Myth, martyr, musician

With each passing day, the ghost of Selena looms larger over the mainstream

Elaborate shrines mourning slain Tejano singer Selena dot neighborhoods throughout Texas, candles and Christmas lights brightening dark streets at night. Selena's name is scrawled across thousands of car windows with white shoe polish, her photo taped in so many rear windows. Record stores are sold out of her CDs and cassettes, with supplies unlikely to be refilled for at least another week.

On April 30, when Selena was scheduled to perform at the Cinco de Mayo Festival in Fort Worth, the other bands (including Emilio and Little Joe y La Familia) will pay homage to the dead singer.

As always happens, in death a superstar becomes an immortal. It happened to Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Kurt Cobain, and Elvis Presley.

And now it happens to another young pop star, one whose murder at gunpoint at the hand of a trusted friend has accomplished what she attempted to do in life--bring Mexican-American music to a mainstream American audience.

The week after her March 31 death, People magazine issued a special Southwest edition that featured Selena on the cover (the cast of NBC's hit sitcom "Friends" ran throughout the rest of the country). Its quick sell-out at newsstands has forced the magazine to prepare a commemorative issue due April 24 that will be available nationwide--and, perhaps, even throughout Mexico in a special Spanish-only edition.

The same day, Texas Monthly--which, ironically enough, was preparing to go to press with an issue about gun control and the concealed handgun law debate--will also feature the singer on its cover to accompany a last-minute piece written by senior editor-music critic Joe Nick Patoski.

In a matter of weeks, a 23-year-old woman whose music even now has gone unheard by most has been elevated to myth, martyr--and perhaps even saint. Selena, whose life was untouched by scandal, who was married and faithful and proudly flaunted her ethnicity, who was virtuous and sexy all at once, has become a symbol of pride for Mexican-Americans and Texans. And where she was once adored by millions of fans, now she is literally worshiped.

"I don't want to seem sacrilegious, but it does seem like she's being made into a saint because, in a sense, she was," says "Smokin'" Steve Chavez, a disc jockey at KNON-FM and the Tejano Rodeo. "I knew her fairly well. We weren't close friends, but I did know her and have for years, and she was off stage what she was on stage. She was always smiling, always good. There was something pure about her."

Selena was the great hope of Tejano music, the one person who had the star power, the charisma, the talent, and the fan base to elevate the music to another level--to make it popular, her fans believed, among a mainstream American audience that had long been loath to embrace anyone who did not sing in English.

EMI Records is preparing to release Selena's all-English album in June, even though Selena had completed only four tracks before her death. The label--with the assistance of her father, Abraham Quintanilla Jr.--likely will add music to four other vocal tracks she had recorded and then add a few more English-language songs from her previous albums.

She also has three songs on the upcoming Don Juan DeMarco sound track (she appears briefly in the film as a mariachi singer), one of which ("God's Child") she recorded with Latinophile David Byrne--who wrote the song and, appropriately enough, has long been a pop artist trying to reach the Latin audience. But Selena already had been slowly inching toward a more mainstream audience by recording the Pretenders' "Back on the Chain Gang" in Spanish (retitling it "Photos and Memories").

Though the Tejano music world is dotted with its few stars--such men as Emilio Navaira and Rick Trevino (who began as a country singer), and women like Elsa Garcia and Shelly Lares--there was never any doubt Selena would be the performer who would rival Madonna, Gloria Estefan, and Whitney Houston as a sheer pop star. Born and raised in South Texas, she was an amazing success story who began performing with her family when she was nine years old; 14 years later, she would win a Grammy for her 1994 album Amor Prohibido and own her own shops in San Antonio and Corpus Christi peddling her line of clothing and jewelry.

"She grew up in front of our eyes, from a little girl to a married woman on the verge of mainstream superstardom," Chavez explains. "[Her fame] was exclusive to her. Not only that, but the female entertainers in Tejano music--and no offense to them--didn't really come close to her in any way. With Selena there was no comparison. Every female artist that comes out is automatically compared to her."

Selena was the perfect embodiment of Tejano music--a woman who never shied away from her Mexican heritage but was also a progressive woman, both a traditionalist and a modernist. Though reaction to her death is firmly rooted in a Catholic culture that reveres its female icons (the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is as prevalent, if not more so, than that of Jesus in Mexico), she was not Catholic. In fact, her father was a Jehovah's Witness, and Selena was studying the religion herself, though she was turned off by tenets requiring women to wear drab clothing.

Tejano music as it has been performed for the past two decades by the likes of Little Joe y La Familia and Mazz serves a dual purpose, allowing Mexican-Americans to retain the sounds of their culture while still being modern and mainstream. It's both pop and folk, as rooted in the century-old folk-country conjunto practiced by the likes of Santiago Jimenez Jr. as in the dance-floor disco beats of Madonna.

"Tejano culture cuts it both ways," says Texas Monthly's Patoski. "It's the music of assimilation. If you're first-generation Mexican-American, you're more likely to listen to conjunto or norteĖo, which is derided by second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans as 'wetback music.' It's the country music of northern Mexico. Tejano is wholly unique in that it's for the second- and third-generation person that holds onto the culture, but has a thoroughly modern outlook.

