music, charts, opinions


Throwback Thursday

Archivos de 2001: Los Twiins Break Through

los twiins

Lovelorn bounces and classic fanfares, old hats and new jacks, and early work by one of the most influential production duos of the past two decades, any genre: these were Billboard‘s top 10 Regional Mexican songs on May 19, 2001.

1. “No Te Podias Quedar”Conjunto Primavera (#4 Hot Latin)
The pride of Ojinaga, the gas-guzzling romantics of the road, Primavera scored their fifth Hot Latin top 10 with this soppy contribution from their go-to songwriter Jesús Guillén. Sometimes songwriters just find a niche, and Guillén was put on this earth to write soaring climaxes for the cavernous throat of Tony Melendez, the continent’s best singer before Primavera’s output dropped off and Julión Álvarez came along. The song itself barely exists.

2. “Y Llegaste Tú”Banda El Recodo (#6 Hot Latin)
In 2001, after 60 years of playing brass band shows to adoring but limited audiences, Recodo was enjoying the public’s newfound vogue for banda music and their first gold album. A couple years earlier, they’d begun hiring producer brothers Adolfo and Omar Valenzuela, aka Los Twiins, aka the bankrollers of El Movimiento Alterado later in the decade. (El Komander still records for them.) The brothers had their identical fingers on the pulse of the youth, and in this song they led Recodo toward a sound that blanketed the airwaves all year, and then for years afterward — a newly written Noel Hernandez song that sounded trad yet vibrant, with a arrangement that turned contrasting instrumental sections into hooks. Plus, “We’ve learned how to really tune the banda,” said Omar, “which [in the past] maybe wasn’t really done.” Progress! Pick to Click!

los tigres paisano3. “Me Declaro Culpable”Los Tigres del Norte (#13 Hot Latin)
Sad limericks of lost love — with sax! Continue reading “Archivos de 2001: Los Twiins Break Through”

A Guide to Regional Mexican Radio in Houston

With the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo coming up March 1-20, including Go Tejano Day on March 13, I figured I should try to understand the complicated Regional Mexican radio scene in the 6th biggest U.S. radio market.

Look, I made a chart! Stations are listed across the top — frequency, station nickname, rating for the 4th quarter of 2015 — with the most recent call sign associated with that frequency just below, in the 2016 row. The chart begins with 1986 at the bottom; as you travel up through the years, you can see when new call signs take over specific frequencies.

Houston s RegMex Radio - Daily schedule (4)-page-001

OCTOBER 5, 1989: GERARDO ORTIZ IS BORN (That’s just for reference, and because this .jpg was hard to format.)

Houston s RegMex Radio - Daily schedule (4)-page-002

When NorteñoBlog surveyed Chicago´s Regional Mexican radio scene last year, it was a straightforward project — I traced the timelines of the three major stations in our market. Not so in Houston. As you can see from the above chart, Houston’s Mexican music fans have enjoyed an abundance of choices over the past three decades. They’ve also endured a confusing tangle of buyouts, simulcasts, and call signs changing frequencies, along with the national boom and bust of a vital regional style: Tejano.

Today non-Texans might have trouble understanding Tejano’s importance to the Lone Star State. After all, Chicago didn’t get our first all-Mexican station until 1997 — the same year KXTJ became Houston’s first station with a norteño focus — by which time Tejano was quickly losing spins to norteño on U.S. radio. In the previous decade, Tejano hadn’t merely been an important regional style; it had been central to Hispanic radio listeners across El Norte, and central to the identities of millions of Texas Latinos. The tragedy of Selena’s death in 1995 was a harbinger and probably a cause for a wider sense of loss — the loss of Tejano identity resonating with a broader populace. As we’ve seen from the outcry when the Houston Rodeo schedules norteño bands on its popular “Go Tejano Day,” Tejano music is more than a nationwide fad that dried up. It’s not duranguense. Tejano identity is a powerful and distinct thing, with music as one of its main expressions, and for a brief period of about a decade that musical identity was crucial to America’s understanding of Latinos.

And then all of a sudden it was replaced by a bunch of damn corridos and tubas. You can understand why Tejano fans’ nostalgia would take on a new intensity.

But that oversimplifies the matter. Let’s look at some of the chart’s high points. As you do, keep in mind that I’ve never been to Houston and I probably got some things wrong, so I’ll welcome your comments and corrections. Continue reading “A Guide to Regional Mexican Radio in Houston”

Archivos de 2004 (starring Grupo Climax, Alicia Villarreal, y más)


Sometimes when you’re feeling whimsical/bored/done with dishes, you just decide to research the chart statistics of Grupo Climax. Or I do — I may be atypical. One thing leads to another, za za za, and so here are Billboard‘s top 10 Regional Mexican airplay songs from July 17, 2004, the week Climax’s only notable hit enjoyed its highest chart placement. Hot Latin chart placement is in parentheses.

