Masked in swans’ wings and half-hidden in thorny purple bougainvillea, Mexican pop singer Julieta Venegas offers herself up to the world at large on the cover of her latest album, Otra Cosa (Sony Latin). Like most great pop, it comes laden with staunchly hummable hooks, subject matter that bears further investigation and a suite of songs that bears repeated listening. It also comes with the most persistent of that genre’s complaints: you can’t understand the words.
Rock en Español has, for many years, remained a barely acknowledged — by American critics and the pop charts, at least — aspect of the musical landscape. Concessions are made in the cultural conversation to Ritchie Valens, Carlos Santana and Los Lobos, but these are offhanded at best, a strained credulity in a mind that strains to recall the names at all.
When it comes to rock en Español acts coming from outside the United States and sweeping a sizable portion of the population, the shutters are closed even more tightly. This particular apathy is a side effect of pop in itself: the demand that emotional resonance and lyrical relevance exist as immediate and easily understood by the public at large. Pair that with low-level xenophobia and intellectual incuriosity and it’s no surprise that mention of any
Latin-themed pop act beyond Jennifer Lopez or possibly Shakira brings with it a look blanker than an Arizona desert. “Wait, isn’t Christina Aguilera . . .?” Precisely. And yet Venegas — along with her contemporaries Maná, Caifanes, Café Tacuba, Jaguares and Aterciopelados — has, for the better part of the 21st century, set the stage for a cultural awakening in America that moves millions of people but receives mere inches of print in the mainstream rock press.
Four-time Latin Grammy-winner Venegas’ new album, the follow-up to 2008’s MTV Unplugged release, veers closer to the jaunty songwriting of Kate Nash than the demonstrative silliness of Lily Allen or Mariah Carey. The melodies are strong, as most deftly evidenced on songs like the stereotype-busting “Amores Platónicos” or the sincere, violently catchy album closer, “Eterno,” and the instrumentation remains interesting throughout. Its touches of accordion and primal drumming, married with her simple harmonies, elevate it beyond the status of mere curiosity into one of the best albums in the world at this moment.
Venegas comes with considerable pedigree; a singer with the early ’90s Baja/Tijuana ska/punk band Tijuana No!, she left the band when it embraced the struggle of the Zapatista movement. Although her current work shares little in common sonically with these early roots, it nonetheless marks an appealing artistic curiosity and willingness to explore new musical avenues that ordinarily might hold back a less adventurous musician. Audiences, however, are an entirely different prospect. Clueless gringos notwithstanding, the radio broadcast base that might have publicized Venegas’ appearance throughout Ventura County simply doesn’t exist. Spanish-language radio stations in Ventura County — “La M,” KBKO, KOXR and the affiliated stations of the Lazer Broadcasting group — remain steadfastly devoted to playing ranchera, Spanish oldies and regional Mexican music. Super Estrella is the only station that might broadcast new Latin pop, and then only marginally. So where does that leave the fortunes of Julieta Venegas? Ironically, it all comes down to the word: word of mouth and words online – two grass-roots methods of support that have grown only stronger in the face of old media becoming that much more ossified in its reach. It’s a spirit of inertia that infects all things, but it’s the spirit of discovery — that “other thing” — that dispels this inertia. This is why Julieta Venegas exists here tonight: for you to experience more than just popular music.
Julieta Venegas, Sunday, May 2, at the Ventura Theater, 26 S. Chestnut St., Ventura, 653-0721 or www.myspace.com/julietavenegas.