Thanks to Los Tucanes de Tijana, NorteñoBlog has been forced into another installment of our occasional feature HASTY CARTEL GOOGLING. This long-running quintet of corrideros is nothing if not consistent, and they’re back at #20 on the Regional Mexican airplay chart with “Panchito El F1,” a pro forma cartel ballad ripped from the headlines by their prolific songwriter Mario Quintero. The story concerns a real life honcho of the Gulf Cartel in Zacatecas. Until recently he operated under the nombres de cartel “Panchito” and “F1,” but was captured along with coworkers in May. The federales also confiscated some of the cartel’s heavy weaponry, including four grenade launchers and four AK47s. (No andan cazando venados con esa mierda, amirite?) The song is Panchito’s origin story: when ordered to kill someone else’s family, he refuses. As a penalty, his own family is kidnapped and tortured, but he gets them back. (I think; standard gabacho translation caveats apply.) The corrido also mentions a different Gulf Cartel honcho named Comandante Hamburguesa. Since this Hamburgler appears to be still at large, NorteñoBlog will leave his Hasty Cartel Googling up to you!
Does current Mexican law permit narcocorridos on the radio? This recent article suggests “Panchito El F1” is probably banned from Mexico’s airwaves because it “publicly supports criminal actions.” (I’m sure the Gulf Cartel is wondering why membership is down.) As we saw in our last round of Hasty Cartel Googling, this ban is not absolute: La Séptima Banda recently charted with the wafer-thin character study “El Hijo del Ingeniero,” based on the party habits of a real life cartel scion. But that’s a party song. “F1” has violence and weaponry and is not the sort of thing the Mexican government wants impressionable muchachos to hear. You know, all those muchachos who listen to the radio but don’t know how to work Youtube.
NorteñoBlog does not support banning violent corridos from the radio, because banning violent corridos from the radio is silly. Corrido bans are the ineffective smokescreens of an utterly failed war on drugs. Better to focus on the corruption that prevents Mexico from thoroughly prosecuting its criminals. Better to alleviate Mexico’s poverty, or to deal with drug-addicted El Norte; these are the blights that have driven Mexican people to the cartels. (A possibly optimistic statistic: “A 2012 study by the Mexcian Institute of Competitiveness (IMCO) figured if the U.S. legalized marijuana, Mexican drug cartels would lose 30 percent of their revenue.”) There are no simple solutions; but whatever the solutions might be, neoliberal outrage over suppressing free speech is a secondary issue.
So here’s the real question when it comes to songs like “F1”: What do people hear in violent corridos, and why?
What follows is an attempt to untangle some (but not all!) of the public arguments surrounding these songs. In no way am I attempting to pit these voices against one another. They all make fair points. With a few changes, the first two arguments could apply to any number of pop music culture wars, from Chief Keef to Eminem back to the PMRC hearings in the ’80s. Further down the list, cultural parallels become harder to draw.
1. A Sad, “Almost Pornographic” Corruption of an Art Form
Journalist Sam Quinones can tell you way more about the complex drug problem than I can. Last summer I exchanged emails with Quinones about the late Ariel Camacho, who also sang corridos that glorified real life narcos. One of Quinones’s points, summarized in both the resulting Camacho article and this Vice News report, is worth quoting at length.
[W]hatever its artistic merit, the [Movimiento Alterado] is more a musical movement, or approach to the corrido, than just a label. The hallmark of the MA musical movement – what made it new – is that it does not tell tales of noble, powerless and doomed men up against impossible odds, as so many corridos (narco or otherwise) have done. Instead, MA slavishly praises, usually by name, real cartel leaders or hitmen – lauding the powerful, in other words…
This is what separates the MA from earlier narcocorrido singers – Los Tigres, for example, or Chalino [Sanchez]. It is a corruption of the corrido’s original intent and has transformed the genre into advertising/propaganda for the wealthiest, best-armed, most powerful and most blood-thirsty folks in the Mexican drug world.
… folks like F1 and Comandante Hamburguesa.
Quinones is here talking about the Movimiento Alterado, a waning affiliation of ultraviolent horror-corrideros. Los Tucanes found the gimmick before MA did, and the Vice video focuses on merchants exploiting El Chapo Guzman, but everyone concerned is using the same lyrical strategy of glorifying real life cartel leaders. To my knowledge, Quinones has not supported banning such corridos, but in the Vice video he calls MA’s violence “almost pornographic,” and their corruption of the corrido as an art form “sad.”
