septima poster

Los Tigres play norteño, and so does Intocable —
Unless they play Tejano, un punto contestable.
The bandas all play banda; mariachis, mariachi.
Puro sax spews merry tears, norteño’s Pagliacci.
Cumbias are acoustic, when they’re not electric.
Singers may get richer, once they get eclectic.
Christian Nodal will tell you he plays “mariacheño,”
Y finalmente everyone starts playing sierreño.

Billboard‘s first Regional Mexican singles chart in 1994 contained a synth-heavy blend of technocumbias, technobandas, romantic grupero baladas, and one mariachi song. The chart was one of three new radio charts, along with Pop and Tropical/Salsa, that electronically surveyed Spanish-language stations across the U.S., a technology-driven update to the magazine’s never-ending effort to record which songs audiences heard most.

The “Regional Mexican” chart surveyed 70 stations whose playlists focused on — you guessed it — regional Mexican genres. That is, banda came from Mexico’s west coast, while Tejano began around the U.S./Mexico border region. Mariachi was an old, rural style specifically cultivated by Mexico’s intellectual elite to present a sophisticated and tourist-friendly cultural face. Grupera music was an abomination from the rank pits of hell, or maybe Acapulco.

kqqkThese disparate genres had a lot in common. Musically, the bands and their fans shared some core folk repertoire and an affection for polka and cumbia rhythms; socially, they shared the experience of being a largely working-class minority in a foreign land. But the genres were still pretty disparate. Of the 70 radio stations in that initial survey, 27 were in Texas, the home of Tejano music, and another 27 were in California, where L.A.’s KLAX had recently gotten huge playing banda music. My research is ongoing, but I’d be very surprised if, in 1994, KLAX’s playlist had more than a couple songs in common with Houston’s KQQK “Tejano 106.”

So “Regional Mexican” was a radio format that varied dramatically from city to city, based on the audience that lived within earshot. We’ll save for another day the question of how the format became standardized across the country. (If you can’t wait, Melanie Morgan breaks it down here.) Today’s question is, who invented the term?

As near as I’ve found (and it’s almost too obvious to be true), the answer is someone at Billboard — but if they knew they were coining a term, they didn’t trumpet the fact. In 1985, a decade before the Regional Mexican radio chart, the magazine debuted its Regional Mexican Albums chart (p.58 in this .pdf, with an explanation on p.3). Los Tigres sat at #1, followed by a satanic host of gruperos, Vikki Carr con mariachi, Tejano conjunto legend Ramon Ayala, and La Mafia’s aren’t-you-glad-this-exists Neon Static — which, despite looking and often sounding like pop sung in Spanish, would not, apparently, have been properly classified as “Pop.” An eclectic bunch!

Two weeks before the chart appeared, staff writer Enrique Fernandez gave a heads up in the Latin Notas column (p.63). He twice referred to the forthcoming chart as “Mexican Regional” rather than vice versa, suggesting a standard moniker wasn’t yet in place. He defined the format as “music with its roots in traditional Mexican and Mexican/American sounds, notably the ranchera and the norteña,” and added, “Obviously, these classifications represent a compromise… [b]ut they reflect the direction the market is taking.”

The only previous mention of “Regional Mexican” I’ve found came the year before, in a 1984 Billboard article titled, as though by that sad-eyed uncle who calls you Champ, “Mexican Industry Hanging In There.” The relevant quote: “Regional Mexican music, such as rancheras, also has dropped in sales.” I’ve found no earlier mentions of the term, although previous articles talked about “regional styles” and “regional melodies.” From a 1976 article on Mexican radio: “Ranchera, the authentic folklore and regional melodies, are first choice [of stations in outlying rural states]. This includes the mariachi, norteno and whatever other sounds are indigenous to the Mexicans.”

Whether “Regional Mexican” was coined in an ’84 Billboard or earlier, it wasn’t a codified industry term yet. For proof, just look to the Grammys. The first Mexican music Grammy appeared in 1983, and it was for “Best Mexican/American Performance,” not “Regional Mexican.” Fernandez wrote the award included “both traditional Mexican music, like rancheras, and the indigenous sounds of the U.S./Mexico border, like the Tejano song.” Surely if the term “Regional Mexican” had been in common industry use, it would have been the name of the Grammy category, as it is now. (Including Tejano.)

Why does it matter? First, to remind us that commercial music formats, especially radio formats, are often instinctive attempts to group genres whose audiences don’t necessarily have much in common, but that have enough in common that they patronize a lot of the same businesses. “Regional Mexican” is no different. Tejano audiences mostly wanted nothing to do with the technobanda world, but enough program directors and award givers felt they had enough overlapping interests to lump them together.

Second, formats like “Regional Mexican” can shape how both insiders and outsiders hear the music. For several years in the mid-’90s, Tejano music dominated the Regional Mexican format, which might have led the Tejano audience to see themselves as the public face of mexicanidad in the U.S. (Given Selena’s popularity, they probably weren’t far off.) When Tejano faded after Selena’s death, that face was given over to banda and norteño. Plenty of Mexican-Americans in Texas have since become modern norteño fans — enough that they still set attendance records at the Houston rodeo’s “Go Tejano Day,” which hasn’t featured a Tejano act in years unless Siggno counts — but plenty more still feel the loss. Meanwhile, when outsiders notice Regional Mexican, all this talk of “traditional” and “indigenous sounds” might lead them to believe Mexican music is primarily archaic and folkloric, when its production assembly line is as crass and commercial and careerist as any in the U.S. (Being plenty crass itself, the Blog approves.)

In short, formats aren’t genres. They’re commercial shorthand cobbled from genres, often hastily. But it only takes a generation or so for those haphazard conglomerations to seem like they’ve always been around, part of the scenery, and when that happens, watch out: people will change their ways of hearing music accordingly.