Spain has produced a number of international musicians, such as Julio Iglesias and his son Enrique, but if Rosalía has a special place among them, it is because she has done so using Spain as her trademark. She doesn’t sing in English, she doesn’t use Swedish producers, she hasn’t had to sing with British or US stars, and she hasn’t gone to live in Miami.
Rosalía is a global idol with more than 731,000 Twitter followers on Twitter and more than 6.5 million Instagram followers
Rosalía is the biggest pop sensation from Spain this century and with such intense fame comes controversy. But she should feel proud of the stir she has created; these debates are helping the Spanish music industry to grow up.
It has gone from talking about the relationship between reality TV singing stars David Bisbal and Chenoa to arguing about cultural appropriation, a debate that artists such as Beyoncé have spent years embroiled in in the United States, but that have never been an issue within the more modest Spanish music scene until now.
Rosalía shouldn’t only be recognized for her Latin Grammys or her rave reviews in the New York Times, or for the fact she has had five number ones in Spain in less than a year. She should also be recognized for the fact that her controversies, and even her mistakes if that’s what they were, have prompted the Spanish music industry to up its game in terms of quality, reach and debate.
After the November 10 general election in Spain, the people who received the most comments on social media were Spain’s caretaker Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, Popular Party leader Pablo Casado, Ciudadanos chief Albert Rivera, and Rosalía. It was a tweet with just two words that caused the controversy – “Fuck Vox.” The message in reference to the Spanish far-right party – which won 52 seats at Sunday’s poll – is just what would be expected from a young woman with forward-thinking politics. After all, 62% of Vox voters are men over the age of 40. Except that Rosalía is not just anyone. She’s a global idol with more than 731,000 followers on Twitter and more than 6.5 million followers on Instagram.
Spanish artists generally avoid taking a political stance. In an increasingly polarized society, no one is keen to lose thousands of fans from the other side. Who can forget the fallout when indie singer Russian Red declared she was right-wing when pressed by Marie Claire magazine in 2011? Or when Spanish singer Mai Meneses from the band Nena Daconte took part in an anti-abortion festival? Both singers were criticized by their fans and, despite being applauded by some for their honesty, never quite recovered.
Saying “Fuck Vox” is safer terrain. Far-right ideology is not something any global artist would want to be associated with. True, Vox has its own “supporting” celebrities but they are more along the lines of the comedian Arévalo and 58-year-old singer José Manuel Soto.
Vox’s response was swift but sounded outdated. Once again, the right accusing someone on the left for having money. In its reply message to the singer’s Twitter message, the far-right party posted a photo of Rosalía flying in a private plane with the caption: “Only millionaires with private planes like you can afford the luxury of not having a motherland.” It is an almost word-for-word the same phrase used by Ramiro Ledesmam, the co-founder of Spain’s fascist-inspired political party Falange.
Speaking of the motherland, the first big controversy surrounding Rosalía was over cultural appropriation. Her first record “Los Ángeles in 2017” was rated best album of the year by many media outlets. This prompted the purists of the southern Andalusian region – the birthplace of flamenco – to ask what a girl from the Baix Llobregat neighborhood in Barcelona was doing releasing the most successful flamenco album of the year. “I know where flamenco comes from,” she told EL PAÍS in 2018. “I have studied an entire degree on it. The flamenco experts have tried to explain its origins. It is the product of a mix of cultures. It owes much to the gypsy culture but music doesn’t have an owner.”
As she also explained to EL PAÍS, Rosalía grew up listening to Supertramp and Bob Dylan at home, and as a teenager began to devour everything from flamenco icon La Niña de los Peines to US hip-hop star Missy Elliott. This range of influences would prove significant for her second album, “El Mal Querer,” whose songs and music videos took Spain by storm.
It was also a headache for Rosalía. This time the criticism came from Gypsy activists such as Noelia Cortés. In a message on Twitter, Cortés wrote: “I can’t stand that you have more opportunities than the gypsies who have been singing since they were little girls about their roots, it is as though a paya [outsider] who had singing classes is worth more than a gypsy who sings lyrics that tell her story and that of her people.”