2. Candy (and Music, and T-Shirts, and Tacos) Everybody Wants
In the same Vice News report, we hear from Adolfo Valenzuela, who with twin brother Omar founded Twiins Enterprises, the Burbank company who bankrolls Movimiento Alterado. Valenzuela defends his business with words that could have come from L.A.’s rap scene two decades earlier: “The music has nothing to do with the violence. Violence is going to continue even without this music, and it has been there way before it. The music is just a reality that young people wanted to express… about what’s happening around them.” In typically enterprising fashion, Twiins has expanded its product line to include Chapo-themed t-shirts and a narco-themed taqueria.
In a different interview Valenzuela has said, “It’s a market and I’m in the music industry. If I don’t do it, someone else is doing it.” If lust and hate is the candy, then we give ’em what they want. We’ve seen opinions 1 and 2 plenty of times before. But who’s clamoring for the candy?
3. Mexican Pride
In the Vice video, Valenzuela says corridos glorifying cartel leaders represent “a lifestyle of wanting good things in life, you know? For a long time Mexicans have thought that [he switches to Spanish] we need to be humble and never ask for more and put our head down. [back to English] So in this case, we can dream high. We can dream of having luxuries, we can dream of being big entrepreneurs or anything we want.”
Similarly, when NorteñoBlog talked to MA fan Juan Carlos, he talked about enjoying the real-life implications of the songs. “Everybody thinks that they know the people [in the songs]. When we’re drunk, we sing a lot of Mexican narcocorridos… We feel good ‘cause maybe one person is from Sinaloa, so it makes you proud of that people.” He talked up Grupo 360, with whom he’d had his picture taken. “I’m sorry what I tell you, but I know that group goes with Chapo. I feel good ‘cause I know those guys singing for the Chapo and his family.”
In a public radio story on Ariel Camacho, Elijah Wald, who wrote the book Narcocorrido, explained Camacho’s approach to real-life corrido subjects: “His songs were mostly about the really famous narcos and that’s… like Hollywood movies.”
4. Mexican Shame
At the same time, plenty of Mexican-American (and presumably Mexican) corrido fans feel conflict over their love of the new corridos. A couple years ago I was trying to get to the bottom of Gerardo Ortiz’s “Dámaso,” a real-life narco character study that I consider the greatest single of this decade, any genre. (It doesn’t feature any violence, just a big shot talking smack.) I spoke to my librarian Fatima; some of that talk ended up in this story. By the age of three Fatima could tell Tigres cassettes from Tucanes cassettes. Despite her love for the music of Ortiz and Noel Torres, both briefly linked to MA, Fatima had grown weary of the new-school violence:
“A lot of people see [MA corrideros] as wannabes; some people don’t like their music for that reason. One of my aunts hates their music and thinks it’s a joke. It is really sad seeing bodies on the floor, families being slaughtered, even little babies being killed. It’s sad that people are singing about it, acting big and tough — people are taking it too far. If you hear the real stories from Mexico, it’s really sad.”
But Fatima said she would still see Ortiz or Torres in concert: “I do like the beats of some of those songs; a lot of people show up because of the music, how it sounds.”
Sometimes the shame is based on social class. In Wandering Sound’s 2014 Latin music roundup, Carlos Reyes, who founded the hip Latin music site Club Fonograma, asked, “So why is it that I feel guilt when enjoying a narco-corrido?” He described the musical greatness of “Dámaso,” but added “The college-educated hipster kid isn’t supposed to like narco-corridos. Yes, I’m cheating and redeeming myself here. The change of heart came when realizing I was being a hypocrite for being so outspoken about being a Breaking Bad fanatic, and keeping a masterpiece of a song like ‘Dámaso’ on my shameful vault of guilty pleasures.”
5. A Fad From a U.S. Minority, Patronizingly Amplified by the Predominant White Culture
Back in 2013, when the documentary Narco Cultura came out, OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano wrote a piece that’s become an angel on NorteñoBlog’s shoulder: “Yes America: Mexican Music is Violent. Get Over It.” Arellano hates MA — “the shoutouts to narco lords get grating after a while” — but he may hate its head-patting news coverage even more. “The buzz over Narco Cultura is causing audiences to sigh again about poor Mexico — so far from God, so close to the United States blah blah blah. About the country’s failed status. About the continued degradation of cultura. A Two Minutes Hate for our neighbors south of the border.”
He went on, “The movimento alterado has been especially huge in Southern California, and has been the topic of much soul-searching in Mexican and Mexican-American circles — yet it has received no attention until now. And why now? Because a gabacho did a documentary about it. And, of course, once a gabacho does something, it becomes news for other gabachos.”
