music, charts, opinions



Desfile de Hombres… AGAIN (starring Becky G, Aida Cuevas, Siggno, y más)

siggno (1)

The Billboard charts are boring this week, so please excuse the following disjointed rant…

As NorteñoBlog suggested last post, the Grammys’ approach to Mexican music is fairly ridiculous. The Grammys themselves are ridiculous — although if we forget that they’re supposed to be rewarding the best music, and instead see them as the dying public gasps of an increasingly irrelevant trade organization, with Neil Portnow facing down exciting existential dilemmas around every corner like Sarah journeying through the Labyrinth… well, I dunno if that helps.

aida cuevas grammyAND YET. For many musicians, especially the ones who don’t make much money, the Grammys are not ridiculous. Or maybe not merely ridiculous, but also useful. Take ranchera lifer Aida Cuevas, who won the Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano), against a field of men, for her independently released Arrieros Somos – Sesiones Acústicas. Cuevas used her untelevised Grammy moment to flaunt her charro outfit and to urge Mexican women to speak out against sexual harassment. I won’t pretend to enjoy this particular album of hers, but if we accept that both the Grammy awards and the Blog have slightly less aesthetic authority than one of those plastic duck bobbing contests at a carnival, my opinion doesn’t matter. Cuevas is a talented singer who releases her own music and received a podium. She made the most of her moment. The Mexican music world needs to let in more people like her.

So do the airwaves. If you study last week’s Regional Mexican airplay list, below, you’ll see Chiquis Rivera has dropped off, to be replaced by another token woman: Becky G, whose decidedly non-regional ode to older men, “Mayores,” somehow became the 40th most-played song on regional stations. (This week — not shown due to Blog laziness — she moves up to #22.)

Look, I know studying musicians’ chart positions is a ridiculous exercise. The charts rarely have anything to do with aesthetic quality, and observing the cultural hegemony of “Despacito” is only interesting for a day or so. But the charts do reflect who’s getting paid, and a complete absence of women tells you something unflattering about the values of the industry’s gatekeepers. What will it take to get actual norteño singers like Victoria “La Mala” or Laura Denisse onto the radio — or to get Diana Reyes or Los Horoscopos or Alicia Villarreal back on the radio?

While the Blog organizes a call-in campaign, let’s look at whose new songs are getting played. Radio station billboard anchor Gerardo Ortiz and whirling fount of Terpsichore Marco Flores have brought their VALE LA PENA Mexican hits to El Norte. Los Cardenales de Nuevo León and Los Huracanes del Norte head up the geriatric “beloved by Becky G” contingent with some straight-down-the-middle accordion lopes.

siggno que me amasBest of all: Somehow the Blog hasn’t yet noted “Que Me Amas,” a sweet love song from noted eyeliner-and-metal-t-shirt models Siggno. The song starts with “We Will Rock You”-style stadium stomping and distorted guitar, before switching to a midtempo accordion groove that splits the difference between backbeat and polka. You’ve heard Intocable pull this same trick, but Siggno does it better, becuase they keep switching back and forth. The accordion solo and closing drum fusillade are also jarringly good, enough to kick Siggno into coveted Pick to Click status:

And finally, the Blog would be remiss to not point out DJ Kass and his pesky viral hit “Scooby-Doo Pa! Pa!”, according to the Daily Mail the new “Harlem Shake” our nation deserves.
Continue reading “Desfile de Hombres… AGAIN (starring Becky G, Aida Cuevas, Siggno, y más)”

Yo Quiero Tu… ¿Grammy?

ramon ayala grammy

The Grammy category with the weirdest name — Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano) — is especially bizarre this year.

It is the longstanding position of NorteñoBlog that the Grammys have no idea what to do with Mexican music, especially norteño. This shouldn’t be the case. As Chris Willman reported last year, every Grammy genre, including Latin, has a “blue ribbon panel” of 15-18 industry insiders tasked with whittling long lists of vote-getting albums into the final lists of nominees. These panels are diverse groups of music professionals, which may explain why the nominees for Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano) tend to reward repeat winners’ often middling work, or tastefully dull ranchera albums nobody heard. The industry professionals who nominate Grammys want to reward music that reflects their industry’s professionalism. El Komander probably doesn’t fit the bill.

Usually the results resemble the overall Album of the Year category in 1994, when Tony Bennett’s Unplugged beat out The Three Tenors in Concert 1994, Eric Clapton’s blues tribute From the Cradle, Bonnie Raitt’s 3rd straight AOTY nom, Longing in Their Hearts, and Seal’s 2nd album. Those nominees were so lame they sparked a “revolt” and reforms, partly because they completely omitted Hole’s Live Through This.(!)

aida cuevasSo this year the Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano) category includes a couple such expected nominees: a pretty good album by a perennial nominee, Banda El Recodo’s Ayer y Hoy (Fonovisa) — like happy families, all Band El Recodo albums are alike — and the boring “unplugged” Arrieros Somos — Sesiones Acusticas (Cuevas), by ranchera legend Aida Cuevas, whose far livelier Juan Gabriel tribute album missed the cutoff date. But then, the category takes a turn for the strange.

ni diabloThe man with the continent’s best voice, Julión Álvarez, is nominated for Ni Diablo Ni Santo (Fonovisa). In a typical year, you’d shrug. But not this year! That’s because Julión Álvarez, like certain terrorists and North Korean businesses, is SANCTIONED by the U.S. Treasury, meaning his assets are blocked and Americans can’t do business with him. He’s vanished from streaming services and he can’t tour El Norte. Listening to his illegally uploaded, mostly romantic, Grammy nominated album on YouTube is now an ACT OF POLITICAL RESISTANCE, or something. (It’s OK, not his best.) #FreeJulionAlvarez!

