Selena Forever

The Selena Trial

The Houston Chronicles Files

Crossover: Is idea obsolete for Latinos?

By FERNANDO GONZALEZ

Knight-Ridder Newspapers Copyright 1995 Houston Chronicle

One of the loudest laments heard in the aftermath of the murder of Tejano singer Selena was that it happened just as she was on the verge of crossover stardom.

The sentiment is understandable. Mainstream success comes to only a few.

It is also misguided.

Crossover - a music-industry term for selling ethnic performers to a mainstream pop audience - carries the promise of a huge financial payoff, the rewards of a larger consumer market. But beyond this, the issues are murky, and fashioning a crossover career has always been risky business. Who defines mainstream? How does an ethnic artist sidestep the traps of stereotyping? How much accommodation can an artist make before losing touch with his or her community? Are there such things as essential elements in popular culture?

The fact is, crossover may be an obsolete idea - especially for Latino performers.

Consider Selena's posthumous "Dreaming of You," released Tuesday. The disc features a sampler of her previous work and four new songs sung in English, Selena's first language. Spanish is used as exotica - a spoken verse here, a whispered word there. Beyond that, Selena sounds nondescript, a composite of R&B vocal mannerisms.

Such standardizing zeal in the music industry is not unusual, but in this case, it's curious.

To cross over, a performer must play crossover music. Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine was never a Latin act that made it in the mainstream, but rather an R&B-pop-soul outfit that happened to feature a Latina singer and include some Afro-Caribbean elements in its music. That music articulated a genuinely bicultural experience - and found an audience across ethnic divides.

Selena, a third-generation Mexican-American, was Corpus Christi's Estefan-in-the-making. This was no hardcore folklorist but a pop artist who stretched the definitions of Tejano music - a fusion of traditional Mexican music, polka and country - with Colombian cumbia, R&B, soul and Anglo pop influences.

Apparently, it was still too ethnic.

It will be impossible now to know if the makeover of Selena would have succeeded. But the implications are discouraging.

The idea that finding a wider (read: Anglo) audience requires an ethnic performer - even a successful ""pop" ethnic performer - to tone down the very attributes that make her work distinct is not new in North American popular culture.

But today, at the turn of the century in the United States, that whitewashing remains the method of choice for gaining mainstream acceptance is troubling. It should not, however, be surprising.

After all, popular music both shapes and reflects social trends. Just as the country has moved, in less than a decade, from the promises of multiculturalism to the realities of Proposition 187, the pop-music industry seems to be running from ethnic identity back into the melting pot.

The United States has historically preferred its Latin culture watered down. But wasn't Linda Ronstadt reclaiming her ""mejicanidad" just a little while ago? Wasn't Los Lobos praised for La Pistola y el Corazon? Didn't Estefan sell millions of copies of Mi Tierra, her much-applauded tribute to her Cuban roots?

Did these responses signal a new openness or underscore the fact that genuine ethnic cultural expressions will be accepted only in a sort of reverse crossover, the indulgence of a rock or pop star?

Selena was to be the latest entry in an old game. She won't be the last. It's too bad.

For Latino artists, the risks might soon outweigh the rewards.

Mexican crooner Luis Miguel, an artist with substantial crossover potential, simply ignored the English-speaking market and still sold millions of records. La Mafia, Man and Marco Antonio Solis and Los Bukis -none of whom has yet made it to Letterman - have sold well into the six figures anyway. Selena sold half a million copies of her latest album in Texas alone.

These artists, and others, have succeeded while using a delivery system for Latin music that still, for the most part, is rudimentary.

Sheer numbers, however, are not enough, and any form and degree of self-sufficiency will take savvy leadership and political awareness. But there are an estimated 30 million Latinos living in the United States today. Yes, it is a bewilderingly diverse market - but if its members identify with and consume North American pop, how much more receptive would they likely be to music from a similar heritage, sung in their own language?

And now there are networks such as Telemundo, Univision, MTV Latino and Telenoticias in place, offering a market of 400 million potential consumers with shared roots and a common language, all right next door.

The United States may eventually embrace diversity because of enlightened self-interest if not moral reasons. In the meantime, a pause to consider old assumptions is in order. The question for Latinos could well be: Crossover to where, and for what? Perhaps a wiser tack would be to take care of business at home and leave the door open.

Someone might be coming this way.