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.