In the late twentieth century, rock nacional became one of Argentina’s most important youth music movements, the influence and impact of which extended deeply into the Argentine musical scene, and indeed beyond. In doing so it did not neglect the country’s musical past but built upon it, by synthesizing and replacing in popularity the three great musical movements that preceded it: the tango of the 1900s–40s, the traditional folklore of the 1930s–50s and the urban staged folklore movement of the 1950s–70s.
Rock nacional, therefore, is essentially fusion music, with sounds, lyrics and performances constantly mixing elements from diverse musical traditions, both national and international. At different times in its history, rock nacional has blended itself with tango, traditional folklore, urban staged folklore, rock ’n’ roll, hard rock, blues, pop, symphonic rock, punk, jazz, jazz-rock, US country, US folk, heavy metal, bossa nova, samba, reggae, ska, bolero, twist, murga (Argentina’s carnival music), salsa, candombe, etc. Rock nacional is not characterized by a particular kind of melody or rhythm, because throughout its history many different styles were employed. Its trademark is a particular use of language. The bands that belong to rock nacional sing in Spanish and account for Argentine reality. Because of the different rhythms that rock nacional encompasses, its relationship with dance is extremely diverse, ranging from total exclusion to sub-variants with dance at their core.
Due to this eclecticism, different variants of rock nacional appeal to different social sectors within the youth population of the country. While the bulk of its constituency comes from the middle classes, some styles have appealed to the working and upper-middle classes as well. Similarly, while young people are the most fervent fans of the genre, many adults in their 30s, 40s and 50s still consider the rock nacional of their adolescence to be ‘their’ music.
The rock nacional movement appeared in the 1960s, the same decade that witnessed the Woodstock festival, the Beatles, the French student movement of 1968 and Latin American guerrilla movements including Argentina’s Fuerzas Armadas Peronistas, Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo, Montoneros and so on. Worldwide, music was only the most visible aspect of a life attitude characterized by a deep questioning of society. In the United States, the origin of the counterculture movement’s slogans (freedom, peace, love, respect for nature, etc.) was closely linked to a very important societal debate around civil rights, the Vietnam War and the capitalist model in general. In Argentina, the essential concerns were similar. The so-called ‘Argentine Revolution’ (1966 to 1973) of the military government promoted a model of society that young people considered rigid and repressive, characterized by a suffocating morality and plenty of oppressive censorship.
This period (late 1960s to early 1970s) is seminal in the construction of the ‘origin myth’ of the movement. An integral part of the imaginary that developed in this early period is the idea that rock nacional was a ‘public’ cultural manifestation, not a private cultural consumption. At the same time, a difference between cultural consumption and cultural manifestation, between ‘consuming’ music and ‘using’ music, was expressed through the agency of rock nacional fans when they ‘used’ the music artists produced for them. Rock nacional in the late 1960s was for listening, not dancing. Its goal was to open minds, not to liberate bodies.
In 1967 Los Gatos recorded the single ‘La balsa/Ayer nomás’ (The Raft/Just Yesterday), and in a few months it sold more than 250,000 records. Rock nacional became public, a part of mass culture for the first time. Despite the fact that Los Gatos is considered the first rock nacional group, there was not much distinction between the kind of music the group played and other bands of the period. What, then, made Los Gatos the pioneers of rock nacional? The difference is clearly a particular attitude that positioned them at the forefront of an alternative, anticommercial, musical movement. This attitude was linked to the bohemian life that many of the founders of the movement advocated: ‘drifting’ on Buenos Aires’s streets playing their guitars, riding buses while singing (uninvited) their new songs, spending entire nights in the mythical bar ‘La Perla’ composing new lyrics, and so on. Beyond Los Gatos (with bandleader Litto Nebbia), other important pioneers were Tanguito, Moris, Pajarito Zaguri, Javier Martinez, Luis Alberto Spinetta, Vox Dei and Gustavo Santaolalla.
