American audiences have no more than a passing acquaintance — I’m being kind — with the biggest international star that Mexico ever produced. This behemoth, whose talents made him his country’s Smokey Robinson, had a high, wracked balladeer’s tone and pitch that relished Juan Gabriel the Songwriter’s melodic changes. Until a documentary on Telemundo I watched with my grandmother at the beginning of the year, I paid scant attention to him. Here’s a performer whose catalog I’ll be spending time on over the next few days. So should you. Fascinating life too.
For fascinating insights into how insane some of Gabriel’s compositions could be, I direct you to Singles Jukebox colleague Jonathan Bogart’s Bilbo’s Laptop, a blog counting down every Latin #1 in the United States. In the entry for “Te Sigo Amando,” Bogart contexualizes Gabriel as a singer in the telenovela tradition:
Because it is occasionally the case that songs given exposure by movies or television shows become massive hits in Anglophone pop, it can be perilously tempting for Anglophone listeners to assume that the relationship between telenovelas and Latin pop is easily analogous. But just about any music supervisor in Hollywood would kill to have the cultural reach the most popular novelas do — far from being merely “soap operas in Spanish,” for decades they’ve combined being Event Television like HBO dramas, telling complete stories like British series, and moving propulsively, not to say trashily, forward with the gonzo pulp energy that fuels not just soap operas but superhero comics, reality television, political campaigns, and pop music. Because telenovelas don’t aspire to Art, they can share their giddy, lurid energy with the pop craftsmen who write and sing their theme songs; and if Art takes place incidentally along the way, no one really minds.
Listening to hits like “Debo Hacerlo,” his indebtedness to the overripe emotionalism of those soaps is clear. He’s one of those artists who collapsed the division between camp and sincerity; he saw camp as sincerity. He was Liberace with soul, Bryan Ferry selling millions of 45s. His fans knew.
As for Gabriel’s sexuality, Wikipedia preserved this quote:
Juan Gabriel, when he was asked about whether he was gay, replied “Lo que se ve no se pregunta, mijo. Yo no tengo por qué decirle cosas que a usted, como a muchas otras personas, no les interesa, yo pienso que soy un artista que he dado mucho con mis canciones”. (“What is seen is not asked about, young man. I have no reason to tell you, nor others, things that are none of your concern, dear. I feel I am an artist who has contributed much with my songs”).
The peculiarity of the last sentence is striking; it’s as if he accuses those curious about him of ingratitude. But his fans knew. It looks like I’m only scratching the surface with this artist.