alex campos momentosThe other solo male nominee, Alex Campos, isn’t even Mexican! He’s a Colombian singer who wins Dove Awards and Latin Grammys for Christian music. (Here he is in 2012, singing “Dios Es Pederoso” with Hillsong Global Project Español.) His album Momentos (Sony) is a Christian mariachi album. Granted, it’s way more entertaining than Christian Nodal’s surprisingly un-nominated “mariacheño” debut, but also way less representative of the genre — not to mention less good than Alicia Villarreal’s ranchera pop La Villarreal.

zapateando en el norteAnd finally, there’s Azteca Records’ multi-artist compilation Zapateando en el Norte, the most bizarre nominee of all. It’s a compilation of puro sax bands from Chihuahua and Zacatecas, a longstanding interest of the Blog’s readership. Puro sax is a wonderful norteño subgenre all its own. Bands play bouncy sax/accordion polkas and sing often bereft, emo lyrics, and their popularity is impervious to larger regional Mexican trends.

Puro sax bands also play a lot of huapangos, largely instrumental tunes that contrast triple and duple rhythms — they’re all in fast 6/8 time — and are used for Mexican folk dancing. (“Zapateados,” these dances are called more generally; you stomp your feet a lot.) Huapangos make for spritely mid-album or mid-set novelties. As the Blog discovered last summer, more and more online playlists of huapangos have been appearing, so Azteca owner Humberto Novoa had his bands cut a bunch of huapangos for this comp.

Now remember, whoever nominates Mexican albums seems pretty oblivious to factors like hipness, relevance, and commercial performance. We can argue all day about whether that’s a good thing or not; for the Grammys in general, it’s a core existential issue. Anyway, this year, Azteca’s flagship puro sax band, the twice-nominated La Maquinaria Norteña, who stand astride the puro sax genre like Saxophone Colossi, missed the eligibility date with their own album, Por Obvias Razones. So in a sense, this album occupies their spot…

… which means the fifth nominee for Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano) is a compilation of a subgenre (huapangos) of a subgenre (puro sax) of a subgenre (norteño) of an industry format (regional Mexican). (Including Tejano.)

It’d be like the Best Rap Album nomination going to a compilation of Southern rap Mama songs, or something. Which, btw, the Blog would totally endorse.

But this is where the blue ribbon panel’s haplessness pays off! Give or take the Banda El Recodo album, Zapateando en el Norte is the best thing in this category. It’s a nonstop zapateado fiesta, with sax and accordion banging out their riffs over amazingly capable rhythm sections. I’d vote for it, anyway. Although if Gerardo Ortiz had been nominated as he should have been, it’d be a different story.

Oh yeah, one more bit of Grammy hilarity. Guess which subgenre goes completely unrepresented among these Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano) nominees? As it has every year since the category’s 2012 inception?


¿Qué Estamos Escuchando? (Grammys, Remmy Valenzuela, Natalia Jiménez)

Vicente Fernandez at Latin Grammy Awards Backstage

NorteñoBlog would like to issue a correction: In the post entitled “Why Do the Grammys Hate Norteño Music?”, I mistakenly referred to Vicente Fernández’s Mano a Mano: Tangos a la Manera de Vicente Fernández as a “tribute album.” It’s not. Rather, the album is what it says it is: ranchera singer Fernández singing tangos in his own style, with lead bandoneon from Raul Vizzi. It’s a likable little album that peaked at #3 on Billboard‘s Regional Mexican Albums chart and #11 on Hot Latin Albums. Sunday it won the Grammy for Best Regional Mexican Music Album (including Tejano). Congratulations!

Of course, Mano a Mano represents the current state of regional Mexican music (including Tejano) somewhat less well than Beck’s Album of the Year-winning Morning Phase represents popular music overall. Never mind how Beck stacks up against Beyoncé — at least his album appeared on TV soundtracks and radio, shaping both music conversations and “the sound of 2014.” (Maybe there should be a Grammy category for “Best Soundtrack to a TV Character Having Epiphanies About Life.”) Compared to the list of overall Album of the Year winners, Fernández’s album is closer to Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters — an undeniably well-performed and polite museum piece that everyone can now safely ignore.

Not to be ignored is accordion hero Remmy Valenzuela, singing “Mi Princesa” to a young woman whose tipo just cheated on her at the Orpheum Theater. Remmy saw it all from the stage. We covered the song at The Singles Jukebox, where I wrote:

A dextrous accordion hero puts down his axe to sing a banda ballad with more authority than he’s ever sung before, enunciating to las estrellas. Noel Torres would farm this kind of thing out to the likes of Luciano Luna, norteño’s own Diane Warren figure, but Valenzuela wrote “Princesa” himself and he’s smart about it, intuiting how the brass will clobber the high points in his melody. (I don’t care how fleet his fingers are, this thing would sound thin with just his quartet.) Has any guitar hero ever done so well with a guitar-free power ballad?

More cheating in Natalia Jiménez’s “Quédate Con Ella,” which the Jukebox liked more. Abby Waysdorf heard schlager; John Seroff and I both heard ABBA, which some days is the same thing. I wrote:

Jiménez shoots for Mexican mariachi and, with the help of Venezuelan producer Motiff, winds up singing a marvelously square ABBA song. “Square,” that is, in its perky chorus beat and tune; devoid of anything resembling R&B, “Quédate” stands out on a Hot Latin chart full of bachata and reggaeton. And “square” in Jiménez’s insistence that the Other Woman play house in every sense of the phrase — iron her ex’s clothes, make his toast, etc. What’s not square is her singing: Jiménez inhabits the song with giggly triumph, just as “Jajaja” into “LOL” is a triumph of Google Translate. She’s having more fun breaking up than she did when they were together. She’s Chiquitita with Fernando’s swagger.

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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