For large sectors of youth in the early 1970s, politics became a privileged form of social participation. The enemy was readily apparent: imperialism and the bourgeoisie. Revolution seemed possible, and militancy was viewed by young people as a worthwhile way of life, one that demanded the renunciation of indifference, consumerism and the superficiality of the Establishment in the eyes of middle-class youth. To these young people socialized as militants, who actively participated in legal and illegal political parties and in guerrilla movements, the tenets of rock nacional appeared very individualistic, with no social content and extremely diluted values. Hippism (as the militants labeled rock nacional’s ideology), with its emphasis on peace, love and drug experimentation, was not considered a revolutionary ideology by the more politically engaged youth. In their disdainful view, the rockers had been co-opted by the establishment. Rock nacional was influenced by this kind of criticism, and some of its most important representatives (Sui Generis, Alma y Vida, Pedro y Pablo, Roque Narvaja, etc.) started to write lyrics that were much more politically motivated.
During this period in the early 1970s, the rock nacional movement was characterized by continuous formations and disbanding of performance groups (Aquelarre, Huinca, Color Humano, Pescado Rabioso, Soluna, etc.) and by violence at concerts. The gradual politicization of Argentine society was mirrored by the increasing popularity of rock combos whose lyrics and attitudes most clearly questioned the system (Pedro y Pablo, Sui Géneris, Alma y Vida, and later Leon Gieco and Roque Narvaja). For example, Pedro y Pablo’s ‘Marcha de la bronca’ (March of Anger) was an anthem against the state and its attempt to regulate, via repression, the life world of young people, and Alma y Vida dedicated a song to Che Guevara. Concerts at universities, political festivals and shanty-towns were very common during this epoch.
After the military coup of 1976 fear became a pervasive feature of Argentine society. Out of fear and devoid of traditional points of reference, civil society turned inward. In a far-reaching attempt to redefine traditional political and social identities, the military regime proceeded to disperse all organized groups. The culture of fear made the youth movement its privileged target. Legitimizing itself through the image of the ‘suspect youth,’ the government directed its repression specifically at this age group (67 percent of the 30,000 people who ‘disappeared’ under the military coup were young people between the ages of 18 and 30).
While the student movement and the political youth movements slowly disappeared as frameworks of reference and support for collective identities, the rock nacional movement established itself as the sphere within which a ‘we’ could be constructed. Of course, many of the former participants in those student and political movements were now active participants in the rock concerts. Thus, going to concerts, listening to records and singing rock nacional songs with groups of friends became privileged activities through which broad sectors of youth sought to preserve their identity in a context in which they felt threatened by the military. The period 1976–77 was marked by a tremendous boom in rock nacional concerts. It was common in this period for Luna Park (the largest covered stadium in Buenos Aires, with a capacity of 15,000) to be filled once or even twice a month, along with innumerable theaters and café concerts. In ritual-like concerts, the movement celebrated itself and confirmed the presence of the collective actor whose identity had been questioned by the military regime.
At first, the military was unaware of rock nacional’s potential to serve as a sphere of social identity construction. Obsessed with the annihilation of the guerrilla movement, the government considered the rock nacional movement a ‘minor evil.’ Nevertheless, as soon as the bulk of the repression against the ‘major enemies’ had been launched, the military started its repression of rock nacional. The offensive reached such an extent that, toward the end of 1977, faced with the impossibility of producing concerts, most of the groups (La Máquina de Hacer Pájaros, Crucis, Soluna, Alas, etc.) broke up and leading musicians (Litto Nebbia, Leon Gieco, Moris, Gustavo Santaolalla, Javier Martinez, Gustavo Moretto, Pappo, etc.) were forced to move abroad in order to continue working.
Another factor that contributed to the inability of the rock nacional movement to resist this onslaught was the military government’s political project to redefine Argentine collective identities. In a well-orchestrated endeavor backed by fierce repression, the military government discouraged any collective action (political parties, trade unions, student associations, etc.) and promoted, instead, a neoliberal conception of the citizen as an individual actor playing a role in the economic market. Opening the country to imported consumer products that were historically banned in Argentina (cars, television sets, stereos and the like), the military regime promoted rampant consumerism. At the same time, the organization and eventual winning of the soccer World Cup in 1978 gave the military a very important symbolic victory. As a result, the movement’s members, like the great majority of previous targets of the military machine, relocated their activities to the private sphere, where listening to music and reading underground magazines at home with friends and family replaced the public experience of rock concerts. The private sphere replaced even the reduced public one that prevailed during 1976–77.
