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Ricky Martin: A Pop Star Rises Again

Ricky Martin says his time with the Puerto Rican boy band Menudo "was all about discipline. ... Now, it's  about not wearing masks and just being who I am."
Ricky Martin says his time with the Puerto Rican boy band Menudo "was all about discipline. ... Now, it's about not wearing masks and just being who I am."

In 1999, Ricky Martin was catapulted into global fame with his hit single "Livin' La Vida Loca." He sold millions of albums with his cheerful pop songs and Ken-doll looks.

Although he's been largely off the radar for a decade, Martin has continued to record and tour. Now, he's hitting the road again, this time as a father of toddler twin boys, and as an openly gay man.

Martin has been a singer and performer for decades. He joined the Puerto Rican boy band Menudo in 1984 at the age of 12. The long-lived group was hugely popular in the '80s. Once in a concert at a Brazil stadium, 130,000 fans showed up, which was double the capacity of the stadium.

"[Menudo] was all about discipline," Martin tells NPR. "I was part of a band, and I was supposed to sing this song, and I was supposed to say whatever they told me to say, and to wear the clothes they told me to wear, and dance the choreography they told me to dance."

He left the band at 17 when he "aged out." As a solo artist, he's sold more than 60 million albums. "Now, it's about entertaining — now, it's freedom," Martin says. "Now, it's about not wearing masks and just being who I am."

His new album is titled Musica + Alma + Sexo, which translates to Music, Soul and Sex. Many of the tracks include both English and Spanish versions.

"You cannot translate the songs," Martin says. "When you write an English song, you write an English song, and then when you start writing in Spanish, you just have to start from zero. If you're lucky enough to find the same storyline, well, you're lucky."

For instance, one track called "Shine" in English is about love; the Spanish song with the same music is titled "Te Vas" and is about someone leaving. Another, "The Best Thing About Me Is You," has almost identical English and Spanish versions.

The album was a collaboration with veteran writer and producer Desmond Child, who wrote "Livin' La Vida Loca." It was written and recorded in Martin's home studio in Miami Beach. Martin says that on some tracks, they had to work to make the lyrics "more me."

He points to one track that opens with the line, "Que bella eres," which translates to, "You're such a beautiful woman." Martin says people have accused him of sending mixed messages, since he's openly gay but singing about women.

"No, I'm not," Martin says. "I've been in love with women, and I just had to write about the beauty of those relationships."

Other songs seem to speak more clearly to his recent announcement to the public that he's gay. In "Sera, Sera," he sings in Spanish, "Hiding in the shadows / you won't find what you're looking for / Never." He described another track, "Liar" or "No Te Miento," as a conversation with his audience: "I'm explaining to you where I've been, and I'm going to be really honest: I never lie to you."

It's perhaps a response to years of hedging on questions about his sexuality. In 2000, Barbara Walters asked Martin point-blank to say whether or not he was gay, and he responded, "I don't know why, but I just don't feel like it." Last March, Martin wrote on his website: "I am proud to say that I am a fortunate homosexual man. I am very blessed to be who I am."

Many wondered how audiences in Latin America would react, but Martin says the response to his coming out has been very positive.

"If I knew it was going to be so amazing, it was going to feel so right," Martin says, "and if I knew the reaction of the audience and the media was going to be so positive, I would have done it a long time ago."

Martin has said that wanting to make his 2-year-old twin sons proud was part of his reason for coming out of the closet. When he tours this spring, he's bringing the toddlers with him.

"They have their passports ready, the buses are ready, the hotel rooms are ready," Martin says. "I can't wait to get back on the road."

Martin says that now, when he goes back to listen to "Livin' La Vida Loca," "I say, 'Damn, this is a great track!' It's like, my god, this is very powerful — the fusion, the ska, the rock. ... People still play this song when they work out."

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Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.