Regional Mexican Music Is Going Global, And It’s Been A Long Time Coming
Growing up in the United States, a country that likes to tell itself stories about it being the center of the world, I cannot say that I grew up listening to Mexican regional music. Part of this is purely circumstantial and cultural; my own background is Jewish, so, when they weren’t spinning Tom Petty and Carole King CDs, my parents filled our home with klezmer CDs and songs performed in Hebrew. My best shot at hearing popular regional Mexican music would’ve been through Selena Quintanilla. I was still a little young for Selena, being about eight when she was tragically killed. Otherwise, I might have heard a little Joan Baez — but that would be it.
I only became more familiar with regional Mexican music within the last five or so years, ironically when I worked for the Recording Academy, which long maintained a tense relationship with Latin music despite its immense popularity. By 2018, those tensions had long since eased, though they weren’t completely forgotten. During my time working there, some longtime employees let it slip that back in the day, around when the Y2K Latin pop boom happened, the Academy seemed loathe to recognize it — a pattern that has played out over and over at that institution (see also: hip-hop and K-pop).
The Latin Grammys didn’t even start until the year 2000, if you can believe it, and the Grammy Award for Best Regional Mexican Music Album (including Tejano) is only about a decade old. On the flip side, Best Latin Pop has been around since 1984, but its first winners are not quite what I would deem genre renegades — José Feliciano, Plácido Domingo, Julio Iglesias. No disrespect to any of those artists, but they are definitely the epitome of “safe” choices, not unlike awarding DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince the first Best Rap Performance Grammy in 1989 for “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” which might as well have been an actual kids’ song. But I digress.
When I worked at the Recording Academy, my world opened up to Mexican music on the whole, which is incredibly wide-ranging. Traditionally, regional Mexican music comprises anything from cumbia rhythms to banda, corridos, norteño, sierreño, and/or mariachi. While at GRAMMY.com, I edited and published articles about regional Mexican legacy act Ángela Aguilar (daughter of mariachi music star Pepe Aguilar), the rock group Enjambre, Chicano punk crew Go Betty Go, psych-rock act Zoé, and more. Though not lacking in fans, these performers appeared to elude the mainstream – at least in terms of how we define “mainstream” in the US: the Billboard Hot 100 chart, commercial radio play, the aforementioned Grammy awards (the main, televised categories – nothing shunted off to the side via pre-telecast).
As of this year, regional Mexican music — or corridos, a 200-year-old style of storytelling originating in northern Mexico and the southwestern US — is finally breaking through to the Billboard charts, with Mexican and Mexican-American artists leading the Billboard Global 200. That’s a first. Regional Mexican act Grupo Frontera’s Bad Bunny collab “un X100to” is at #1, Eslabon Armado and Peso Pluma’s “Ella Baila Sola” (the first regional Mexican song to enter the top five on the Billboard Hot 100) is currently at #2, and Yng Lvcas and Peso’s “La Bebe” is at #3. What’s more, for the first time, two Mexican songs – “Ella Baila Sola” and “un X100to” – are in the Hot 100’s top five simultaneously.
This spike in global popularity can be attributed to a few trends. For starters, the longstanding Latin pop and reggaeton takeover’s porous borders have led to a fusion of Spanish-language styles. The most obvious and recent example is global superstar Bad Bunny (who is Puerto Rican) collaborating with Grupo Frontera – who are from South Texas but have roots in Nuevo León and Tamaulipas – on “un X100to,” which came out a little under a month ago. With this song, Bad Bunny meshes his beloved reggaetón with Tejano.
Meanwhile, in April a number of regional artists performed at Coachella. The corrido fusion artist Danny Lux had a set of his own; Becky G brought out Mexican singer and rapper Peso Pluma, and Bad Bunny brought out Grupo Frontera to perform “Un x100to.” Grupo Frontera also got some solo time, singing their breakthrough hit “No Se Va” and “Bebe Dame,” a recent hit collab with the San Bernardino-based regional Mexican band Fuerza Regida.
