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When the music moved us

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Esther Cepeda
September 4, 2011
— As I scrolled through my Twitter timeline last Sunday night, the MTV Video Music Awards-related tweets gave me that sad twinge some people get when they realize they’re growing older and are out of touch with young people’s passions.

I haven’t watched a music award show in decades and, though Lady Gaga, Beyonce and Katy Perry are familiar from the magazine covers I see at the grocery store checkout, their music has never reached, let alone touched, me.


I miss how music used to be more of a communal experience. Today electronic jukeboxes such as iTunes, niche radio stations, satellite and streaming Web radio let everyone listen only to whatever music they prefer. Few of us get exposed to different types of music as we used to when tunes weren’t sliced, diced and targeted to particular market segments.


Remember when it seemed as if everyone listened to Casey Kasem’s Top 40? Today Billboard has so many charts—radio songs, digital songs and ring tones, plus 29 different genres such as rock, classical, “Latin,” and “kids”—I don’t know where to start.


This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I’m a sap for a time when “popular” music, aka pop, portended subtle societal shifts.


For instance, think back to 1984 when massive audiences tuned into the two annual music award shows and Michael Jackson was winning several VMAs and Grammys for “Thriller.” His blockbuster performances at those shows exposed millions to a new breakthrough by a successful and talented black artist. It was the beginning of a fledgling aim for black parity in mainstream entertainment that began picking up steam later that year when “The Cosby Show” began its eight-season run on NBC.


For me, 1985 was the important musical year. I was a world-weary 10-year-old who pushed the car’s radio dial to alternative stations that played punk, tried my best to dress like Madonna, and was completely intolerant of my parents’ Spanish-language music.


Their salsa, cumbia, merengue and mariachi corridos constantly filled the house and accompanied every big family get-together. It was music that I felt required complex dance moves that I wouldn’t have dreamed of attempting, was definitely not “cool” and, to my adolescent mind, certainly not American.


And then in October the Miami Sound Machine zoomed up the Billboard Hot 100 with “Conga,” which became the first single to be simultaneously included on Billboard’s pop, Latin, soul, and dance charts.


Epiphany time: the trumpet-cowbell-hot-piano-timbale combo was intoxicating, not just to me but to other people, most importantly my classmates and the people listening to English-language radio.


I will never forget the look on my parents’ faces the first time they heard me blaring “Conga” on my boombox. “What are you listening to?” my mom asked, shocked. She called my father over to witness the miracle of my embrace of a musical style that I had previously rejected. They actually beamed with joy.


I shrugged it off, but mainstream audiences happily doing the “Conga” made me embrace a part of my culture that I’d never really given any thought to. Back then, at least in Chicago, no one was going around making a fuss about who was Latino or Hispanic. I thought of myself as simply American.


The popularity of “Conga” was like a Michael Jackson moment for me and other Hispanics. The song’s popularity paved the way for an even wider audience’s embrace of Los Lobos’ version of “La Bamba,” from the movie about Ritchie Valens. Many radio stations played the song, with its folkloric guitar outro, in its entirety.


Those were heady days leading up to Ronald Reagan signing the not-particularly-contentious Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Salsa was on its way to becoming as popular a condiment as ketchup. Who would have imagined that a quarter of a century later people would be genuinely worried about America losing its very soul to Latino culture.


Today calls for a new song to remind people that Hispanic and mainstream cultures can come together and be enjoyed equally by people of all races—after all, there are no census form race designations on the dance floor. Where are you, crossover star? And can you hit the Hot 100 in time for next year’s MTV Video Music Awards?


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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