However, in private settings, singing the songs that interpellated them as young people was the first step to recuperating an identity that the military tried to destroy, symbolically and physically. The social space occupied by young people under the dictatorship was an absence, a negation, a no-place. The denial of youth identity was fueled both by the military regime (the idea of desaparecidos was the most cruel concept in this process of negation; a double negation, not only of life, but also of death) and by civil society.
Not by chance, rock nacional’s final rebirth in the early 1980s came at the hands of the very musicians responsible for the birth of rock in Argentina, those who provided the songs many adolescents used as symbolic weapons against the attempt to annihilate them. The slogan promoted by the most representative exponents of the movement was ‘A return to the source in order to emerge from the period of darkness.’ One such exponent, the pioneer group Almendra, decided to attempt a new conquest of the public sphere, having already enlisted the private one through the everyday practices of the thousands of adolescents who knew the lyrics of their songs (such as ‘Muchacha ojos de papel’ [Girl with Paper Eyes] and ‘Laura no duerme’ [Laura Doesn’t Sleep]) by heart. Almendra’s concerts were great successes. The band attracted more than 30,000 people to its reunion concerts in 1979 and 1980.
The reunification of Almendra was intertwined with the reconnection of the movement with itself, and thus the entire rock nacional movement, not just Almendra, was reborn. Interestingly, even though Almendra launched the rebirth of the movement, it was not the band that benefited most from what happened after 1980; León Gieco and Serú Girán became the new rock nacional leaders. Beginning with Almendra’s performances in December 1979 (35,000 people), a flood of young people attended rock nacional concerts, peaking in December 1980, when Serú Girán (led by Charly García) brought 60,000 people to the elite ranchers’ organization La Sociedad Rural’s concert venue in the posh Buenos Aires neighborhood of Palermo. Meanwhile many pioneers, including Manal, Moris and others, staged very successful comebacks. Thus, step by step, the movement moved from a self-congratulatory celebration of survival to an overt expression of dissidence against the military regime.
This was the panorama presented by rock nacional on the eve of the Malvinas (Falklands) War, which began in April 1982: concerts of a size never seen before, songs with an increasingly marked oppositional content, and a strongly antimilitary climate in the audience. The period between December 1981 and the Malvinas War saw the return of the military ‘hard-liners.’ Civil society did not accept, in general, the closure of the political space that had been opened by President Viola one year earlier, and both political parties and unions increased their oppositional activities. In this context, the Malvinas War appeared as an attempt by President Galtieri, by means of a military action that struck a chord deep in the hearts of all Argentines, to resolve domestic political conflicts and reestablish the basis for the legitimation of an authoritarian political project.
Unexpectedly, the Malvinas War inspired the consolidation of the rock nacional movement in the Argentine cultural and political scenes. Due to the conflict against Great Britain, the military prohibited any diffusion of music in the English language, forcing radios and television to rely on rock nacional music to appeal to youth audiences. Suddenly Seru Giran, Leon Gieco, La Torre, Juan Carlos Bablietto, Raul Porchetto, Alejandro Lerner, Luis Alberto Spinetta and other rock nacional bands became widely known. Thus 1982 is marked as the year rock nacional finally was accepted by Argentine society as a major political and cultural actor.
When democracy arrived in 1983, the leaders of the rock nacional movement were unsure how to proceed. Launched as an oppositional movement, rock nacional was forced to adjust to the opening of the new democratic space. Further, the leaders of the rock movement no longer felt the urgent necessity to assemble all of its distinct musical expressions together as part of one collective movement, in reality or imagination. It was no longer imperative to hear rock nacional in each of the different musical initiatives.
