Music for a Holy War Holiday
This holiday season, there's only one gift for that special terrified someone in your life: The Songs of Almodóvar, a compilation of punk, lounge, bolero, and salsa songs that have appeared in the films of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. Give it to that someone on your gift list who puts on latex gloves to open the Eddie Bauer catalog, thinks each passing airplane might be The One, and is inexorably convinced that their block in outer Ballard is the next hot target for international terrorism.
Almodóvar's anarchic collection of songs, both beautiful and bizarre, is a perfect antidote to the fearful voices telling us that change is, by definition, terrifying. Almodóvar, who, besides being a filmmaker, was a founding member of the celebrated punk band Almodóvar and McNamara, was a product of Spain's last great chaos--in the late '70s and early '80s, when the death of Fascist General Francisco Franco exploded the fabric of Spanish society.
Though few mourned the generalissimo, the moment of his death instantly uprooted Spain from 40 years of a certain existence, albeit a harsh existence--just as one morning of bloodshed unhinged America from its own calcified routine. Pedro Almodóvar, a young man who had moved from the countryside to build a life in Madrid, could have, like so many Americans, bought a gas mask or a weapon and rocked himself to sleep in front of a television set each night. Instead, he took advantage of the wild possibilities of the unknown future. He started dressing in drag and writing songs, like the punk-pop classic "Voy a Ser Mama," a song included on this compilation, whose chorus translates:
"Yes, I'm gonna be a mom/Yes, I'm having a baby/I'll name him Lucifer/I'll teach him how to levitate/I'll show him how to live off prostitution/I'll teach him to kill/Yes, I'm gonna be a mom."
The metaphor is clear: In their moment of greatest uncertainty, the queers, artists, and dreamers of Madrid fought back by giving birth to la movida (the movement), a fearless cultural uprising against the torpor of fear and pessimism. And Pedro Almodóvar, with his warbled singing voice and his Super 8 camera, was one of la movida's new generals.
Almodóvar was not as well known as other movida singers, like the cult star Alaska, or Tino Casal. However, Almodóvar's own songs, five out of the 23 tracks on this CD, provide The Songs of Almodóvar with a full primer in the movida style of retro-electronica pop with punk sensibilities: "Suck It To Me," "Susan Get Down," "Gran Ganga, Satanasa," and "Voy a Ser Mama" are all marvels of the genre.
But Almodóvar, in his films and music, is more than just absurd or outrageous. Indeed, the defensive distance of satire could never alone form a complete cultural response to complex times. A transforming society always needs a moral compass. For Almodóvar, that compass comes in the form of musical nostalgia. Two of the greatest, most disarming voices in Latin music--Bola de Nieve and Chavela Vargas (who herself just came out of the closet last year, at the age of 81)--are well-represented on the album. Bola de Nieve's "Dejame Recordar" ("Let Me Remember"), in particular, is painfully, unexpectedly beautiful, and serves as a sort of emotional sucker punch, stacked as it is in the midst of kitschier songs.
But the diversity of the songs on the record is its greatest asset: There's something expansive and, well, cinematic about the way the songs jump from Cuban bolero to Gypsy flamenco to French ballad. What made la movida so powerful was its absolute thirst for foreign influences, after the long Iberian isolation under Franco. Americans have also been in a long, self-imposed exile from the rest of the world, but now there's a clear need to find comfort in the cacophony of other cultures thriving inside and outside our borders. This Babel of foreign-language songs, most of them in Spanish, is perfect, even for those who can barely order a chalupa.
The power brokers in America will spend this holiday season consolidating power, waging war abroad, and cultivating fear at home. In response, give gifts of optimism and courage; works of art that envision a more libertine, rousing future. Something to show the fearful among us that the vertigo we all feel, facing an uncertain future, should never get in the way of a good time.