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Rosalía: the accessible yet groundbreaking artist

After departing from her origins in traditional Spanish music, it is undeniable that she is now attempting to sell her raging radicalism

Rosalía at the concert at the WiZink Center in Madrid on July 19.Photo: Foto: CLAUDIO ÁLVAREZ | Video: EPV

It has been sudden but enjoyable: Rosalía has dragged Spanish pop into the 21st century. This is a time in which record companies, supposedly redundant in the internet era, are not only prospering but can even take it easy. Their most seasoned artists now work independently and compose in their own studios what was previously discussed at record company studios. The executives receive the finished product, and with a poker face watch its effects with delight. The record companies, who were previously an obstacle to overcome, are now essentially banks that advance the expenses and, if promises are kept, are eventually responsible for generous distribution. At least this is what we wish to believe.

Contemporary artists are not necessarily victims of the record companies: they have the flexibility to choose. Rosalía made her debut with Los Angeles (2017) at Universal, the only multinational that invests in Spanish flamenco music. However, when she then turned to urban beats with El mal querer (2018), the proposal passed through other offices and she eventually signed a contract with the competition, Sony Music. Today it might seem like an obvious move, but at that time courage and vision were needed. It helped that Rosalía knew the secrets to the modus operandi of the 21st century artist.

Rosalía knew that she did not need intermediaries: to communicate with her potential audience, she dominates and plays with social networks. It is not true that she dispensed with the prescribers: she needed them at the beginning, in order to set up her story, and with her flamenco experience, this made her unique. She uses them still when she launches new products. The difference is that now she does not care so much about their assessment: the media fears opposing her; they know she has millions of followers that will silence opposing voices in cyberspace.

These reinforcements are not a new invention. In the 20th century, record companies had multitudes of fans who cheerfully carried out the mundane work of sealing envelopes, mailing, distributing leaflets and showing enthusiasm in front of the cameras. Not much was said about those secret armies, in order to avoid labor legislation. Today, however, Rosalía has established an implicit pact with her troops. They are her Foreign Legion: they can record everything, so multiplying the impact of the videos. It is no longer necessary to sign autographs or take selfies: the videos certify that the followers are where they should be, in the middle of the action, fulfilling the commitment to capture the show and share it with the world.

These fans appreciate the relative sobriety of the Motomami World Tour, without spectacular effects or look-where-we-spent-your-money-type circus interludes. They consider the (almost) total absence of instruments on stage to be another display of genius. They know or sense that records are no longer made with musicians gathered in a large, expensive studio: they are made in rooms full of machines and the collaborating musicians and singers can easily be in different countries. So they don’t need simulations of a simultaneous and collective activity that, in reality, never happened.

The disappearance of musicians from the stage is no novelty. In fact, it was already the norm in disco music from the 1970s and, in the following decade, with hip hop. With the arrival of the divas, the visual focus shifted to on-stage dancers and their choreography. And almost nobody protested. Well, yes: grumpy veterans like Elton John, who was amazed that Madonna could keep singing while she performed grueling stunts. But, in general, rockers didn’t flinch: many used pre-recorded parts, shot from an inconspicuous corner: I saw it backstage at a U2 show. Their manager, Paul McGuinness, mocked the purists’ astonishment: “With a complex show, spontaneity becomes unfeasible. The visuals, the theatrics, are what rules. And no one complains.”

No one complains at Rosalía’s galas either. They know that they have nothing to do with a rock concert, a jazz recital, or a spontanous display of Caribbean music. The only protagonist is the head of the gang, Rosalía Vila Tobella and her own metamorphosis, boasting bodily freedom, verbal audacity and rhythmic eclecticism. During these events it’s about compressing her repertoire into cut versions, but without resorting to the medley, that combo-mix used by old stars.

There is an artistry, without a doubt, in playing out such a diverse repertoire, sometimes made with unlikely productions. It is also irrefutable that she sells her raging radicalism, a departure from her years as a traditional interpreter of Spanish flamenco.

I’m not asking for a politicized Rosalía, not at all. Perhaps I would want a Rosalía at the height of her culture, musical and everything else. In interviews she often gives the impression that she is exaggerating her (false) innocence and youth. In albums, especially in Motomami, she talks about herself, but in all honesty, she can barely be understood, because of her vocal peculiarities and her mix of slang and languages. Nevertheless, it would be nice for her to forget Beyoncé and get out of the loop of urban mimicry: there are too many moments in which she seems to be congratulating herself for having jumped on the bandwagon at the right time, when she could be making more liberated and liberating music.

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