6. Music From a U.S. Minority, Reacting To the Predominant White Culture
When I presented a paper on hyphy norteño at a 2014 conference, someone asked me a question about first and second-generation Mexican-American bands who sang about drug use and hurled insults at women. Was this music a challenge or a sop to white cultural hegemony? I tried to refer him to Helena Simonett in the journal Ethnomusicology (of course I did); she basically says, it’s both. Working class people and immigrants “filter and refashion what evolves from the hegemonic culture and then incorporate and fuse this with what comes from their own historical memory.” Besides, these are individual people being creative — they’ll sing about whatever sick preoccupations they choose.
In other words, music aimed at U.S. audiences of first and second-generation Mexican Americans — like Alterado, like “Panchito El F1” — isn’t “pure.” Most of the time it isn’t even striving for some return to some pure corrido form. It’s informed by everything else in audiences’ lives — their work, Hollywood movies, rap and country music, controlled substances, idiot politicians and neighbors who make them feel like second-class citizens, and, yes, the narco culture that informs both gabacho news reports and the daily lives of relatives back home.
7. Exciting Music that Embodies All of the Above
At #16 on the airplay chart is Omar Ruiz’s “El Americano,” a terrific ode to notorious drug trafficker George Jung. (Manuel wrote about it here.) The song is three years old, so I’m not sure why it’s catching on now, but I just caught Fuerza de Tijuana’s duet version on the radio the other day, and it was great — wild band interplay, with tuba, accordion, and guitar all jostling for the position of lead instrument, then coming together to punctuate Jung’s story. Pick to Click!
And apart from the music, this song is exciting for a reason popular art is often exciting: it says a WHOLE LOT at once. It glorifies a drug dealer, which could be sad or thrilling or both. It equates the sordid and satisfying business of making pop music with the sordid and satisfying business of selling drugs. Even though Jung was born in Boston, the song speaks to the Latino immigrant experience in El Norte. Sure it’s problematic — but your faves are problematic because OUR TWO COUNTRIES are problematic, and pop music at its best takes in the world, chews it up, and spits it back in our faces.
These are the top 25 Hot Latin Songs and top 20 Regional Mexican Songs, courtesy Billboard, as published March 12.
1. “Ginza” – J Balvin
2. “Hasta El Amanecer” – Nicky Jam
3. “Solo Con Verte” – Banda MS (#2 RegMex)
4. “El Perdón” – Nicky Jam & Enrique Iglesias
5. “Encantadora” – Yandel
6. “Borro Cassette” – Maluma
7. “¿Por Qué Terminamos?” – Gerardo Ortiz (#1 RegMex)
8. “Culpa Al Corazón” – Prince Royce
9. “Obsesionado” – Farruko
10. “Ya Te Perdí La Fe” – Arrolladora (#3 RegMex)
11. “Traidora” – Gente de Zona ft. Marc Anthony
12. “Hablemos” – Ariel Camacho y Los Plebes Del Rancho (#9 RegMex)
13. “DEL Negociante” – Los Plebes Del Rancho de Ariel Camacho
14. “Pistearé” – Banda Los Recoditos (#7 RegMex)
15. “¿Por Qué Me Ilusionaste?” – Remmy Valenzuela (#4 RegMex)
16. “Tomen Nota” – Adriel Favela ft. Los Del Arroyo (#5 RegMex)
17. “Broche de Oro” – La Trakalosa de Monterrey (#6 RegMex)
18. “Desde Esa Noche” – Thalia ft. Maluma
19. “Como Lo Hacia Yo” – Ken-Y & Nicky Jam
20. “Hasta Que Se Seque El Malecón” – Jacob Forever
21. “Te Busco” – Cosculluela ft. Nicky Jam (or vice versa)
22. “El Taxi” – Pitbull ft. Sensato, Lil Jon & Osmani Garcia
23. “Vaiven” – Daddy Yankee
24. “Las Cosas de la Vida” – Carlos Vives
25. “Préstamela a Mi” – Calibre 50 (#12 RegMex)
11. “Después de Ti, ¿Quién?” – La Adictiva Banda
13. “Nadie Como Tú” – Banda Clave Nueva de Max Peraza
14. “Quién Fue” – Larry Hernández
15. “Pongamonos de Acuerdo” – Julión Álvarez y Su Norteño Banda
16. “El Americano” – Omar Ruiz
17. “Mi Niña Adorada” – Saul “El Jaguar” Alarcón
18. “Moneda Sin Valor” – Pesado
19. “Pero Sin Enamorarse” – Jesus Ojeda y Sus Parientes
20. “Panchito El F1” – Los Tucanes de Tijuana