Note that in 2004, the Hot Latin charts were still strictly based on airplay: “A panel of 99 stations (40 Latin Pop, 16 Tropical, 51 Regional Mexican) are electronically monitored 24 hrs. a day, 7 days a week.” (Today they also incorporate sales and streams, but there remain breakout charts like Regional Mexican that measure only airplay.) This accounting method placed five RegMex songs inside the Hot Latin top 10, a percentage we never see today; but it also meant the Hot Latin top 25 contained 10 regional Mexican songs, pretty typical by today’s standards.

1. “Qué de Raro Tiene” – Los Temerarios (#2 Hot Latin)
Trembly-eyebrowed synth-pop grupero brothers go nostalgic with an album of ranchera covers, including this Vicente Fernández cover that would top the Hot Latin chart. Gustavo Angel unleashes his throat and sounds right at home in this style. (Be sure to check out their AllMusic bio for a fascinating look at how the brothers started their own label and challenged Fonovisa, only to eventually be swallowed by the giant.)

2. “Dos Locos” – Los Horóscopos de Durango (#5 Hot Latin)
“The Durango Gang Busts Out of Chicago,” read the Billboard headline on June 12, shortly after this song had topped the Regional Mexican chart. Los Horóscopos had been a working banda for 30 years before their enterprising leader Armando Terrazas decided to put his daughters, the multi-instrumentalists Vicky and Marisol, up front. This sad polka cover of Monchy & Alexandra was cut from the same bachata cloth as their cover of Aventura’s “Obsesion,” and it hits one of duranguense’s sweet spots — floaty heartache over nonstop oompahs. (The other sweet spot is clattery barely-constrained synth-tuba chaos, but that didn’t chart as much.) Continue reading “Archivos de 2004 (starring Grupo Climax, Alicia Villarreal, y más)”

Archivos de 1994 (now with Submarine Tracking Technology)


One week in November of 1994, Billboard changed its method of charting the biggest Latin hits in the U.S. They’d been using “National Latin Radio Airplay Reports,” completed and submitted by radio programmers and presumably subject to unwelcome human error. For their November 12 issue, Billboard switched to a computerized service called Broadcast Data Systems, or BDS, which used supercool SUBMARINE TRACKING TECHNOLOGY to determine which songs got the most radio play:

The BDS system looks for an audio fingerprint — a characteristic that differentiates a song from all of the other ones that it tracks — using the same technology that was once used to track submarines.

BDS then weighs the songs differently, depending on how many people they reach:

Thus, a song that plays at 4:00 a.m. does not count as much as one played at 4:00 p.m., and a station with a large audience will influence the chart more than either a station in a smaller market or one with a specialized format that attracts less audience.

Just as when SoundScan began electronically tracking album sales, this new system of tracking led to eye-opening changes in what was hitting the charts. In Billboard‘s November 5 issue, only four songs on the Hot Latin top 10 would have been considered “regional Mexican” — on the list below, they’re the songs from Selena, Ana Gabriel, Industria Del Amor, and Banda Z. On November 12, the new improved Hot Latin chart contained 7 regional Mexican songs, and it would maintain this proportion for weeks to come. Of the regional bands propelled by BDS into the Top 10, four were nowhere to be found in the previous week’s issue: Tejano acts Los Rehenes, Sparx, and La Mafia, and norteño act Banda Machos. For whatever reason — a different balance of stations reporting, or maybe just human error — regional Mexican music had gone under-reported before BDS. The primary beneficiaries of the new submarine tracking technology were Tejano bands, but that may just be because Tejano music, led by Selena, had recently entered its boom period as the popular face of regional Mexican music.

In addition, Billboard starting running three breakout charts, based on the airplay of radio stations devoted to one particular style of Latin music: Pop, Tropical/Salsa, and Regional Mexican. Below is the (first?) Regional Mexican Top 10, from the November 12 issue of Billboard. I’ll be liberally quoting Jonathan Bogart, whose blog Bilbo’s Laptop tracks every Hot Latin #1 and explains several of these songs better than I’ve managed here.