“I really love Grupo Frontera because I think they have a lot of feelings in their songs,” Bad Bunny told Zane Lowe on Apple Music 1. “This authentic music made by young people, that’s what I love. They have the authentic sound, the essence, but with a new color, a new sound. It’s fresh. It’s totally different.”
“We’re inspired by what we grew up listening to in our trucks — [bands] like Intocable, Duelo, La Firma,” lead singer Adelaido “Payo” Solís III recently told the Los Angeles Times. “Though our base is cumbia and norteño, at the same time we’re not trying to stick to that older sound — we’re implementing an updated urbanized style, especially in the lyrics, to make something younger generations and the older generations can enjoy.”
This boom in visibility has been percolating for years, even decades, according to the experts. Here’s what Billboard Español Associate Editor Isabela Raygoza recently observed, noting that your opinion on when regional Mexican music went global is “about perspective”:
If you ask a Mexican (or older fans of the genre), the regional style went global when Pedro Infante popularized mariachi via the golden age of Mexican cinema in the ’50s; or when Vicente Fernández became an international global ranchera star in the ’70s; or when Selena revamped the Tex-Mex sound in the ’90s, a genre influenced by branches of regional Mexican; or when Christian Nodal out-streamed some of the US’ biggest stars with the now 1.3 billion plays for his 2017 single “Adios Amor”; or when Los Tigres del Norte broke Cardi B’s all-time attendance record at Texas’ Houston Rodeo in 2019. Or even when Ariel Camacho’s music (and tragic death in 2015) inspired a cross-border movement of new sierreño musicians. I was raised in the border town of San Diego-Tijuana, so these styles have been near and dear to me since my infancy. So, when I see recent headlines about Mexican music “finally” going global, it isn’t wholly (annoyingly) accurate. Again, it depends on who you ask.
NPR’s Mexico City correspondent Eyder Peralta and Alt.Latino’s Anamaria Sayre recently offered their theories to All Things Considered around why the explosion is happening now.
SAYRE: I think the Latin American diaspora, the Spanish speaking diaspora, has never been more united than it is in this moment. I think [with] platforms like TikTok, Spotify, we can really attribute some of that unification to the way that people are able to connect and find something of each other’s histories and sonic legacies within each other’s music.
PERALTA: I think we have to remember that for a long time Mexico was the center of the Latin cultural universe. As reggaeton took over the world, that center drifted toward the Caribbean and now it’s just drifting back to Mexico. And Mexican music has historically been amazing at helping us process sadness — no one else on the continent does it better, I don’t think anybody will fight me on that. A lot of these songs are about loss and pain and yearning, and they’re coming at a particularly precarious time for our planet. These songs are just finding their moment.
Meanwhile, according to Latina, Mexical regional music is rising in tandem with Brazilian regional genres, such as Funk Carioca, which combines hip-hop, electronic, and Samba. One of the greatest examples of Brazilian global success is the pop star Anitta, whom we’ve featured in this column before. And more Funk Carioca artists are seeing worldwide recognition, courtesy of TikTok. Latina breaks it down:
According to Chartmetric’s report, multiple Funk Carioca artists showed exponential growth in the second half of 2022 including Dj LK da Escócia. The explosive rise of the Brazilian artist comes after one of his tracks went extremely viral on TikTok: “Tubarão Te Amo” with MC Ryan SP, MC Daniel, MC RF, MC Jhenny, and Tchakabum. The Funk track has been used in more than 1.9 million videos by people all over the world including one of TikTok’s most-followed creators Bella Poarch. Thanks to the social media exposure, Dj LK da Escócia now has Spotify listeners across the globe, with places like the United Kingdom and Indonesia in his top 10 countries with the most listeners.