"Conjunto is folk music, but there's nothing folk about Tejano except that it's bilingual. The idea is to fuse modern elements to the basics. In Tejano, the essence of it is the polka--which was taken from the Germans, Bohemians, and the Czechs who moved to Texas in the early part of the century. But even that's changed to where the modern Tejano act is likely to do a cumbia and cover the Pretenders with Spanish lyrics. If you're Hispanic and live in Texas, this satisfies your urges to be current and to have a sense of culture."

Like Buddy Holly and Stevie Ray Vaughan, two other Texas music immortals whose images and music are now frozen forever by early deaths, Selena was heading in another direction at the time of her death--attempting to reach a mainstream audience by going full-blown pop, singing in English to appeal to an Anglo audience. (Before his death, Holly recorded a number of lushly produced, sickly-sweet pop confections that bore little resemblance to the country-inflected rock that made him a star; the last track on Stevie Ray Vaughan's final studio album with Double Trouble was the jazz-influenced "Riviera Paradise," which echoed Wes Montgomery more than Muddy Waters.) Whether she would have been successful making the transition will remain a mystery, if not a moot point.

"I grew up when Elvis died, and of course everyone knew him and his music, but it wasn't as close to home," says Steve Chavez. "In a way, I now understand when people say Elvis is alive and that they saw him at the mall. It's just hard to accept that Selena's dead, and the Elvis phenomenon comes from people saying, 'I can't believe he's dead.'

"Whatever bond I had with Selena was that we are both in Tejano but we have a love for the mainstream. From the first time I saw her, I knew this girl was going to be large. Selena was going to break the barriers, and everyone knew it."

Local goes national
There was a time not long ago when the release of a national major-label album from a local band was heralded by the same sort of pomp and circumstance that accompanies the birth of messiahs and the ending of wars. But in the last two years, as local bands are scooped up with some regularity, these things seem more commonplace, greeted with an enthusiasm tempered by lowered expectations and the yawn of familiarity. (It wasn't so long ago that 4 Reasons Unknown's signing with Epic was akin to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.)

In coming weeks a handful of local bands will go national, beginning on May 2 when Spot--the power-pop band featuring ex-Mildred boys Reggie and Chad Rueffer--releases its self-titled debut CD on Ardent Records. (Ardent is run by former Big Star drummer Jody Stephens.) Three weeks later, the Nixons will make their long-awaited (or so I have been told) debut on MCA with the release of the oddly titled Foma. The album was produced by the band and Mark Dodson, best known (or so I have been told) for his work with Prong and Suicidal Tendencies.

The following month, Denton's masters of rock, Brutal Juice, will go national with the release of their Interscope debut Mutilation Makes Identification Difficult, which was produced by Stuart Sullivan (who has worked with Tool and the band's bassist-vocalist Sam McCall, who produces every other band in Denton). The album, which was originally scheduled for release May 9, boasts such song titles as "Kentucky Fuck Daddy," "The Vaginals," "Burpgun," "Whorehouse of Screams."

The following week--on the same day, and damned near on the same label--Tripping Daisy and Hagfish will duke it out for those extra large summer music bucks. On June 20, Island Records will release I Am an Elastic Firecracker, the follow-up to Tripping Daisy's debut Bill; it will be the first complete album the Daisy has recorded for Island, since Bill originally appeared as a Dragon Street Records debut. That same day, London Records--which, like Island, is distributed through Polygram--will release Hagfish's major-label debut, Hagfish Rocks Your Lame Ass, which consists of some material from the band's Dragon Street record, Buick Men.

Locally--but, one hopes, not for long--Cowboys and Indians--winners of the Country and Western Observer Music Award last week, the only band to usurp the Dixie Chicks in nearly five years--are finally preparing to self-release their first CD, The Western Life, April 27. The band will perform at a release party at Bar of Soap on May 6.

Frye Street fry
This year's Frye Street Fair, to be held April 22 in Denton (where else?), boasts one hell of a lineup, perhaps the best in the tumultuous history of a music fest that has withstood repeated attacks from the Denton city fathers and mothers. Featuring 27 bands spread over 10 hours and three stages, the daylong concert still costs only $6 (a dollar off with canned food, which goes to benefit the Denton County Food Shelf).

Performances on the main stage (which backs up on to the Corkscrew, a liquor store at the corner of Oak and Frye) and on the back stage (in the Delta Lodge backyard in approximately the same area) begin at noon and run till about 9:40 p.m.; the mini-showcase at Rick's Place starts at 2 p.m. and goes until 6:40 or so. Appearing on the main stage will be, in order: Dooms U.K., Thermus, Pops Carter and the Funkmonsters, the Toadies, Caulk, Baboon, Lone Star Trio, Funland, I The Jury, Loveswing, Vibrolux, and Brutal Juice.

Scheduled to appear (again, in order) on the back stage are: Spot, Butch, 39 Powers, Code 4, Bassx, Sixty-Six, Sodom and Gomorrah Liberation Front, the Banes, Dopehouse, and Slobberbone. And on the indoor stage at Rick's will be: Blender, Towing Jehovah, R.E.O. Speedealer, Leroy Shakespeare and Ship of Vibes, and Doosu.

Street Beat welcomes E-mail tips and comments at DalObserv@aol.com.

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