“And it really hurts me, hurts us, if you appreciate us, try to give our community a voice and don’t step on us and take the bouquets for yourself. Because it’s bad news when they say that your flamenco tastes of blood… it’s beyond me. Your flamenco, which isn’t [flamenco] tastes of fake eyelashes.”
Rosalía is not just criticized for the flamenco influence in her songs and pronunciation, but also for the imagery in her videos, which includes saints, trucks, bulls, jewelry, false nails, outdoor drinking sessions known as botellones in Spanish, and hooded Nazarenes or penitents. “From your privileged race and background you can dress as though you were from a poor, marginalized district without having to experience the suffering of those who do live in those circumstances,” said Cortés.
Rosalía shot back a reply from the pages of Billboard magazine: “I come from a generation that was born into globalization and the internet. That has changed everything. I never think of music as ‘Is this correct or incorrect?’ I always think: ‘Is this exciting or not?’”
Once this controversy seemed to blow over, Rosalía ran into a new one: was she Latin or not?
If Latin music is music made in Spanish, then my music is part of Latin music
The question was raised after Rosalía won the Best Latin Video for the song Con Altura – her biggest international number to date with more than one billion hits on YouTube – at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards. Why would Rosalía be awarded a Latin prize if she was from Europe? The Catalan singer responded in an interview with The Fader music magazine: “If Latin music is music made in Spanish, then my music is part of Latin music,” she said. “But I do know that if I say I’m a Latina artist, that’s not correct, is it? I’m part of a generation that’s making music in Spanish. So, I don’t know – in that sense, I’d prefer for others to decide if I’m included in that, no?”
The Catalan controversy
The Catalan rumba Fucking Money Man, released in June, 2019, seemed to be an area where she could safely sing without offending anyone; here was a Catalan artist, singing in Catalan in a genre traditional to Barcelona. She did it at a time when the Catalan language and Catalonia in general were at the top of the Spanish political agenda. She might even have been accused of being militant; the most famous Spanish artist in the world starts to sing in Catalan at almost the same time as the court case against Catalan separatist leaders for their involvement in the 2017 breakaway bid was coming to a close. But no. It was the Catalan language purists who took issue with her this time, criticizing her for using Spanish versions of Catalan words.
“The singer has some linguistic errors,” Gabriel Babilonias, professor at the Baleares Islands University told the Spanish newspaper El Periódico. “But this doesn’t harm the language too much as nowadays everyone knows that cumpleanys [instead of aniversari for birthday] and bautitzo [instead of batejo for ‘I baptize’] are gross Spanish-isms that almost no one says.”
Fucking Money Man could also work as a headline to the many articles written about Rosalía’s supposed concert fee. The controversy broke out after the Socialist (PSOE) mayor of Valladolid Óscar Puente said in a message on Twitter that Rosalía was “asking €500,000” to perform in the northwestern Spanish city.
“Are we giving up on inviting Rosalía? She is asking €500,000. You tell me.”
“What they are saying about our asking price for the show is false,” was Rosalía’s response. Puente insisted: “After keeping us waiting for two months, her agent told us they would start talking to us from €500,000.” Several months later, Rosalía performed in Córdoba for €217,000. The fee may seem high if you don’t take into the scale of the production and the dozens of people needed to set it up.
Just three months later, US pop star Madonna weighed in, giving credence to Puente’s version of events. Speaking in London last June, she said she loved Rosalía and had tried to get her to perform for her 60th birthday bash in Morocco. “When she and I got in touch, it seemed like an easy transaction,” she said. “All we needed was a guitar player and some palmeros [flamenco clappers]. But then a manager appeared, then an agent […] and then there were five people involved who wanted to charge an extraordinary amount of money. Then they told me that Rosalía’s team would be formed by 36 people and I kept thinking, ‘What?’ So, it didn’t happen.”
English version by Heather Galloway.