Monday, September 19, 2016

Amores Ilegales

Daddy Yankee and Play-N-Skillz “Not a Crime (No es ilegal)” begins with a phrase that is both mundane and radical. Daddy Yankee sings: “Todo el mundo se puede enamorar/ Esto que sentimos no es ilegal.” That everyone can fall in love is not a very controversial or original idea. But by using the term “ilegal,” the song evokes issues that are driving not only the upcoming presidential election but also major social and political dilemmas that can be seen on the horizon. The movement of people throughout the world in search of a better life has made them “illegals” and by framing love as global phenomenon and claiming that love is not illegal, Daddy Yankee seems to suggest, indirectly and displaced onto safer rhetorical ground, that no one is illegal: “Todo el mundo . . . no es ilegal.” (That being said, someone whose thinking I respect wondered whether the song might be advocating for the legitimacy of same sex desire. I don’t really see it that way, but this was also the same person who pointed out that when Demi Lovato sang “I got a taste for the cherry/I just need to take a bite” in “Cool for the Summer” she was making reference to Lesbian sex, an idea that had NEVER occurred to me, so.)

Associating love and the law has been a common theme in contemporary Latin American pop music. Maná’s “Amor clandestino” figures love in terms of a fugitive. This fugitive love hides, travels in unexpected ways, and is inevitable. If in “Not a Crime” love cannot be illegal, in “Amor Clandestino” love does not need to be sanctioned in order to be. Love is furtive and patient and not bound by conventions. Ricardo Arjona’s “Duele verte” makes a very similar point, though the poetry of the feeling is a little undercut in that song because it’s about fucking a married lady on the sly. My favorite song on this theme is Julieta Venegas’ cover of Los Rodríguez’ “Sin documentos.” The first verse of this song always makes my heart jump: “Let me cross the air without any documents/ I will do it for the time we had/ Because there is no way out/ Because you seem asleep/ Because I would spend all of my life looking for your smile.” Here love must transgress borders in order to fulfill itself. Love depends on performing an illegal act because only by breaking laws can it meet its object. The original of this song is incredible, perfect almost, but I prefer Venegas’ cover because she sounds so resigned to doing what she has to do. In the original the breaking of the law for love sounds like an act of defiance, while in her cover it has to be done simply because there is no other choice.

The historical substratum for these songs is pretty clear. Latin Americans have for generations followed their dreams with or without official sanction. They have crossed borders in the light of day and in the night, with permission and without. Fences and walls have not stopped them and probably never will. I love how these songs take this sociological phenomenon and render it in artistic terms, not as a political issue as such, but as a question of love. These songs are fascinating because they illustrate how art works: art emerges from and responds to social and historical forces without being reducible to them. Love is never illegal and people are never illegal, but love and the law, these songs tell us, are not the same thing.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Set Me Free

I walked into the bar and she was playing pool with some guy I didn’t know and who said nothing for the ten minutes we talked. I hadn’t seen her in a couple of months. We stepped to the side while he played around us, a regular clicking of the balls. She was probably already sleeping with him. But it didn’t matter much because I was already sleeping with someone else. No need to talk about those things. Best to let people believe what they want to believe. She said we should get together. I suggested she come to my place. Her friend called her over. They huddled. I pretended to study the felt of the table. She came back and said she was going to go drop him off then swing by my place. I raced home to change the sheets. It lasted for a few months after that and she went back to her friend and I went back to mine.
A year later, I was getting ready to move out of the state. My new lover, who hated my coming and going out of bed with her, helped me pack. On a break, we went to the store and on our way back a familiar car drove past. She circled around one more time. I didn’t tell my new lover about it. No need to talk about those things. Best to let people believe what they want to believe. Besides, I was leaving the new lover behind, along with the rest of the things I didn’t want to take with me. A couple of days later I was 500 miles away eating dinner when she called. She told me she had seen me walking with this other woman and that her heart had kicked in her chest. She held out as long as she could but had to talk to me. We talked on the phone for a few days in a row and a few days after that we split the difference in miles and met half way between our two cities. It lasted for a few months. I don’t know whom she went back to, but I went back to living alone.

Another year or so went by. I hadn’t heard from her in ages. Then out of the blue she sent me an incomprehensible text. I read it and set it aside. That weekend the new woman I was seeing broke it off with me. I returned to the text. I answered it out of spite for the new woman. She answered it. We stared up once again. We didn’t talk much about whom we had been with since the last time we were together. No need to talk about those things. Best to let people believe what they want to believe. We had loved each other badly. And that love and desire and craziness had lasted for a long time, even as we moved between different beds and different lovers. But this time, after a couple of months, it was almost all over. We broke up one last time, with little drama and only a little heartache.

I love Adele’s “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)”, but the part I don’t understand is when she sings: “I’m giving you up/ I’ve forgiven it all/ You set me free.” I don’t understand the agency of it, the willfulness. I didn’t give her up and she didn’t set me free. One day it was over and that was that.