I’ve been rereading Brideshead Revisited of late, once again glorying in the richness of Waugh’s prose and sinking with delight into a sea of nostalgia for a world I never knew:
Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman’s day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days–such as that day–when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth. It was this cloistral hush which gave our laughter its resonance, and carried it still, joyously, over the intervening clamour.
Who can read such a passage unmoved by its intoxicating spirit, its delight in the vibrancy of youth and its longing for eternity, palpable in its description of the university as an ageless haven?
I am, I have to admit, a sucker for nostalgia, and once Brideshead had gotten me in that mood, it wasn’t long until I found myself on YouTube and Pandora, searching for the soundtrack of my own adolescence and college years. I grew up during what appears to have been (cue the nostalgia) the Golden Age of the Rock en Español movement, a musical genre that English-speakers today commonly refer to as Latin alternative (those who know of its existence at all). Whatever you call it, it has always saddened me that this music is not more widely known among Americans, as not only has the movement produced some great rock music in Spanish, but it also includes some of the best bands, period, that you will find in any language. Names like Soda Stereo, Cafe Tacuba, Caifanes, Los Prisioneros, Enanitos Verdes, or Aterciopelados, among many others, ought to stand worldwide (as they certainly do in the Spanish-speaking world) among legends of rock and roll like the The Beatles, Queen, Nirvana, Bruce Springsteen, or The Rolling Stones. To give you a taste, here is Soda Stereo performing one of my favorite songs, “De Musica Ligera”:
During the ’80s and ’90s, Rock en Español bands successfully blended Anglo rock influences with a wealth of traditional rhythms to produce an original sound, which is evident in songs such as Cafe Tacuba’s “Las Flores” (part of an album, Re, in which the band experimented madly with everything from heavy metal to Latin Pop to Mexican “banda” music, producing some of the most memorable songs in the genre):
(If you want to take it up a notch, google the MTV unplugged version of “Las Flores,” which is simply magnificent, but which I am not posting here because it’s a tad long and because the lead singer is wearing a t-shirt to which some readers might object.) The point is, this movement produced a treasure trove of great music up through the early 2000s, and if you’re a lover of rock, I’m sure that if you go to YouTube armed with some of the names mentioned above, you’re sure to discover some new favorites. (No, it doesn’t matter that the songs are in Spanish, the music is awesome all on its own!)
As I kept going over old favorites, I began to wonder who were the new bands who had taken their place in the thirteen years since I left Colombia. Googleing around I found some new names, and also found some new material from a few of the old bands that are still together. Some of the new songs were quite good, if perhaps not at the level of the best that came out during the glory days of the genre. But what struck me the most were the songs I didn’t like, and the way in which I didn’t like them. The music was adequate, if not as inventive as in years past, but the lyrics were so annoyingly preachy that listening to them was very near unbearable. Take, for example, Doctor Krapula, one of the bands that has gained a measure of prominence of late with songs like “Ama-zonas.” It might have been a moving anthem for the Amazon rainforest, but the band is so determined to preach its message of peace and conservation (a perfectly admirable one, I might add) that the song becomes patchwork of vaguely inspiring cliches that barely fit together grammatically. Take the following passage:
For the water, for the Earth, for all of humanity
We sing for life, culture of peace
The Amazon, medicine, is our change and our awakening.
I’m sorry to say that’s one of the best parts. The band describes itself as a group that “transmits to humanity messages about transformation and the activation of conscience,” whatever that means. I really hate to be cynical, but that reminds me a tad too much of this Flight of the Conchords spoof:
Unfortunately, the problem is not limited to a band that is, after all, named Doctor Krapula. Sadly, the drive to produce message music has affected bands of greater stature, perhaps in a reaction against the notoriously frivolous songs of stars like Ricki Martin or Enrique Iglesias, or out of a misguided sense of duty to the people of many Latin American countries, who do indeed suffer great difficulties. I was most bothered by listening to some of the latest offerings from Aterciopelados, which was perhaps my favorite band as a teenager. Granted, they always liked to sing about “the issues,” but there is a big difference between a theme and a message, between a story and a sermon. For example, their own song about the Amazon, “Expreso Amazonia” (which translates into “The Amazon Express”) also celebrates the forest like “Ama-zonas” tries to do, but it is infused with tongue-in-cheek humor, describing the misadventures of a hapless visitor touring the Amazon on a fantasy train. I wouldn’t call it a great song, but at least it’s not a song that grates. However, when I turned to one of the band’s more recent offerings, I found myself listening to Doctor Krapula all over again. “Rio,” a song that was much touted on NPR’s World Cafe, is little more than an advertisement for cleaning up the Bogota River (which, again, is a laudable goal, but ads make for poor art all the same).
Art, of course, ought to deal with issues, but when it become about issues it almost always ceases to be art at all. Why should I care about your message just because you’re shouting it into my ear (or softly singing it, as the case may be)? Art must invite us into an experience at the human level, into the concrete details of life. If your art can be summed up into a message, it is not only not art at all, but it will most likely fail to bring anyone who is not already on your side to share your convictions.
As founder of Dappled Things, I’ve often received compliments from people who are delighted by the lack of didacticism in the fiction and poetry we publish. I’ve also read many articles and essays warning Christian writers against the dangers of preachiness in their art, of the implicit utilitarianism inherent in using a work of art simply as the means of making a point. The implication seems to be that this is a particularly Christian temptation, and certainly there must be some truth to the charge, as anyone who has listened to two minutes of “Christian” rock can attest. However, when we cross over to the point of praising a Christian literary journal simply for not being preachy, I think we are falling prey to stereotypes of our own making that don’t really correspond to reality. When I consider the corpus of Catholic literature, or even Christian peers of Dappled Things such as Image, Rock & Sling, or Relief, I see much seriousness about the life of faith, but little evidence of didacticism.
My latest foray into the world of Rock en Español during these lean years of the movement has made it abundantly clear to me: when it comes to preachiness, Christians have no monopoly.