The first reaction was to use concerts to celebrate the arrival of democracy and justice in a kind of festive mood that sometimes confused frivolity with happiness. Thus, the ‘democratic spring’ promoted by the Alfonsín administration (1983–85) proposed to celebrate the happiness of living in liberty and an abrupt end to the repression that had characterized the dethroned military regime. In the mid-1980s, for the first time in history, the rock nacional movement was able to develop one of the most important features of the international rock movement that also marks youth identity: an emphasis on the body and leisure. Therefore, the first years of democracy witnessed the success of combos linked closely to the pop variants of rock ’n’ roll (Los Abuelos de la Nada, Los Twists, Virus, GIT, Soda Stereo). For the first time in rock nacional’s history, to dance and laugh were more important than to sing and think.
The period from 1986 to the early 1990s was characterized by disenchantment and fragmentation and the absence of a unified proposal. Rock nacional discourse abandoned its founding mythical image of the ‘náufrago’ [the shipwerecked person] and moved toward the idea of those of ‘del palo’ [the same ‘tribe’]. The rocker was, at this historical conjuncture, someone who resisted the system, but without proposing her/himself as an alternative for the collective. There was a nascent revalorization of some initial rock proposals like blues (Memphis la blusera) and rock ’n’ roll Rolling Stones-style (Los Ratones Paranóicos). But the new developments did not mean the disappearance of the old proposals. Rather, a panorama was set forth in which several very different proposals coexisted and appealed to different youth segments.
Thus in the early 1990s the very complicated and heterogeneous rock nacional musical scenario included the traditional rockers still linked to the pop and protest music mainstream (Charly García, Fito Páez, Luis Alberto Spinetta, León Gieco), the heavies (Pappo), the punks (Los Violadores), different variants of the ‘modern rock bands’ that promoted a more danceable version of rock nacional (Soda Stereo, Virus, Los Brujos, Los Babasónicos), blues-oriented bands (Memphis la blusera, La Mississippi Blues Band), various underground proposals (Patricio Rey y sus Redonditos de Ricota), reggae and ska bands (Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Los Pericos), Spanish rap bands (Illya Kuryaki and The Valderramas, A Tirador Laser), rock chabón bands (a movement which could be translated as ‘rock of the neighborhood’) (Divididos, Las Pelotas, La Renga, etc.) and many others.
The flourishing of the underground as the site of the ‘defenders’ of the ‘real rock nacional’ also contributed to fragmentation in the early 1990s. The underground musicians claimed to be the only ones who preserved the rock nacional ideology combating the establishment, the ones who had resisted ‘la transa’ (being sold out) that the appearance of big commercial sponsors seemed to have brought to the rock nacional scenario. Interestingly, these underground musicians became some of the most commercially successful groups of the period. Such is the case with La Renga and Patricio Rey y sus Redonditos de Ricota.
For many young people of the popular sectors, living in neoliberal Argentina was not so different from living under a military dictatorship. Thus, it is not by chance that, for those young people excluded from the socioeconomic model, rock nacional continued to provide the basic interpellations through which they processed their identifications. Therefore, a new form of musical protest started against President Menem (1989–99) and his neoliberal economic model, and rock nacional was at the vanguard of this protest in the 1990s with a subgenre derogatorily called ‘rock chabón.’