Also, if anyone can tell me what a puchoncito is, I’d appreciate it. Continue reading “Archivos de 1994 (now with Submarine Tracking Technology)”

Los Cuates de Sinaloa: Una Cartilla

cuates breaking bad

Inspired by one of top commenter Manuel’s karaoke jams, here’s a short history of Breaking Bad‘s favorite corridistas, the band Allmusic calls “as gritty and dramatic as one of their songs”: LOS CUATES DE SINALOA. But first, the karaoke jam in question, 2010´s “El Alamo,” a jaunty and repetitive take on a little three-note motive.

The song features accordion, not always a given with Los Cuates, who started out with just two guitarists and a bassist. Well, technically they started with just two guitarists…

1998: Two 14-year-old guitar-playing cousins from Sinaloa, Nano y Gabriel Berrelleza, cross the border from Mexico into Arizona. After living homeless and busking for a couple months, one day they show up at a Phoenix nightclub owned by musician José Juan Segura. Segura tells Billboard,

Continue reading “Los Cuates de Sinaloa: Una Cartilla”

El Hyphy (aka The Rise and Fall of Hyphy Norteño) in Maura Magazine

narquillos cover

My hyphy thinkpiece has arrived! It’s all about California’s unique genre of corrido music known as “hyphy” — yes, named after the rap style — which flourished briefly last decade. The article excerpts two new interviews, one with Hyphy label owner Jose Martinez and one with producer and engineer Juan Ramirez. If I may say so myself, it’s a fun read.

You can read it in Maura magazine, either by subscribing or paying some nominal dinero for the single issue. Out of respect for the magazine and its paywall I won’t reprint anything here, but I don’t think they’d mind if I reprint my abstract for the conference where this article originated:

Pronounced “Jai-Fi”: California Norteño, the Word “Hyphy,” and the Story of a Movement

Recount the fall of 2008, when everyone in the club was getting hyphy — everyone in California’s norteño scene, at least. A year after the watershed rap compilation Hyphy Hitz, the Modesto band Los Amos de Nuevo León scored a minor radio hit with “El Hyphy,” a galloping two-minute accordion orgy of “locos brincando.” A movement was born, sort of. Los Amos’ producer Juan Ramirez corralled like-minded bands into El Movimiento Hyphy; CDs and videos rushed to market. As hyphy rap faded from the nation’s radar, these norteño bands claimed the word as their own, suggesting fast tempos, California pride, subterranean video budgets, and various decadent and/or inexplicable behaviors. The cover of Narquillos del Hyphy’s album El Burro Hyphy depicts the movement in all its glory: six men in matching black and white outfits stand with a gleaming motorcycle, scowling at the severed head of a donkey wearing a diamond studded grill.

Hyphy Movimiento burned out quickly, but the word “hyphy” lives on. Los Amos’ current label is Hyphy Music Inc., which “has nothing to do with Hyphy Movimiento,” label founder and namer Jose Martinez told me — “‘Hyphy’ to me means absolutely nothing.” But it still connotes plenty: California, kush, and, in Martinez’s view, a mellower strain of narcocorrido. Unlike bands in the more popular Movimiento Alterado, Hyphy’s bands don’t sing the gory details of cartel massacres, except when they do. Through interviews and music I’ll explore the shifting story of the word “hyphy” in U.S. norteño music, and through that story some larger issues of branding, cultural appropriation, and the new wave of corrido fans. (Hyphy sells 90% of its music within the U.S.) I won’t dwell too much on cartel violence, promise — but Martinez, a conscientious former youth counselor, did bring it up.



In his “Regional Ramblings” column at the McAllen, TX, Monitor, Eduardo Martinez names his five favorite regional Mexican covers of gringo songs. I could take or leave Conjunto Bernal’s cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “One Day at a Time,” but his other picks are gold:

“Desde Ayer,” Oscar Hernandez’s stuttering-accordion take on “Yesterday”;

“Ya Te Olvide,” where Servando Ramos takes the melody from Radiohead’s “Creep” but adds new lyrics and bounce. Come to think of it, most of The Bends would work well as heartbroken duranguense;

obvious Pick to Click “Rueda de Fuego,” where Mingo Saldivar rocks Johnny Cash with a spellbinding opening accordion solo. As Anthony pointed out, “Ring of Fire” was faux-mariachi so this is a terrific act of post-colonial reclamation. As Martinez pointed out, it’s better than Johnny Cash’s version;

and last (and possibly least), Los Hermanos Ayala’s “Guerra de la Galaxias,” an accordioned take on the Star Wars theme that you can’t unhear.

I’d add to the list Rogelio Martínez’s Shania Twain cover “Y Sigues Siendo Tu,” which we’ve discussed, and also Los 6 de Durango doing ’60s rockers Los Apson doing the Drifters in “Fue en un Cafe,” a word-changey take on “Under the Boardwalk.” My music teacher wife heard the beginning of Los Apson and admired the crazy güiro.

