Thirty years ago, a beer bottle on the head and a stab in the stomach would've greeted any Mexican male singer who dared to express wussy sentiments. The early '70s were the heyday of ranchera music, the virulently nihilistic ballad form of Mexican popular song, where women are ingrates, alcohol is your only true companion, and emotion is for los jotos. But this was also the era when Juan Gabriel began his career, a career now in its early autumn, a career that changed Mexican masculinity.
Before Gabriel, Mexican music's premier articulator of maleness was José Alfredo Jiménez—like Gabriel, a portly singer/songwriter with an amazing propensity to pen lyrics that quickly became standards. Icons from Jorge Negrete to Vicente Fernández transmitted Jiménez's philosophy of macho vulnerability—the raging drunk who cries but retains control over his emotions—across the airwaves and in concerts. "You leave me because I want you to leave/The hour I want you to come back, you will," Jiménez roared on "La Media Vuelta" ("The Half Turn"), his weepy canto, a composition that many a Mexican man still warbles after having his macho ass dumped by a mujer.
But when Gabriel started his career in 1971, he had a different idea of what it was to be male. He was a vulnerable guy, damaged by his upbringing in a Ciudad Juárez orphanage and now, here he was, singing in El Noa Noa, a seedy nightclub he'd immortalize in a campy 1980 movie and song. This hardscrabble background (not to mention his in-the-closet sexuality—more on which in a moment) fueled Gabriel to shape a masculinity free of bravura, but full of tears.
Gabriel has made millions in the past three decades because of his songbook, famous for featuring men unashamed about sobbing over a long-gone lover who will never come back. "I haven't wanted to leave/To see if one day/That you want to return/You'll still find me," Gabriel confesses on his most famous song, "Se me Olvido Otra Vez" ("I Forgot Once Again"). Where Jiménez and his followers treated emotion as something to be drowned in booze, Gabriel let men know that crying like a 5-year-old with a skinned knee was okay.
Women, unsurprisingly, venerate JuanGa (as his fans know him), and famous female singers from Rocio Durcal to Pandora have made entire careers covering Gabriel songs. But so has Marco Antonio Solís (who's performing Saturday at the Pacific Amphitheater), the ex-Bukis leader who possesses more testosterone in his system than a Sicilian. And rockerosabsolutely love JuanGa—Maldita Vecindad scowled his power ballad "Querida," super-pop group Maná recorded "Se me Olvido Otra Vez" at the pinnacle of their fame, and the Kumbia Kings along with El Gran Silencio recently made a kick-ass vallenato/rap remake of JuanGa's first hit, 1971's "No Tengo Dinero" ("I Don't Have Money"). Younger Mexican musicians—much more open to expressing emotions than their ranchera forefathers—grew up with Gabriel, and thus cite his songs with the same fevered emotion their fathers once did to Jiménez's diatribes. Because of this change in tastes, the evil Mexican psychosis of machismo is slowly disappearing from the male mind.
More subversive than shattering male chauvinism, however, was Gabriel's fabulously quasi-gay persona. He has four sons, all conceived via artificial insemination with a "friend." Onstage, JuanGa wears scarves, flies through more costume changes than the cast of Carmen, and carries himself with the airs of an antebellum debutante—his preference for gaudy outfits assured sequin makers that their businesses wouldn't crash after the death of Liberace. Gabriel's never formally declared his orientation, but Latin America utters a collective "Come on!" whenever people speculate he's straight.
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Rather than serve as a hindrance to his career, JuanGa's ferocious flamboyancy has instead been the perfect avenue for the Mexican nation to embrace his revisionist machismo. If a "real" man had attempted to write and perform such maudlin songs during the height of the ranchera era, he would have been dismissed as a fag and ignored. But verboten behavior becomes acceptable when the scorned sections of society practice them, and people originally enjoyed Gabriel as an outlandish sideshow in a sea of charros. Once he'd established himself as a popular act, Gabriel allowed his work to embed itself in the Mexican psyche.
Nowadays, even ranchera singers cover his songs with gusto. Every mariachi ensemble includes an overly fey chap who croons in a blaring falsetto, flutters around the audience with a Harvey Fierstein-like lightness during solos, and eventually snuggles in the lap of a pretending-to-be-outraged man. The audience howls with delight and begs for more of this JuanGa parody, but the singer returns to his guitar-strumming post, making sure to acknowledge the hoots with a wink and meet-me-afterwards look that men shoot right back at him without shame.
Somewhere, JuanGa titters with joy. He has brought out the inner queer in men, and men are the better for it.
Juan Gabriel performs at Pacific Amphitheatre, 100 Fair Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-3247. Sat., 8 p.m. $50.50-$85.50. All ages.