13th September, 1986

Last time I compared Juan Gabriel to Bruce Springsteen; a more accurate summation of his impact on Latin Pop in the 1980s would be to call him an amalgam of Springsteen, Michael Jackson, and George Michael. (It was Gabriel's world from 1980 to the mid-90s; everyone else was just living in it.) Springsteen for the connection to rootsy tradition, Jackson for the unprecedented popularity; and Michael for the flamboyant soulfulness and sure instinct for the grand gestures of renunciation and demand that pop does so well. Let's take some time to break down the lyric:

The title phrase, the first line of the song, translates as "I don't know what happened to me" — followed by "but I don't love you anymore." So far, so standard; we're in the realm of breakup song, a sturdy genre with lots of history and plenty of directions to go from here. But his rhetoric turns in on itself. "It's better to end than to go on like this/It's very sad, I know/But what can I do if today I no longer feel love?" He's starting to protest too much; but the next line seals it: "Very suddenly it's over/It's better to tell the truth and not lie." He can't be with her any more; he's been living a lie.

It's probably best at this point to refer to Wikipedia:

Juan Gabriel, when he was asked about whether he was gay, replied "Lo que se ve no se pregunta, mijo. Yo no tengo por qué decirle cosas que a usted, como a muchas otras personas, no les interesa, yo pienso que soy un artista que he dado mucho con mis canciones". ("What is seen is not asked about, young man. I have no reason to tell you, nor others, things that are none of your concern, dear. I feel I am an artist who has contributed much with my songs").
Not exactly how I'd translate it (there's no justification for inserting that "dear"), but I think you get the idea.

But that's all verse. Now comes the straining chorus: "For a while you will suffer, I know/But someone will come and give you their love sooner or later/You will see the light again/And he will never wound you/Never humiliate you/Never deceive you/Never hurt your love." That's quite the confession; few pop songs this side of Elvis Costello are quite so savage about the singer's ability to hurt.

Then: "So that you are never left alone/You need to give your love sincerely/To put an end to the betrayals/You need to say goodbye first/As I do." He's just masterful here; the soulful cracking in his voice is added to with a sobbing ranchera tone, and again I'm reminded of George Michael's unique combination of generosity and self-absorption.

Then the mariachi horns come in, playing a vaguely calypso melody with a sea-breeze cleansing quality (even if they sound a bit plastic and readymade), and he sings the whole thing again. Sure, the instrumentation is cheap and mid-80s, but with a voice like that, especially when he reaches up for the grainy high notes in the chorus, it hardly matters.

We'll be coming across Juan Gabriel several more times in the course of this adventure before he founders on the shores of the twenty-first century (just as Bruce and Michael and George would do in the English-speaking charts). But this finds him at the peak of his powers, with the world at his feet — the Billboard Latin chart started up too late to capture him in his world-conquering phase — and that his thoughts had turned to endings and betrayals, with the song drawn from an album titled Pensamientos (lit. "thoughts"), shows a reflectiveness that doesn't generally appear in the stereotypes about Latin pop. Of course Latin ballads have always been full of broken hearts and tragedy; but something this self-aware, and this relatively early, remains cherishable.

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