26 December, 1998

The waning years of the 1990s were, from the perspective of more than a decade later, a minor Gilded Age, a global utopia of brand names and Internet startups. The great struggles of the twentieth century were over, Western capitalism and American hegemony had won, the final eradication of time and distance was at hand via the Web, and there was nothing left to do but set yourself up in a McMansion, keep raking in the money, and spend it on whatever the lords of Madison Avenue and TRL demanded.

It was a time begging to be satirized ― for God's sake, it was a time when a totally earnest commencement address over trip-hoppy washes could become a massive international pop hit ― and while novelists, comedians, television producers, filmmakers, and suck.com gave of their best, pop music rather lagged behind. Of course pop, at least in the United States, is much more likely to set the tone for an era rather than provide a principled opposition, and the occasional "Barbie Girl" aside, very little in any U.S. chart critiqued rather than egged on the brave new era of Internet commerce, upscale mall culture, and bubbling markets ― or at least, not in the Anglophone charts.

The last time we saw Juan Luis Guerra was much earlier in the 90s, with a song protesting (in an ironic, covert, and danceable manner) American imperialism. He's kept up with the times, though, and here delivers a rollicking merengue which poses as a love song in order to satirize online relationships, mass media, aspirational branding, and global celebrity. The title "Mi PC" should need no translation to even the most ignorant of Spanish, but to make it clear, the first verse goes: "Girl, I want to tell you that I have in my computer/A gigabyte of your kisses and a floppy of your personality/Girl, I want to tell you that only you interest me/And the mouse that moves your mouth reformats my head/Girl, I want to tell you that in my PC I only have/A monitor with your eyes and a CD-ROM of your body."

So far so William Gibson ― indeed so far so creepy otaku ― but the chorus is where Guerra takes aim at the world beyond the desktop, by listing all the things his character doesn't want (at least compared to his virtual love). These include: a limousine, a Hugo Boss vest, Cindy Crawford in Berlin, a palace with pagodas, Burger King, a drawing by Miró, a trip to Paris, an airplane ride, Holyfield's ear, a Ferrari convertible, Pizza Hut, a NASA shuttle, and Shaquille O'Neal tennis shoes. The venerable folk/pop practice of defining reality by means of lists gets turned on its head by Guerra formulating his items in the negative, and he plays with cadence and repetition to further disrupt the accumulated meaning of all these signifiers of fame, wealth, and Westernization.

The form he chooses for the song is very much a straight-ahead merengue, though one that's characteristically fast-paced and even frantic, with whirlwind interjections from the brass and a carnivalesque breakdown to punctuate the song's funhouse take on modern society. Which of course means that many of the people who would most enjoy its satire will never take it seriously; the vast majority of pop-culture consmers in the U.S. have long since consigned merengue, like salsa, mambo, and other trad Latin dance forms, to the bin of pure utilitarianism, good only for dancing to or for indicating exoticization. But Juan Luis  Guerra is no Third World postcolonial outsider: he's making his critique from within the heart of the Western pop system. Not only did this song hit #1, but its parent album (almost routinely) went gold and received two Grammys; he had been a Latin superstar for over a decade, living partly in the US and touring worldwide. In another ten years, as Dominican bachata becomes a more integral thread in the Latin pop fabric, he'll even be an elder statesman. But that's looking too far ahead. We'll get there in time.

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