As you know if you’ve passed within 10 feet of a computer this week, Gerardo Ortiz has a new album out! (Maybe his pop-up ad onslaught only hits people with my peculiar computing habits.) Hoy Mas Fuerte (Del/Sony), his fifth studio album, is the work of a highly accomplished musician who’s transcending his genre and knows he’s in rarefied territory. He’s come a long way since 2010, when he was associated with El Movimiento Alterado and his debut CD’s booklet featured the anonymous band wearing ski masks and the phone number of somebody named only “Junior.” Since then, his hit song “Dámaso” — the best pop single so far this decade — and his fourth album, Archivos de Mi Vida, have made Ortiz the biggest name in regional Mexican music. He’s all over radio, he plays (and often opens) every awards show, and his face is at the center of radio billboards. No more ski masks or grenades in his logo; he’s got a reputation to uphold.
This is good news for Ortiz and possibly for the norteño genre, where Alterado’s ultraviolence has worn thin aesthetically and commercially, and, frankly, where too many singers have lately been shot. (“Too many” as in “more than zero.”) Billboard reports that Ortiz will tour with one of them, Alfredo Olivas, who’s on the mend, thank goodness — NOT that Olivas is affiliated with any cartels. The question is, will Ortiz’s new idol status benefit his music? If Hoy Más Fuerte is any indication… maybe, but not yet.
Fuerte furthers Ortiz’s idea of a movement devoted to progressive corridos, or “Corridos Progresivos.” My gringo friends, this is not “progressive” like progressive rock. There’s no songs with Roman numerals or harpsichords in Ortiz’s music (yet), and the songs are still short. It’s more like progressive rap. The music is more lush — not quite PM Dawn levels of lushness, but at least Arrested Development levels. The band is trying things that typical norteño bands don’t allow themselves — the rhythms switch up more often, the accordionist slides through chromatic passages that sound vaguely like he’s playing a French cafe, and the bajo sexto player plays a lot more notes than, say, Luis Hernández does. I haven’t yet seen credits for the band, but whoever they are they’re accomplished and subtle, and Ortiz has always hired some of the best players in the biz. The recording sounds great, too; Sony obviously spent plenty of money polishing the band’s sound until it gleamed.
The problem is with the songs. After half a dozen listens, nothing sticks with me except for the big ballad, “¿Por Qué Terminamos?” While everything is pleasant to hear again, I don’t need to hear anything again. Possible exception: the bachata tune “Contigo,” which is better than Calibre 50’s “Contigo” even if it’s not as good as Ortiz’s previous bachata. Maybe this will change, but right now Fuerte combines a remarkable increase in musical skill with a corresponding decrease in vibrant energy. Ortiz and his band have always been professionals, but now they’re embracing the world of professionalism.
Two rock critic concepts are worth considering here:
Within his genre, Gerardo Ortiz is enjoying his Imperial Phase, and has been at least since the 2013 release of “Dámaso.” Explained Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys, the band who coined the phrase: “It means you can do what you like, usually followed by disappearing up your backside!” Taylor Swift is also enjoying an Imperial Phase, though her rule extends over all of popular music. Ortiz and Swift are both in the zone, and they can be fairly certain that whatever they release will connect with a wide audience. In pop, audience goodwill eventually dries up and the phase ends. Whether the Imperial Phase works the same in norteño, where the audience still reserves a central place for Jenni Rivera several years after her death, remains to be seen.
It’s also too soon to tell whether Fuerte will prove Ortiz’s New Jersey (i.e., the Bon Jovi album): a hit album that follows another huge hit, scores some hit singles of its own, but ultimately feels like the beginning of a major drop in the artist’s standing. We won’t be able to tell until the next Ortiz album, when we realize how inconsequential “Terminamos?” and “El Cholo” feel to the rest of his career. I’m not saying this’ll happen. I’m just saying.
What’s remarkable is that this corridista is inviting these comparisons at all. As a gabacho, I often compare norteño artists to pop and country artists, since that’s my frame of reference. In the case of Ortiz, though, both artist and record label are blatantly reaching for those sorts of comparisons. Not that Sony is marketing Ortiz’s music to gringos — although in my corner of the internet they are — but in press releases they’re clearly positing him as a giant in his field, progressing artistically, innovating, “taking steps.” It’s impossible to imagine a record label saying such things about Los Rieleros del Norte, for instance, who release the same good album every year or so. Even last year’s return of Los Tigres didn’t seem much different than the push for any other long-running corrido band, aside from the news of their GLAAD award, which they downplayed in their modest blue-collar manner. Ortiz represents a new or at least recent phenomenon: norteño music infused with pop technique and marketed with pop savvy. The songs are almost beside the point, and there lies his downfall.