Eduardo Martinez’s column is well worth checking out — I didn’t know, for instance, that Roland was making digital accordions and that lots of new accordionists neglect their left hand. (Shame shame, says piano player me.) Regional Ramblings at The Monitor!

A Brief Timeline of Grammy’s Norteño Neglect

Last week I wondered why the Grammys hate norteño music — hint: it’s the money — but maybe you’ve wondered how the Grammys have grappled with this issue over the years. Wonder no longer! (Well, wonder at your leisure, because I won’t claim this timeline is complete.)

As we travel through the years a familiar story emerges. The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS) doesn’t quite know how to reward one of its subgeneres — norteño is far from unique in this regard — and so they cast about trying to figure it out. As they do, NARAS repeatedly confronts an uncomfortable truth: a reward system designed, in the words of award watcher Thomas O’Neil, “to remain truly academic in nature, free from all commercial pressures… where its members could discuss and reward great music as it should be,” might not be the best system for rewarding mass-produced commercial music.

A truly existential dilemma. (It’s akin to a state governing body whose members believe government is the problem and not the solution — but where were we?)

Variety discovered this dilemma at the first ceremony in 1958, when rock ‘n’ roll received zero nominations (“Over the pomp and circumstance of the festivities hung a cloud…”). Rap and metal would later feel the snub. Over the years telecast performances have become more important sales boosters than the awards themselves, a dilemma of its own — are the performances also supposed to represent the best music of the year?

Because of the language barrier, the dilemma looks a little different when we get to norteño, but it’s the same at its core. Music industry professionals, sensitive to how music portrays their livelihood to outsiders, often have terrible ideas about what constitutes great music. And all genres share an essential truth: self-regarding “real musicians” are fucking annoying.

To the timeline!

1983 (Album of the Year Thriller*): NARAS splits the Best Latin Recording category into three performance categories: Latin Pop, Tropical Latin, and Mexican-American. We’ll keep an eye on that last one. It contains no norteño nominees the first year — they’re all ranchera and Tejano, with Los Lobos winning the statue — but eventually the category will latch on to Los Tigres, who win the award in 1987 (AOTY The Joshua Tree).

1990 (AOTY Back on the Block; Best Mexican-American Performance by the Texas Tornados): During a trip to Mexico City, NARAS chair Michael Greene proposes creating a Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, with its own Grammys and everything.

As Ramiro Burr reports to Billboard in 1996 (AOTY Falling Into You), this is no small undertaking:

“It turns out we didn’t know anything,” [Greene] said. “It has taken us five years to bring us to this point.”

Which point is that?

“We are now interviewing for an executive director position,” he added. NARAS is perhaps best known for presenting the Grammy Awards, considered the most prestigious awards in the music industry, but the academy also works on improving professional standards through outreach programs and educational seminars and offers workshops on such issues as copyrights and intellectual property.

“LARAS will be the Latin American Academy for Recording Arts and Sciences, and it will be for the people in the U.S., Mexico, Central America, South America, the island countries, and Spain, who are practitioners either creatively or technically in the Latin music community,” said Greene. “This would very much be a parallel organization to the American academy.”

Greene went on:

“[LARAS is] a very ambitious project; that’s why it has taken so long. One incredible thing that I don’t think people realize is the diversity of the music when you get into regional music forms.”…

This is one of Grammy’s perennial questions: how many different categories should they have? Not just how do you compare apples to oranges, but do chayotes get their own category?

Well, if the chayotes have enough clout…

The growing influence of the Texan music industry sparked the movement to not only establish the Texas NARAS branch but to create a Tejano music category in the Grammys.

In 1996 the Mexican American award becomes Best Mexican American/Tejano Music Performance. Tejano band La Mafia promptly wins.

Norteño musicians just need better lobbyists.

1998 (AOTY The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill): At Billboard, John Lannert lobbies for norteño musicians in an article entitled “Latin Grammys Still Stuck In Rut”:

Prestige and artistic confirmation must be the prime reasons why the Grammy Awards are so important to U.S. Latino artists and record labels.

What other motives could there be for a Latino act to covet the honor? Certainly a Latin Grammy does not enhance album sales, as the award does with many Anglo Grammy winners. Even a Latino superstar’s record sales seldom benefit from winning a Grammy statuette. With the televised portion of the Grammys rarely spotlighting Latino stars in action, viewers are not exposed to their talent.