Rock chabón addressed young people whose social integration was severely hindered by a socioeconomic process that reduced employment and diminished the culturally consecrated figure of the worker, even as it hallowed a consumer culture that frustrated more than it satisfied. Rock chabón was the music of the young people who contested this economic model. The stance adopted by rock chabón was culturally novel within the history of rock nacional, because it did not express the political disenchantment of the middle class. Rather, it gave expression to the more polyvalent voice through which youth from popular sectors related to democracy, to the dismantling of the last vestiges of the welfare state, and to the historical imaginaries generated by the Peronist experience, which fueled the dreams of integration (more or less egalitarian) that characterized the Argentina already dying in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
An interesting change occurred in the 1990s within rock nacional. If, in the previous epochs, most of the musicians were middle-class artists who sporadically addressed the working-class issues that many of their followers experienced, with rock chabón many lower and working-class people came forward and occupied the stage. Therefore, there were no visible class differences between the members of La Renga, Viejas Locas, Dos Minutos, Attaque 77, Flema, Gardelitos, etc., and the fans that bought tickets to see their shows. Even though rock chabón groups performed very different musical variants, there was a perceived unity in the subgenre, achieved through a common theme in rock chabón’s lyrics, a particular way of reading social reality, and the more or less homogeneous way in which the public received and categorized its messages. Thus, emblematic songs of rock chabón, such as ‘Matador’ by Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, ‘Verano del 92’ (Summer of 92) and ‘San Jauretche’ by Los Piojos, ‘Nada que hacer’ (Nothing to Do) and ‘Demasiado tarde’ (Too Late), by Dos Minutos, ‘En la esquina’ (On the Street Corner) by Hermetica, ‘Sabado’ (Saturday) by Divididos and ‘Vendepatria clon’ (Sellout Clone) by La Renga, advance issues of police violence, drug and alcohol consumption, antineoliberal political stances, petty crime and the like, which conform the core of rock chabon’s message.
Thematically this variant of rock drastically departed from the genre’s history, because it glorified thieves and slums as heroes and revolutionary paradises, and it became nationalist as rock nacional never had been before. Rock chabón brought to the fore a form of social criticism rooted in the idea of the ‘good old times,’ and a moral stance situated far from the individualistic values that gave meaning to the sensibilities of the middle classes.
As an important part of this new direction, rock chabón audiences played a much more prominent role in the creation of a ‘joint’ performance with audience participation than was customary with previous rock nacional. That role was enacted, among other ways, through audience activities transplanted from soccer games to rock chabón’s performances, including the continuous display of banners, singing cantitos (brief popular songs) and firing flares during concerts. Initially an autonomous development of the public, the practice of firing flares was rapidly promoted by many musicians themselves, starting a kind of ‘contest’ between bands over how many flares were fired at their concerts. Eventually this practice tragically marked the end of rock chabón, when 194 young people were killed in December 2004 in a fire at the dance hall Cromagnon, while attending a performance of one of the most popular bands of the genre, Callejeros, which was not, by chance, one of the bands that publicly promoted the flare contest.
The Cromagnon tragedy triggered the closing and prohibition of the traditional spaces where rock chabón flourished. In order to survive, some of rock chabon’s bands decided to participate in massive rock festivals, such as Pepsi Music or Cosquin Rock, modifying, in the process, their trademark performance style. In this regard, they moved from self-production and an independent approach to their live performances to a more market-oriented approach based on commercial (and often multinational) sponsors.
At the same time, the musical map moved again to the ‘festive’ side of the fence, and after 2005 the most popular bands were those enrolled in this variant of rock nacional, such as Miranda and Babasonicos (both linked to the techno-pop musical scene). The most important event of the period, however, was the brief return of Soda Stereo (the paradigmatic pop band of the 1980s and 1990s), which gathered more than 350,000 fans in seven concerts that were held at the River Plate soccer stadium between October and December 2007.
Due to the diversity of subgenres that characterize rock nacional, it is clear difficult to typify, and that it meant different things in different periods of its almost fifty-year history. However, some constants seem pervasive in the evolution of the movement. Two of the ‘founding fathers’ continue to be viewed as indisputable leaders of the movement: Luis Alberto Spinetta and Charly Garcia. Additionally, rock nacional’s tendency to embrace fusion music has persisted, the only difference being the type of music blended with rock. At the same time, the oppositional nature of the genre has become a given, and most young people expect rock nacional to be meaningful (thus the early twenty-first-century divide between ‘music for fun,’ or cumbia, versus ‘music to think,’ or rock nacional).
While the Argentine music scenario is more divided than ever in the early twenty-first century, and new technologies (iPods, Youtube, Facebook, etc.) allow people to construct their own music repertoires ‘outside or beyond genres’ (giving the users much more agency in their use of music), the future of rock nacional looks as bright as was its past, as the genre that somehow has synthesized Argentine music history and may continue doing so in the immediate future.
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