Gloria Estefan’s Into the Light continues the Latina diva’s pop transformation from Cuban hot mama to respectable songwriter and showwoman. She began as the sultry singer of Miami Sound Machine, but when the band’s second album went double platinum in 1985, people began to take notice — especially of her. Now Miami Sound Machine has all but disappeared, and Estefan bills herself under her own name; Into the Light is her second solo album, lushly produced, effectively de-ethnicized, and full of those big, broad ballads that everyone from Bette Midler to Mariah Carey is proffering these days. It will probably produce more hit singles — assisted, of course, by Estefan’s bounce back from personal tragedy. Having survived a serious tour-bus crash almost a year ago, she has now recovered to the point of planning a tour, set to begin next month, and is definitely back in action.
But the action isn’t necessarily anything special. Estefan’s repositioning from Latin dance machine to white-bread songstress has included a concurrent trend toward pop froth, with her onetime up-tempo workouts given short shrift. Estefan brags that she’s careful to include a song or two in Spanish on each album, but in practice her ethnic roots are now almost undiscernible.
Why this should be so is an interesting question. Certainly the demands of the mass pop market have something to do with it. But there might be two more reasons. One is that Miami Sound Machine was ethnic, but in an urban, modernized way; it was a pop group that happened to spring from Latin roots.
And then there’s Estefan’s own background. Her life could make a great TV movie: She’s born in Cuba, but her parents flee to Miami with the ascent of Castro. Her father participates in the Bay of Pigs invasion. Later, he serves in the U.S. Army in Vietnam and is poisoned by Agent Orange for his trouble. But the daughter who cared for him for 12 years grows up and sells 17 million records as the world’s premiere Latin crossover act. Like her father, she might be torn between the age-old pressures of yesterday and today, between loyalty to the culture that produced her and a desire for acceptance and assimilation in her adoptive land.
But that doesn’t excuse her move toward blandness, though not everything on the album is bland. ”Coming Out of the Dark” is a pretty song about Estefan’s recovery. It starts out slow, then brings its point home with a gospel-like chorus reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s ”Man in the Mirror.” It’s hard not to be sympathetic — the song is an anthem to hope and indomitability, and someone who’s endured Estefan’s pain certainly deserves room to talk about it. Her pain is the source, too, of ”Nayib’s Song (I Am Here for You),” about her young son, who suffered a broken collarbone in the accident. ”Remember Me With Love” is also distinctive; dedicated to her husband, it’s simple, plaintive, and unpretentious.
These tracks have a personal stamp that makes up for their undistinguished pop sound. But the album’s other offerings make you long for even a trace of ethnicity — anything to add a little spice to the mix. Estefan projects an okay personality — basically that of a strong modern woman with a healthy emotional life — but she has a colorless voice and doesn’t make up for that with any particular power. When there’s no compelling personal reason for the listener to care, the songs just drift away, victims of their own weightlessness.
You end up wanting to cut her some slack; she does have strength of character, and, unlike a lot of pretty faces in the Top 40, she writes most of her own material. Still, there’s far too much filler on Into the Light, and in the nonfiller Estefan doesn’t have all that much to say. The record sounds interesting in theory — but, like all too many pop records these days, in practice it’s rather dull. C+