He singles out the Mexican American category for criticism:

Take, for instance, the confusingly named category best Mexican-American/Tejano music performance. This travesty of a category consistently omits such top norteno acts as Los Tucanes De Tijuana and Grupo Limite.

Now, who knows how much John Lannert has to do with this, but later that same year, change is afoot! Sort of afoot. The Latin categories expand to five, notably spinning Tejano off into its own category. Flaco Jiménez wins the Tejano award; the supergroup Los Super Seven, which includes Jiménez and other Tejano musicians, wins Mexican American Performance. Norteño performers once again lose. Small steps.

2000 (AOTY Two Against Nature): After a decade of planning, the Latin Grammys finally arrive! Broadcast live on CBS during prime time! In their own ceremony, Latino superstars receive the attention they deserve, and among many others, there are categories for “ranchero,” banda, grupero, Tejano, norteño, and regional song. America’s most popular Latino genre — norteño — finally enjoys its day in the sun. OR NOT… Billboard‘s Leila Cobo suggests otherwise:

In the end, despite to-be-expected grumblings, few could argue about the merit of these first nominations. But when it came to choosing who would actually perform during the two-hour awards program, the Latin Grammys fell short on several counts. The most patent was the absence of regional Mexican acts, pointed out by California-based Fonovisa, which specializes in regional Mexican music.

“The majority of Latins in the U.S. are Mexican or of Mexican descent,” says Gilberto Moreno, Fonovisa GM. “So, if you exclude Mexicans and Mexican music, it’s not a show made for the majority of Latins.” Referring specifically to popular Mexican music, he adds, “There isn’t a representative of popular Latin music.”…

This wasn’t limited to the awards alone. There was no sign of the music in anything leading up to the ceremony. Should there have been? Yes, to give the music credit it rarely gets in the mainstream and, frankly, to appease everyone involved, especially during this groundbreaking first Grammy ceremony. The reason Moreno’s words found resonance in media outlets across the country was because he had a point.

Well, OK. But don’t forget the Tito Puente tribute!

Here we see where the language/cultural barrier comes into play. CBS broadcast this show to all America, Latino and gringo alike, and you can imagine the pressure on producers to schedule performers who’d command a large audience. Hence the inclusion of known-to-gringo quantities like Santana, Christina Aguilera, Miami Sound Machine, and ‘N Sync. In a sense, the show’s producers played up a hot-footed tropical stereotype. In the words of Narcocorrido author Elijah Wald, “Americans have historically turned to Latin music for its African rhythmic power, and that is simply not what most Mexican regional music is about.”

2003 (AOTY Speakerboxxx/The Love Below): Cobo concurs:

Additionally, performances have been a particularly sensitive issue for the Latin Grammys. This is because it is a predominantly English-language show that airs on an English-language network but honors Spanish- and Portuguese-language music.

As a result, the awards try to balance what could appeal to the masses with what is authentic to Latin audiences.

But is performing at the Latin Grammys even worth it? Cobo thinks not:

Those performances, however, come at a steep price that many say is not compensated by the sales generated.

“It’s very prestigious to perform, but as far as sales [go], we’ve seen a step forward as a result, not a jump,” one label rep says.

Labels have to foot the entire bill of showcasing an act at the Latin Grammys, including transportation, per diems and rehearsals. Depending on the level of production involved, costs can range from $40,000 to $100,000 and beyond per performance.

This complicates the complaints, by Gustavo Arellano and others, that the rewards overlook regional Mexican genres. On the one hand, yes, a truly representative award show would feature norteño and banda performers because they’re immensely popular. (And the Latin Grammys do — the awards feature about three such performances a year. They’ve improved since their disastrous start in 2000, although the 2014 edition took a step back, with only one banda thrown in among all the pop stars.) On the other hand, as John Lannert noted with the awards themselves, what’s the point? If it costs the label tens of thousands of dollars to stage a performance and the sales bump is negligible, why would a label want their act to perform at the Latin Grammys? Apart from the prestige factor?

Again, we’re back to the Grammys’ existential dilemma. The LARAS introduction reads:

The Latin GRAMMY Awards aim to recognize artistic and technical achievement, not sales figures or chart positions, with the winners determined by the votes of their peers — the qualified voting members of The Latin Recording Academy.

A main purpose of the Latin GRAMMY Awards is to recognize excellence and create a greater public awareness of the cultural diversity of Latin recording artists and creators, both domestically and internationally.

