A Word on the State of Spanish Music

People who know me know that I’m a guy who likes my music. Naturally, some of you might be wondering how I’m getting along with Spanish music. To answer this question, I’d have to begin by saying that I didn’t even start listening to Spanish-language music, from any country, until about a year ago, but I feel that I understand more or less how the scene breaks down on both sides of the ocean. I should concede at this point that my two favorite Spanish-language artists are Latin American, not Peninsular: the Dominican bachata hero, Juan Luis Guerra, and Mexico City rockers Café Tacuba. The music of both these artists represents a freshness and creative vitality which I consider seriously lacking in that of my current country. There is an unspoken, or perhaps worse even, unrecognized crisis that is stultifying current Spanish popular music, which I feel obligated to address as a resident of this country and lover of music.


 


Toñi was very generous and thoughtful in making me a CD of albums of her favorite contemporary Spanish music, most of which can be cleanly categorized as alt-rock, pop-rock, or singer/songwriter. When I listen to these albums, I hear decent music, steeped in the tendencies of its genre definition, but what I cannot shake is the safeness and the staleness of the sound. This phenomenon does not appear to be localized; the plague of banality is pervasive, infecting entire genres of popular music in this country. That an artist be self-referential in terms of current genre trends is par for the course. Ideas are exchanged, adopted, and adapted, and this is how music evolves. Tailoring a sound to historically accepted approaches is also healthy in many cases (a contemporary hard rock band such as The Mars Volta riffing on Zeppelin or Sabbath, or hip-hop artists re-using vintage beats). However, the success of this formula is limited insomuch as its potential for creative and intellectual growth. Spanish popular music today – together with its numerous sub-genres –  has little new to offer beyond the mere confirmation of a successfully established creative model.


 


I must admit that I actually started this entry about a month and a half ago, but had abandoned it for a couple of reasons – one being that I had a lot of other interesting stuff to write about, but the other being that my argument was lacking a solid core; I had a subjective, vague idea of what I had been perceiving, yet I couldn’t corroborate my ideas with any self-evident example. Until just the other day. Flipping through Spain’s notoriously mediocre network television offerings, I happened upon an award show called “Premios de la Música ’08,” which turned out to be, if I’m not mistaken, the Spanish equivalent of the Grammys. A comprehensive profile of the the quality of contemporary Spanish music was the perfect opportunity to vindicate my critique. The first thing that struck me was the overtly blasé attitude of the presenters. The announcement of every single award, be it best song in the Asturian dialect or album of the year, was delivered with the gusto of a sleep deprived judge reading off a defendant’s rap sheet of traffic violations to an empty courtroom. This is supposed to be the year’s culminating celebration of music in a country with an absurdly colorful and important heritage in this particular art form, from its indispensable contributions to the development of polyphonic compositions coming out of the Middle Ages, to classical guitar geniuses such as Fernando Sor and Isaac Albéniz, to the early 20th century enduring folk impressionism of composer Manuel de Falla up through Flamenco heroes like Camarón de la Isla and Paco de Lucía, championing an unmistakably Spanish style of music that in fact draws heavily on Andalusia’s Gypsy and Arab cultural legacy, and right up to that song by Las Ketchup.


 


We’re not just talking about a nation that has been historically successful in creating profound and inspired music, but a nation that has made true breakthroughs in the art. We’re talking about the nation that invented the guitar. And here we are in 2008, and the pool of meaningful Spanish music is so shallow that all categories except for the album of the year could support no more than three nominees. In the “Best Electronic Music Disc” category, two of the entries were blatantly New Age music. I mean, seriously? This category of any should be the most ripe with brilliant and revolutionary ideas. Electronic music as a medium provides artists with quite literally infinite possibilities, of which musicians everywhere in the world, except for Spain apparently, are fully taking advantage. Instead, the best this country has to offer in this cutting edge field, according to La Academia de Música, are a couple of soundtracks to your mom’s yoga class and one of this year’s discoteca hits, whose popularity has almost surely been determined by this country’s skyrocketing drunk 16-20 year-old male high school dropout demographic. And when this album ends up losing to one of the New Age discs, what are we to think? Spain has always been notoriously behind the curve on computer savvy, so perhaps we can’t be too surprised. But let’s not forget that 20 years ago, the Spanish island of Ibiza was in fact one of the world’s hot spots for the development of club music, launching the careers of huge names such as Paul Okenfold, to give just one example. So it’s not that Spain is not capable, it’s that it just is not creating, a problem which touches upon every genre in this country.


