The songwriter who inaugurated this travelogue, who was the first truly great artist I learned about for the first time because I chose to do this blog, whose voice and songs were all over its first dozen years, takes his leave of the #1 spot with this valedictory, fifteen years before he took his leave of everywhere else. I am grateful to this blog for letting me share, even if briefly, in the astonishment and adoration that millions of Latinos (but especially Mexicans) have felt towards JuanGa and his work over the decades.
And I note that the impulse which led me to start this blog almost eight years ago, a baffled frustration with an Anglophone music-crit discourse which refuses to acknowledge or understand Latin music as anything but peripheral, an exotic fringe to the English-language center rather than a center (indeed multiple centers) in its own right, was by no means diminished by the conversations which followed his death last year. Comparisons to David Bowie and Prince on the basis of a shallow sense of gender-play and label skirmishes were less than accurate, merely timely: a combination of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, and Freddie Mercury might have been truer, but in fact comparison itself is useless: Juan Gabriel was himself, a figure so towering and all-encompassing that not only are there no Anglophone equivalents, but even reaching for them is a subtle act of disrespect, another intimation that the fringe can only be understood by reference to the center.
All right, then. "Abrázame Muy Fuerte" was the title song of his 2000 album, which wasn't a comeback -- he had been releasing music regularly since the resolution of his label woes in 1994 -- so much as a final acknowledgement that he was now ceding the pop game to the youth. He turned fifty in 2000, and (not incidentally) got all his publishing back; in the next decade, he would release only one more album of entirely new material, before turning retrospective in 2010.
Characteristically for Juan Gabriel in his late period decadence, it's less a pop song than a tone poem, its structure not a cyclical one of verses and choruses but of plateaus and builds. The orchestral pomp (courtesy of Argentine-born orchestrator and producer Bebu Silvetti) which has characterized much of his work since the 1990s doesn't enter until nearly two-thirds of the way through; the focus is on Gabriel's voice, thin and cracking and full of suppressed emotion, as he recites a lyric so metrically uneven and repetitive that only one singer could ever make it work. But it does work: and it's in this moment that I finally recognize the affinity he always claimed in interviews with the great soul and r&b singers of the US. The late Martin Skidmore on soul music is my reference point here: and the way Juan Gabriel uses the crack in his voice in "Abrázame Muy Fuerte" is as smart a use of the technique of emotion as anything Al Green or Gladys Knight ever accomplished.
"Abrázame Muy Fuerte" means literally "Embrace Me Very Strongly" (an idiomatic English equivalent might be something like "Hug Me Tight"), and the song keeps circling back to that request, or demand, or plea: hold me close, to banish the pain of my past and the awful passage of time. "God forgives, but time does not," is one of the more striking phrases among the rush of philosophical and emotional sentiments he expresses, and although in the world of the marketplace the song is a supremely confident triumph, within the world of in the song it's the rage and terror of an aging man (perhaps even particularly an aging gay man, but vanity is not limited by sexual orientation), full of regret and neediness, an open wound begging to be filled by love. It's an astonishing song, and as the orchestral pomp grows and swirls and Juan Gabriel's voice pushes into the next octave, it can be almost battering.
And then, suddenly, it's over. Breaking off almost in the middle of a thought, with the abruptness of a cut to commercial. Death? Orgasm? The final scene of The Sopranos? It's dramatic tension as an art in itself, and of course it was used as a theme song for a telenovela of the same name: what a way to kick into the first scene.
Because if it's a swan song of sorts, it is also one last challenge to the whippersnappers: "top this." No one did; although its reign at the top was intermittent (as were many Hot Latin reigns at the turn of the century), "Abrázame Muy Fuerte" spent nine weeks in total at the top of the chart, and was ultimately declared by Billboard the best-performing Latin single of 2001, outstripping Ricky, Enrique, and even a newly-blonde Colombian we will catch up with later.