It’s all there: Excellence! Achievement! NOT sales figures or chart positions! The heart swells. But you gotta ask: if this altruistic endeavor makes record labels pay to stage their performances, who gets left behind? LARAS effectively disqualifies most indie groups from performing at the awards show, simply because their labels can’t afford it. Correct me if I missed something, but I don’t think the vital Gerencia 360 or Remex labels have ever sent an act to play the Latin Grammy ceremony. If their acts achieved more excellence than some major label act, tough chayotes. Which is it, Latin Grammys? Rewarding excellence or getting viewers and dollars?

Also, does either Recodo or Arrolladora really make the most excellent banda album every year? I submit that in most cases THEY DO NOT.

2007 (AOTY River: The Joni Letters jajaja): Progress! NARAS adds the category Best Banda Album to the Grammys. This continues for five years, and the nominees include some duranguense acts like K-Paz de la Sierra and my beloved Alacranes. In 2009 (AOTY Fearless) NARAS goes one step further and adds the category Best Norteño Album. Los Tigres win it twice in a row, followed by Intocable, and then in 2012 (AOTY Babel ay) the categories merge into Best Banda or Norteño Album, which still has merit. Los Tigres win. And then, after taunting us for a few years, everything goes to hell…

The dozen or so musicians and activists delivering the signatures are part of a considerably large (didn’t you hear us say 23,000?) group of disgruntled musicians and music industry employees who have been protesting the NARAS’ controversial cuts — which included awards for Latin jazz, regional Mexican/Tejano, banda/Norteno, and hard rock/metal, in addition to gender-specific categories in pop, R&B, rock, and country — since June of last year (did we mention they added contemporary Christian music in the Gospel category?). Back in August, four Latin jazz artists even filed a lawsuit with the [New York] Supreme Court, claiming that the eliminations had negatively affected their careers, and that the organization was violating its “contractual obligations” to its members.

The lawsuit was dismissed, and here we are: back to one category, Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano). This year I guarantee you the winner will be a well-performed and well-recorded ranchera/mariachi album that you could play at a stodgy dinner party, because that’s all that’s nominated. (Last year Recoditos, Intocable, and Joan Sebastian were nominated, though the album went to the Mariachi Divas de Cindy Shea, good for them.) As I pointed out last week, Gerardo Ortiz would gain new crossover fans if he sang his gorgeous “Eres Una Niña” (released during the eligibility period) on the show, maybe in a duet with Prince Royce or King Romeo. But Ortiz’s NARAS peers evidently have other ideas about what constitutes the best in their industry.

Not to take anything away from Juanes’s achievement, but which is it, Grammys? Rewarding excellence or gaining viewers and dollars? (And in the case of Juanes’s “Juntos,” terrible Disney dollars at that.) In the end, artistic excellence goes unrecognized, and a new generation of performers learns they can get along just fine without the Grammys.

* Albums of the Year are listed according to their eligibility period, not the calendar year in which they won the award. This may cause some confusion, especially when we get to the Latin Grammys, which have a different eligibility period than the Grammy Grammys. You get the gist.

Why Do the Grammys Hate Norteño Music?

los tigres grammy

In 2002, after the Latin Grammys had existed for two years, grad student Gustavo Arellano took the award show to task in an article titled “Latin Grammys Hide the Big, Uncool Truth.” (Arellano would go on to write the invaluable “¡Ask a Mexican!” column and book, which you’ve seen linked over on my blogroll.) At issue: regional Mexican music, especially norteño and banda, accounted for more than half of Latin music sales in the U.S. — and it continues to do so today — but the Latin Grammy ceremonies had given regional Mexican artists very few performance slots. “Meanwhile, previous Latin Grammy ceremonies have featured decidedly non-Latino acts like Destiny’s Child and NSYNC to perform,” wrote Arellano. He went on:

The definers of Latin culture have decided that the most popular Latin music genre in the United States isn’t worthy of promotion because it might lead people to believe that Latinos are poor and culturally backward, not slick and “with it.”

Indeed, statistics prove that Mexican regional’s primary audience is composed of recent immigrants with little money — 53 percent of adults who prefer it did not complete high school, and most who like it make less than $25,000 a year, according to a report commissioned by Arbitron. For music executives, these demographics are anathema to their promotions and extra products departments and discourage them from considering Mexican regional music for crossover attempts like “rock en espanol” and Latin pop.

Aha! This could explain why you never see regional Mexican acts at the overall not-just-Latin Grammys, even though a song like Intocable’s “Te Amo (Para Siempre),” whose parent album was nominated in 2014 for Best Regional Mexican Music Album, would totally slay a crossover audience who likes pretty things. At Latin Grammy ceremonies over the years, a handful of norteño’s biggest stars (Intocable, Jenni Rivera, Los Tigres, Gerardo Ortíz, Calibre 50) have landed performance slots, but even there, the small percentage of regMex performances and award categories understates how much this music drives the industry.