 


Flamenco is without a doubt the most emblematic of Spanish music. When people who have never been to Spain think about this country, they think of beaches, bulls, and Flamenco. Nevertheless, Flamenco’s popularity has been in steady decline due to the desire of Spain’s youth to distance itself from the more traditional culture of older and more conservative generations. Flamenco being one of the most powerful symbols of these generations, it often gets the cold shoulder from this country’s young people. So here we have a situation in which Spain is not only failing to produce meaningful contemporary music, but its most valuable traditional music is also suffering unprecedented lows in popularity. Flamenco, however, has experienced a kind of resurrection in a relatively new genre which fuses the traditional Andalusian art with a pop packaging: Flamenquito. Not surprisingly, this pop packaging only serves to water down Flamenco, denying it of its visceral emotion and chilling power in order to produce a widely palatable and marketable (i.e. danceable) sound that still allows the Spanish listener the attractive privilege of consuming an authentic national product. Do not be fooled – Flamenquito is not worth listening to. It is a neutering of Flamenco; complex and nuanced meters of 12 beats, measured by the rattling black caja, the percussion instrument specific to Flamenco, and muted palmas (“palms,” or clapping), are sacrificed to deliver the an accessible 4/4 beat (marked by your standard drum kit) to the undiscerning masses. The singers of Flamenquito seem to make only weak allusions to the haunting raspy howl which truly sets Flamenco apart from any other music on the planet. And the dancing? Those real women, with real bodies, in tight polka-dot dresses that ruffle and flow, who stomp and grimace themselves into physical incarnations of passion and suffering? Flamenquito does not have them, because it is a half-assed genre made up for the discos and for bored, obnoxious adolescents to download and play on their cell phones in buses, parks, and any other venue where they know people will be forced to give them the attention they don’t get at home.


 


Other countries in Europe do not seem to have the same problem as Spain. Germany, Italy, France, and England are ripe with original music. Even Sweden has emerged as a hotbed of DIY indie-rock, and is getting eaten up by people in tight pants all over Brooklyn. In spite of its colonial past, Spain has often been characterized by intense isolation. After the Spanish-American War, the death blow to the glory of the Spanish Empire when it was forced to cede Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to the U.S.A. in 1898 (and directly lead to the loss of Cuba), Spain basically pulled the covers over its head, and has only recently begun to peer out into the bright reality of modern globalization. For almost 40 years in the middle of the 20th Century, a Fascist dictator fought tooth and nail against foreign influence in the country, even illegalizing the Basque, Catalan, and Galician languages – all spoken within Spain’s borders – because they were seen as a threat to the unity of the Spanish nation. There weren’t many groundbreaking new ideas in anything in Spain for awhile, thanks to an absence of open intellectual dialog and the spurning of artistic freedom. (The Spaniards who were marking art that mattered didn´t seem to be in Spain during that period. Picasso, for example, had moved to France and almost never came back.) It is no secret that Spain is years behind in many respects. It is in the basement in education levels in the European Union, the amount of general ignorance I have encountered here is appalling, and gender relations still have a long ways to go. So of course, why not music too? In a way this is encouraging. This year marks 30 years of democracy in Spain. It’s got a long way to go to be where it can and deserves to be, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes many years more before some truly inspired music begins to consistently flow out from Spain’s shores, but it will happen eventually. On a national scale, music doesn’t evolve overnight. I am confident that Spain possesses the talent, the creativity, and the enthusiasm, if latent, to create the music it could. I believe that collective experience is what is lacking, and only time will tell if these qualities will be successfully harnessed and churned into something great. ¡Venga, España, no seas cojonato!


 


Expect the follow-up to this post in 2030.

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~ by lincolnbrody on April 15, 2008.

One Response to “A Word on the State of Spanish Music”

  1. oh man, you totally pinpointed the spanish youth/attention at home thing. if you were running for president of spain, and had just said that at a fundraiser, rajoy would be giving it to you good.

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