How A 54-Year-Old Chilean Folk Song Became 2021’s Poignant, Persistent Soundtrack
What do a tequila ad, a film about the beginning stages of a woman’s dementia, and the latest Kacey Musgraves album all have in common? Their connectedness is a result of Chilean activist and folk singer Violeta Parra’s “Gracias A La Vida.” Written shortly before Parra died in 1967, the song is an ode to life’s blessings and hardships. It’s been brought to life throughout the decades with covers from Mercedes Sosa, Joan Baez, and even Deerhoof, but seems to have hit a nerve with artists as we approach a third year of the COVID pandemic, popping up repeatedly in unexpected places.
Parra is a national hero in Chile. Her main priority was displaying the soul of her country through music and visual arts. In the biopic Violeta Went To Heaven, when Parra is presenting her art to a curator at the Louvre — where it was eventually displayed — she’s asked multiple times about her artistic training. She reveals she’s had none, at one moment pointing to her art’s origins: her head and her heart. When asked about technique, she answers that it doesn’t matter what age she learned. “The important thing is that my country is represented here,” actress Francisca Gavilán asserts in French.
Prior to this period in her life, Parra was archiving folk songs from older generations, attempting to capture a memory before it fades away. She was dedicated to distilling raw emotion in her art, which is why her work is still poignant decades later. But for an artist who was vehemently against social inequality, her resurgence in pop culture this year is complicated.
One place many listeners might have encountered “Gracias A La Vida” is at the end of the new Kacey Musgraves album. Despite being dubbed Musgraves’ divorce LP, star-crossed ends with more of the amber light found on Golden Hour. The closing song is a cosmic take on Parra’s signature ballad, wading through static, then radio fuzz, and taking on a spectral air with a warped vocal effect. The idea for Musgraves’ cover resulted from “Gracias A La Vida” appearing on an accompanying playlist for a seven-hour mushroom trip.
“Here I am. I’m this random Texan girl. I’m in Nashville. I’m out in outer space,” Musgraves said in regards to continuing the song’s legacy. “I’m on a mushroom trip. And this song finds me in that state and inspires me to record it. It keeps reaching through time and living on, and I wanted to apply that sonically to the song, too.” For Musgraves, Parra’s song encapsulated both the blessings of past love and the potential for growth in heartbreak’s fertile soil. The chorus translated in English goes: “Thank you to the life that has given me so much.”
“Gracias A La Vida” is a psalm of reflection. It’s a fitting soundtrack for the quiet moments of contentment and ones that feel like we’ve dodged a bullet. Parra places the ugly next to the serene and gives thanks to both, as their existence would be null without each other. Their meaning is contingent on their relation to one another. On star-crossed, the song works as an epilogue for Musgraves’ personal journey “to hell and back” as she recovered from the end of her marriage. But there are far more universal reasons Parra’s song might be popping up so often right now.
Following a year of lockdown, in 2021 many of us were happy to return to simple routine acts like getting on the train or being in the company of any other human. Things are bad, but they feel significantly less worse. Last year was a year of forced reflection. This year we could look at how far we’ve come and recognize that, for the moment, we’re not in the eye of the storm. We were able to leave our rooms and recognize the sites, smells, sounds, and scenes we’ve missed the most — even as reminders of 2020’s quarantined existence persisted.
During an unforgettable scene in Gaspar Noé’s latest film Vortex, a woman (Françoise Lebrun) is in the midst of terror, unaware that her mind is failing her. She is surrounded by her husband (Dario Argento), their son (Alex Lutz), and her nephew and doesn’t recognize them as the devastating symptoms of dementia take hold. Sosa’s cover is heard in the background as the woman struggles to remember who her family members are. They sit her down, comfort her amidst her cries of confusion, and her husband reminds her of their lifelong love, all while her grandson is smashing toy cars on the table, oblivious to the extreme and complex sadness taking place. It’s noisy and tense. “Gracias A La Vida” crackles through the radio, grateful for life with all its color and turbulence.
The song’s placement is particularly crushing. Parra’s song hinges on a life known, memories clicking over in one’s head like a viewmaster. But here, as Argento grips Lebrun’s hands reminding her of their love, that familiarity is beginning to wither. A lifetime of memories begins to vanish. Noé captures the cruelty of senility — to reach the end of a long journey and be stripped of the ability to reflect back and process it all.
Although it has nothing to do with our pandemic, Vortex is a film inspired by confinement. It came together when vaccines were still being finalized, under circumstances that lent themselves to shooting a film that takes place mainly in a lived-in apartment, surrounded by personal relics of a couple that’s been married for decades. Here, “Gracias A La Vida” is a stark reminder of the importance of memories — without them we wouldn’t be able to conceptualize how good it is to be alive. For Musgraves it signals the beginning of a new chapter. For the characters in Vortex, it emphasizes an impending end.
Most recently, Parra’s song has been pegged to a Patrón tequila campaign. Amber Mark, Jessie Reyez, and Fousheé came together for a bilingual, a cappella rendition marketed as “simple, yet perfect.” The music video for the three rising singers is a dramatic film noir in which Reyez belts in front of a waterfall. Patrón positions these three powerhouse singers to “mirror the story of [their] artisanal tequila-making process, preserving the beautiful, rich character of [their] ingredients, while delivering perfection in every drop.”
Despite the masterful rendition, the use of Parra’s song in an ad for a liquor company worth billions feels a bit gross. Parra was associated with the Chilean Communist party later in her life, and I would assume using her song for product consumption, in a complicated booming industry dominated by celebrity branding, would be against her interest. What’s even more ironic about deploying this Chilean activist’s song for a campaign named “Simple, Yet Perfect,” is that Parra’s thesis embraces life’s complexity. In the song’s final verse, Parra is thankful for both life’s joy and despair.
“Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto/ Me ha dado la risa y me ha dado el llanto/ Así yo distingo dicha de quebranto,” she sings. These are the components that make the spirit of her songs (“Los dos materiales que forman mi canto”), which then become ours (“Y el canto de ustedes que es el mismo canto”). Those final few lines contain one of the most beautiful sentiments and common amongst artists: Music released into the world no longer solely belongs to the artist.
Over 50 years later, “Gracias A La Vida” has reconnected with a world aware that in full survival mode. “There are so many things that we took for granted before the pandemic,” Reyez said in a statement regarding her cover. “We took for granted being able to hug family members. Now, as things start to get better, you find yourself saying that more often, ‘Gracias a Dios, gracias por esos momentos.'” Parra’s song has proved to be a timeless classic that has transcended genre and language. It resonates at a point in history when the phrase “unprecedented times” has lost its potency.
When was the last time you realized you were alive? Can you pinpoint it? I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened recently. Maybe it was the first time you got to hug someone post-vaccine. Or maybe it was less monumental — it happened while catching the sunset on the train home. It very well might have been panic-related upon encountering a distressing headline. It’s no surprise that a global pandemic has made us more aware of our mortality — a mutating virus invisible to the naked eye has not only affected our daily routines and what we wear on our faces, but how we connect to and perceive our own bodies. These days being grateful for life is enough.