14th May, 1988

If Juan Gabriel gave us our first taste of modern dance music — oddly elongated and strangely unecstatic as it was — Yuri plunges us right into the cross-currents of post-disco baile: this isn't some paranoid, agonized personal statement set to robot rhythms, but a massive splash of fun which topped the Hot Latin chart throughout the summer of 1988, a giddy call to dance and selfhood which deserves to be rated along with the best of Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, the Bangles, and Donna Lewis as a creamy pinnacle of 1980s pop, with day-glo instrumentation and cocaine-funky rhythms, orgasmic whoops and sexy salsa breakdowns.

This was Yuri's peak as a pop star; we'll meet her again, but this was the culmination of about a decade's worth of hard work, success, and more success after that, invisible to the exclusivity of a #1 list that didn't start until 1986. She had her first hit in 1979, and was one of Mexico's biggest pop stars in the decade that followed; in fact I knew her name and the curves of her cleavage (if not her music) well as a thirteen-year-old in Guatemala in 1991 looking through newspapers that were way sexier than the ones back home. (Hers may be the earliest name I ever knew to appear in these charts, unless Amy Grant or Barbra Streisand turns up.)

Like Madonna, her self-presentation was more important than her vocal ability; unlike contemporaries like Ana Gabriel or Daniela Romo, she didn't have the kind of voice that could make you thrill regardless of the song. But she could play up her sexuality (she posed in Playboy in 1986), and her dance moves, and she could work with canny producers and get great songs and be nearly the first "manufactured" pop star to appear on this chart.

"Manufactured" is in quotes here because I don't subscribe to the criticism implicit in the word (and neither should you); "self-made" might be a better adjective. What I mean is that she successfully engineered a pop career without coming out of a more "authentic" tradition first, whether regional, tropical or folklórico (the three traditions in Latin music which are most often set against pop; in American music the closest historical analogues would be country, r&b, and folk). Everything about Yuri, from her hair color to her musicianship, was artificial; which only means she was a late-twentieth-century pop star.

But simple-minded party songs, however giddily danceable and well presented by a sexy singer, are a dime a dozen; "Qué Te Pasa"'s historic run at the top of the chart (the longest stay at forteen weeks, a record unbroken for the rest of the millennium) needs more explanation. Which, if you understand the lyrics, it has; they are very nearly existential in their insistence on the Party as source of meaning. "El amor y desamor/Son plumas en el viento" ("love and lack of love are feathers in the wind") is a shockingly wise, practically Brelesque lyric in a giddy pop song, and the imagery of leaving behind depressive solitude for communal ecstasy could be tailor-made for 2000s indie vs. poptimist fights. "Qué te pasa" translates as "what's up with you?" and could easily be interpreted as "what's wrong with you?" or "what's your deal?" as the verses urge the listener to stop moping, get out on the balcony, and dance.

But the middle eight proves that the song isn't just about bullying the shy and depressive into uncomfortable partying: "Stop looking already/For that five-legged cat*/It doesn't make any sense/In the depths just like me/With your soul in pieces/Begin again/Always from zero."

It's a call to arms (or to feet!) that more of us could always use. Thin production or not, this has become one of my favorite pop songs in the few weeks I've been listening to it, and while I'm still a little surprised that I'm taking Yuri (Yuri! The one with the breasts!) seriously, this is exactly what I was hoping to find when I began this project.

*A Hispanic idiom meaning something so rare as to be unobtainable.

No comments:

Post a Comment