Every Grammy article must contain a disclaimer explaining how little its author cares about the Grammys. In that spirit… oh, I can’t front, I kind of enjoy them. Or at least aspects of them. True, the Grammys are stodgy and 90 percent of their nominations make no sense. By leaning heavily toward chart hits in the main categories and NPR-friendly middlebrow stuff in the lower echelons, they reward money over vitality. Archival work has led me to seek out Grammy nominees from previous years, but the Grammys have never inspired me to check out current music, not the way Oscar and Emmy nominees have made me check out movies and TV shows. Maybe because music is my field, I’ve already formed an opinion of most of the nominees, vicariously if I haven’t heard them, and Grammy’s endorsement in no way guarantees quality. That said, the performances sometimes rule. At their best, they feel like gate-crashing a party at a rich dude’s house. I remember my friends’ and my excitement when Metallica played “Enter Sandman” back in the early ’90s; recent revelations include Miguel and “Swagger Like Us.” In fact, let’s pause for a moment to recall a time when “Swagger Like Us” was everywhere.

Critics hit the awards from two different directions — I just did it above. The Grammys either reward popular crap at the expense of, you know, Art; or they blatantly reflect the tastes of older people with money and Good Taste at the expense of, you know, popular crap. Partly this is a class issue. Membership in NARAS, which votes for the Grammys, costs around $100 a year; LARAS, overseers of the Latin Grammys, charge you $85 a year; and both organizations limit voting to active participants in the industry. This doesn’t mean everyone who votes is old and wealthy, but it does mean that “[o]lder people already settled in their fields tend to be the ones who join professional organizations like NARAS… so they’re not always in tune with the times,” says Thomas O’Neil in his book The Grammys. Besides that, many musicians want to reward music that reflects well on their line of work — music that showcases the virtues of artistic ambition, tasteful musicality, positive messages, and respect to elders. Critics and mass audiences don’t care so much about such stuff. That’s why Hole’s great, scabrous album Live Through This went platinum, scored radio hits, and won El Norte’s biggest national critics’ poll, but earned only one Grammy nomination, and that for a video.

This year’s NARAS Grammy field is especially stodgy. On February 8, the nominees for Best Regional Mexican Music Album (including Tejano) will be:

Pepe Aguilar – Lastima Que Sean Ajenas (Sony Music Latin)

Vicente Fernández – Mano A Mano – Tangos A La Manera De Vicente Fernández (Sony Music Latin)

Ixya Herrera featuring Elias Torres – Voz Y Guitarra (Rampart Latino Records)

Mariachi Divas De Cindy Shea – 15 Aniversario (East Side Records/Shea Records)

Mariachi Los Arrieros Del Valle – Alegría Del Mariachi (Mariachi Los Arrieros Del Valle)

What do we see there? A whole lotta mariachi, including two tributes to man-myth-legend Vicente Fernández, one by the man-myth-legend himself and one by Pepe Aguilar. A lovely album of duets for voz y guitarra by the traditional ranchera singer Ixya Herrera. And ZERO norteño! In an eligibility period that included Gerardo Ortiz’s career-defining Archivos de Mi Vida! (He would’ve slain the Grammy audience with his beautiful “Eres Una Niña” — I could even imagine one of those “Grammy moments” duets with King Romeo or someone.) These nominations do have one advantage over most regional Mexican radio playlists — 40% of the nominees are female. But as far as representing where both popularity and innovation live in regional Mexican — and yes, the two often go hand in hand, as when “Eres Una Niña” mixes up the banda with the bachata — this list reads more like a museum piece. Or like an installation at a Disneyland resort, where the fine Mariachi Divas serve as the house band. In no way is it a snapshot of the best music of the year, if by “best” we mean “relevant” or “exciting” or “did something new” or “affected people’s everyday lives.”

To be fair, in recent years Grammy has come up with better lists — I mentioned Intocable last year, and ribald banda-pop characters Banda Los Recoditos have been nominated a couple times. One year the award even went to corridista El Chapo de Sinaloa, whose commitment to positive messages might be more… flexible than most Grammy voters’. But this year’s list demonstrates that NARAS, at least, is still shaky on where the action is.

