario, and Anselmo’s wife, Camilla. Anselmo asks Lothario to attempt to seduce Camilla to test her fidelity. Logically, things don’t end well.
The song could well be a modern re-telling of this story of friendship and seduction, betrayal and power games. Perhaps Willy’s little speech is his attempt to sow the seeds of desire in Maluma, setting him up to carry out a cruel test on Willy’s wife.
In that case, ‘Felices los 4’ should be seen as a tale of induced betrayal. And, if so, the fourth person is probably Willy’s lover, which would explain why he takes off his wedding ring.
The video is edited so as to be ambiguous enough to give rise to various interpretations. Parallels can be found with other stories of adultery and liquid loyalties. Think about the game of seduction and gallantry in Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos. Or the cruel web of betrayal in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Even in a work as psychologically complex as The Golden Bowl by Henry James, in which infidelity hovers over the relationships like a toxic black cloud.
Manipulation, deceit, double-crossing and two-timing: that is how the transgression of the normative order of the heterosexual couple has always been represented. So how should we interpret Maluma’s apparent ode to a communal love free from jealousy and envy? Is it a challenge to the old fashioned idea of everlasting romantic love and its fantasies of exclusivity, ownership and submission. After the continued controversy over the sexist content of many of his lyrics, perhaps Maluma decided it was time to make amends with a hymn to free love.
Maybe Maluma isn’t the only ghost
The most boring hypothesis is that the mysterious fourth figure is Maluma’s own girlfriend, whose existence we should probably take for granted.
But if we dig a little deeper into the possible literary inspirations behind this paradoxical four-way love ‘triangle’, a more unsettling possibility emerges.
What if this intriguing fourth member is actually someone who participates in the relationship only in the imagination of Maluma? A long yearned-for lover, the mere thought of whom sets the Colombian’s libido on fire. Many ghost stories have explored the idea of the haunting absence: the beloved phantom who appears before the pining lover because only when the ghost is present can the hero find pleasure in the company of others.
Think, for example, of the specter of Catherine in Wuthering Heights: her apparition both saves and condemns Heathcliff, who seeks to be reunited with his beloved in a relationship which has shades of necrophilia. Or think about Martín, hero of On Heroes and Tombs by Ernesto Sábato, wandering Buenos Aires under the shadow of the stormy and spiritual figure of Alejandra.
Or – though this might be a stretch considering the crudeness of Maluma’s erotic revery – we could even speculate that the star is a version of the hero of Patrick Modiano’s In the Café of Lost Youth, obsessed with an ethereal, almost mythical lost girl. Perhaps Maluma’s sexual tryst with Willy’s girlfriend is a way of recovering the lost presence of an unreachable Louki.
(Still from ‘3-Iron’ by Kim Ki-Duk)
The history of cinema is full of such tales: Persona by Ingmar Bergman and 3-Iron by Kim Ki-Duk explore the same idea through very different narratives. More recently, Personal Shopper, with Kristen Stewart, gives the theme an interesting twist. It tells the story of a deep – perhaps even incestuous – love between a twin brother and sister. The plot contains real and metaphorical ghosts, as well as the phantasmal representation of the technological dominion exercised over us by social media.
With so many ghosts haunting the literary imagination of sexual encounters, perhaps we can conclude that Maluma – with his rehearsed smile of a nightclub Romeo – is not the only ghost inhabiting his songs .
A Continuity of kissing: the fourth member is you
However, we believe the answer to the mystery of ‘Felices los 4’ is to be found in a story by Cortázar: ‘The Continuity of the Parks‘. This eerie thriller is a classic example of the story within a story: a man is reading a novel about a murder of which he will ultimately be the victim. The subtext seems to be that we – also readers of a murder story – could be the next victims.
Following this logic, we might venture that the listener is the fourth member of Maluma’s happy gang of lovers. Just by listening to the song we are becoming involved in the affair: we, as voyeurs, are participating in the excitement, vicariously enjoying the lovers’ pleasure.
In fact, such a supposition is by no means absurd. Part of the appeal of Maluma’s music lies in his self construction as a sexual myth. He is the star of all his videos, and the ‘I’ of his lyrics fits perfectly with the ‘I’ of his biography. Listening to them, we fear that at any moment he might start screaming ‘author here. The real author’ like Foster Wallace in his meta-narrative running joke in The Pale Ghost.
But the Colombian goes even further: his identification with his Casanovan construction is so absolute that he’s been known to pick girls from the audience and kiss them mid-set. It’s not a pretty sight, but footage of these moments confirm that our theory about the erogenous reception of ‘Felices los 4’ is pretty close to the mark.
In this endeavour, Maluma would be aligning himself with Charles Baudelaire in ‘To the Reader’, one of the first poems to use the second person to appeal directly to the reader. Baudelaire, however, used the technique to reproach rather than seduce the reader.
‘You know him, reader, this refined monster,
Hypocritical reader, my likeness, my brother!’
This interpretation has the virtue of revealing ourselves to be accomplices, hypocritical listeners and consumers. We sing or dance along to ‘Felices los 4’, thus inserting ourselves into Maluma’s sexual fantasy. A fantasy that – let’s not kid ourselves – has little to do with free love and polyamory. If Maluma’s heterodox sexploits resonate in our literary unconscious, evoking stories of disloyalty and betrayal that pivot around the idea of romantic love, the happiness that we supposedly experience doesn’t come from the celebration of a polyamorous union, free of possession and dominion, but rather from our identifying with a successful adulterer.
Maluma is a refined monster, and the continuity of his kisses is the textual spider’s web that lies behind ‘Felices los 4’.