Two Pop Stars Try to Revive Mexico's Good Old Days, in Song at Least

Julieta Venegas and Natalia Lafourcade went retro for their latest releases—in part as a reaction against the grim headlines often seen as defining their country in the present.

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Julieta Venegas; Natalia Lafourcade

The news from Mexico for the past six years has often been horrific. Rival drug gangs slaughtering one another and innocent civilians. The Mexican Army and state officials waging their own war against (and according to rumor, sometimes on behalf of) the cartels. Political leaders taking advantage of unrest to curtail the freedom of the press and intimidate opponents, youthful protests against violence and corruption being ignored or sidelined. And, as always, the poorest, most vulnerable communities in the border states bearing the brunt of the wars that have left, at recent estimates, 100,000 dead and 1.8 million displaced.

"If you live your life according to the news, you'll never go outside," said Mexican singer-songwriter Julieta Venegas in an interview with the Mexican newspaper La Jornada last month. "What the news says is never the whole truth; a little bit of it, no more." She was promoting the new album Los Momentos, her seventh since 1997 and something of a sonic departure for her: a musical madeleine that evokes and urges a return to Mexico's once-peaceful past.

Venegas began her musical career in Tijuana rock bands in the early '90s. Though she became a respected and beloved pop star across Latin America in the 2000s with massive hits like "Andar Conmigo" and "Eres Para Mí," her stripped-down alt-rock sensibilities and instrumental skills—she plays guitar, piano, and accordion—gave her a signature sound unlike anything else in the Latin charts. But with the advance single for Los Momentos, "Tuve Para Dar," she embraced a low-key, synthesized sound that general pop listeners will immediately associate with the early 1980s—the years before runaway inflation and the economic turmoil of NAFTA gave birth to present-day Mexico.

Her lyrics lament the vanished days of happiness that once flourished in her city, where now blood runs and fear claims all those around her. The pulsating chorus goes, in translation: "Once I had joys to give/Don't think I was always like this." Venegas was a teenager in the 1980s, and the throbbing synthesizers of Italian disco, German art-rock, and British synthpop suggest that those vanished days are personally as well as nationally meaningful. The video, in which cinematic violence turns into communal dance, drives home Venegas's rather abstract thesis: By working in harmony instead of surrendering to fear and rage, Mexicans can heal Mexico.

The video is filled with moderately famous figures from Mexico City's vibrant media industry, including actress Irene Azuela, photographer (and the singer's sister) Jovanna Venegas, and many musicians, singers, and fellow pop stars. One of them, almost unrecognizable, is Venegas's close friend and collaborator Natalia Lafourcade, who like Venegas has also been looking backwards in reaction to grim present-day realities.

Ten years younger than Venegas, Lafourcade has been a force in Mexican music since 2003, with her small voice and wide musical imagination providing hits like "En el 2000" and "Ella Es Bonita." But her current album, Mujer Divina, is a collection of duets covering songs written by the Mexican composer Agustín Lara (1897-1970), one of the towering icons of 20th-century popular music. If Irving Berlin had also been George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, the U.S. might have a comparable figure. The years of his primacy, roughly 1930-1960, are widely thought of as a Golden Age in Mexican cultural, economic, and social achievement.

By returning to the deep well of Lara's songs at this moment in history, Lafourcade is also, like Venegas, acting out a social agenda. A born internationalist who has been drawing from British pop and Brazilian bossa nova all her life, she acknowledges that singing Lara has given her a deep connection with Mexico's rich history, and it's one she wants to share.

"Limosna," the second single from Mujer Divina, was originally recorded in the 1930s, but Lafourcade delivers it in a bright indie-pop style that owes a lot to the 1960s—or, more precisely, to the '60s' imitation of the '30s, as seen in certain songs by Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson. Thrown into this nostalgia whirlpool is the video, shot in witty imitation of a surrealistic silent film, with Lafourcade as a ukulele-strumming Betty Boop-like figure and her duet partner Meme (of the venerable Mexican art-rock band Café Tacvba, and her producer for several albums) as a more hangdog Chaplin. It's almost aggressively cutesy, but unlike similar put-a-bird-on-it twee productions in the U.S. and elsewhere, it's also a reminder of specifically Mexican virtues: Lara's melodicism, a loopy imaginativeness, and an almost-silly solidarity with the poor that marked post-revolutionary Mexican culture for decades. Like Venegas's invocation of '80s cool, it's a vision of a possible past that creates a space to reimagine the present.

One criticism of both Venegas's and Lafourcade's recent work—one that YouTube commenters have, characteristically, not been shy in making—is that they're making "hipster" records, satisfying middle-class Mexico City internationalist tastes at the expense of engaging with the wider Mexican population, especially those in the border and coastal states who are actually in danger of violence and feeling the economic and political squeeze. Surely the narcocorridos of the border region, the tribal movement of Monterey, and the ruidosón of Tijuana are more populist, more aesthetically daring, and more immediately cathartic than either woman's exercise in nostalgia, no matter how elegantly expressed or beautifully constructed.

What such complaints boil down to is an implication that it's wrong for Julieta Venegas and Natalia Lafourcade to be who they are: a 43-year-old mother and international pop star, and a musical prodigy who has spent time in a Toronto arts collective, respectively. They are middle-class, and so is a great deal of Mexico and Latin America more generally. The purists who want to categorize people according to the most authentic, native music of their region can end up being mere poverty tourists. Mexicans take the same pride in the sophisticated artistic achievements of their nation's past that their cousins to the north do, and are equally citizens of the world. On Los Momentos, Venegas is gesturing not just towards the 1980s, but to current British, German, and Chilean electronic pop taking similar cues, and Lafourcade's duets on Mujer Divina aren't limited to Mexicans, but Argentines, Uruguayans, Brazilians, and U.S. citizens as well.

The violence and fear that has made the news for the past several years are never all there is. While there's certainly room for narcocorridos, tribal, and ruidosón—and for the thousands of other sounds coming out of Mexico's sprawling cities and noisy towns and leafy suburbs and dusty countryside—Venegas and Lafourcade have established even more space for the sanity and beauty of exquisitely crafted pop.