In 2013, Arellano renewed his critique of LARAS and the Latin Grammys with an even better article (and title), “Why the Latin Grammys Remain America’s Biggest Anti-Mexican Sham”:

[Mexican performers] count as only three of the 15 scheduled performers for the evening… accounting for a pathetic 20 percent of all performances in a country where people of Mexican descent make up more than 60 percent of the total Latino pozole pot. There are only five awards categories devoted to Mexican regional music — shit, more than five distinct musical genres exist in Mexico City alone, from sonidero to rock urbano — while seven are given to Brazil, a beautiful, sonically rich country that nevertheless sells sells as much music combined in the States as Vicente Fernández can sell in one night from a street corner in Huntington Park.

There’s not a single Mexican artist this year nominated for Record of the Year or Album of the Year. And while two are nominated for Song of the Year… and Best New Artist… they’re dreck — and neither of them come from regional Mexican music. I’m not even going to bother looking at past nominees in these biggest of categories; any Latin music awards that never bothered to declare the late Jenni Rivera a winner EVER is about as much a Latino cultural authority as Rick Bayless.

He concluded:

The Latin Grammys are obviously an awards ceremony meant to celebrate Latin music in the United States, not Latin America, and specifically the Latin music that its organizers — centered mostly in Florida and New York — favor, far from the maddening Mexican crowds that buy the albums that keeps their labels afloat.


You know what else has had trouble getting Grammy respect? Hard rock and metal. The award for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance didn’t come along until 1989, when Jethro Tull infamously beat Metallica and the category split into two the following year. Guns ‘n’ Roses never won a Grammy, and their debut album — one of the biggest and, in retrospect, most critically lauded albums of the ’80s — wasn’t nominated for anything. You can read into this slight that early G’n’R, like much hard rock in general, didn’t check off the proper Grammy boxes: they weren’t aiming for art (though plenty of exceptions exist — see Metallica’s heavy Grammy shelf), they weren’t tasteful, and they didn’t traffic in positive messages or elderlove. Raving about G’n’R, critic Chuck Eddy wrote, “I’m not saying I’d want ’em to eat dinner at my house (I’d sooner invite [Grammy winner] Suzanne Vega — she’d probably eat less!).”

Because I’m a straight white American male in my 30s, I’ve compared norteño to hair metal before. Both showcase instrumental chops, speed, and wild drumming, and both have unsavory messages about illicit drugs and working-class life. (U.S. privilege being what it is, the norteño characters mostly produce the drugs and the metal characters consume them.) Lots of corridistas seem like intimidating dinner guests, though my librarian’s friend knows El Komander and says he’s very sweet. As Arellano’s earlier article suggested, some cultural gatekeepers are either ashamed of norteño music or look down their noses at it, because they think it reflects poorly on their industry as a whole — same as metal.

And it’s not just the members of recording academies. In a 2014 “Latin Music Roundtable,” the Wondering Sound website convened five hip music writers to expound on the state of the scene. I’ve pretty much accepted that Julianne Escobedo Shepherd has had better taste than me for, like, three years now, so I can’t be too critical. But man, it took them a long time to get around to norteño music. And when they did, Carlos Reyes, who founded the hipster Latin music site Club Fonograma, said something interesting:

Residing in such a politically-boiling state like Arizona, I do get exposed to Regional Mexican music just by walking on the streets. [NorteñoBlog notes: Me too! Up here in suburban Chicago!] Just like Julianne hears bachata in her neighborhood in NY, I hear trucks blasting rancheras and corridos in my predominantly Mexican neighborhood in Phoenix. And I can’t help but wonder why people feel the need to externalize what they’re listening to. Every culture seems to have its reason. I once asked my dad (who plays the accordion and is a corrido enthusiast) why he turned the volume up particularly for this genre of music. He told me that it was to acquire some visibility: “Arizona still treats us like we don’t even exist.”…

So why is it that I feel guilt when enjoying a narco-corrido? Take, for example, the biggest narco-corrido hit in the last few years: Gerardo Ortiz’s “Damaso.” [NorteñoBlog notes: Great song!] Everything from the syncopated horns, the rhythm-shifting assault, to the blossoming of the melodies make it one hell of a track. And yet despite recognizing its pristine construction, I couldn’t push myself to celebrate it as one of last year’s best. 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 “Damaso” on my shameful vault of guilty pleasures.

Is that attitude widespread among Latino music fans? It certainly was among white middle-class music fans when I was a kid. We knew listening to rap, country, and metal might reflect poorly on us, until we either found like-minded kids or decided to rebel, and then we had to have them all the time. This may be why I’ve grown to love banda and norteño so much lately. They feel like wide-open spaces where musicians can play with their least respectable — i.e., most vital — impulses, and it’ll usually come up sounding like a million bucks. And by the way? Chinga tu Grammy.

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