While this type of global genre connectivity is wonderful to witness, AfinArte Music’s Head Of Video Americas Jose Pablo spoke to Believe.Americas about the uneven gender divide in Mexican regional music: “80% of the consumers are males and 20% are female. This is why it’s so hard for female artists to break in this genre,” Pablo says. Alejandra Olea, Managing Director Americas, adds:
With regard to women in regional Mexican, I think we still have a long way to go. I really do. I think that Mexico right now is struggling with the way that women are treated and the cultural place of women in Mexico.
In other Latin American countries, the role of women is more central and matriarchal. It’s not the case in Mexico. To me, regional Mexican has been a very close reflection of that culture. Most of the interpreters are men. Most of the composers are men. It is a genre that still has a long way to go.
There’s a lot of opportunity to have women participating in regional Mexican. There’s a growing participation of women executives in the music industry.
The group does name-drop Ángela Aguilar in the conversation as a young, female regional Mexican success story, but there shouldn’t be only one. Aguilar is bonkers-talented and a Grammy darling, but she is, like it or not, a mariachi nepo baby.
I’ll leave you with this encouraging thought from AfinArte Music’s Head Of Distribution Mexico, Marco Cataño, who sees an upward trajectory for regional Mexican music: “The genre will keep growing. The diaspora in the US will keep growing as well. The influence of the Latinx in the US is evolving: this is the so-called ‘brown power.’ It’s growing and they are bringing their Mexican roots as well as their music with them.”
Peach PRC – “Kinda Famous”
There’s a lot to love about Peach PRC — her lightly warped, Carly Rae Jepsen-meets-PC Music anthems and her Gen Z Strawberry Shortcake aesthetic, just to name a couple of things. On her latest single “Kinda Famous,” the Australian pop singer is neck-deep in a gargantuan crush that could be thought of in two ways: either the object of Peach’s affection is literally famous and she’s in a par asocial relationship with them, or the depth of this feeling has evolved into an obsession so wild, they are literally only famous to Peach. Either way, it’s a rush.
Lil Baby – “Go Hard”
While technically not a new track, the piano-studded “Go Hard” sounds crisp and fresh. Lil Baby has circulated “Go Hard” around the web for around three years now under different names such as “Again” and “Again (Go Hard).” Its studio iteration is both smooth and contains grit, as the keys clash against a spiky beat. “I’m not into losin,’ I go hard as I can go to win,” Lil Baby asserts. You know what? I believe him.
Q – “SOW”
Fun fact: Q Marsden is the son of Steven “Lenny” Marsden, the Jamaican producer and master of dancehall’s Diwali riddim. So, kind of a nepo baby, but a very niche nepo baby. On the funk-and-soul bop “SOW,” Q shows a clear talent for both melody and production puzzle-piecing. “SOW” is bolstered by a clean drum machine, sparkly synths, and an overall vibe that combines the current and classic. I’m hearing Hall & Oates, I’m hearing Prince, I’m hearing Eddie Murphy’s “Party All The Time” (hehe), and I’m hearing the Weeknd. I love what I’m hearing.
K.Flay – “Raw Raw”
In her first new music of 2023, K.Flay addresses a singer’s worst nightmare — which, in this case, is K.Flay’s reality. The industrial-pop “Raw Raw” is about the singer losing half of her hearing last fall, which (understandably) led to “a sudden and intense episode of fear and vulnerability.” Not only does it bring to mind a classic Lady Gaga catchphrase, “Raw Raw” sounds hurt and frustrated, which only heightens its catharsis.
Bring Me The Horizon – “LosT”
Before I comment on the song (Bring Me The Horizon’s first new one of 2023), I just want to say that “LosT”‘s music video almost made me barf — not that it isn’t funny, I just have this phobia about scalping, lobotomies, and brains on display when they shouldn’t be. Now that I have that out of the way, “LosT” is an Uber-catchy pop-punk head-banger that sonically/thematically recalls Motion City Sountrack’s mental-health anthem “Everything Is Alright.” Even the icky music video takes me back to Good Charlotte’s “Little Things” days.
Jackson Wang & Ciara – “Slow”
The “Slow” music video is a bit newer than the song, which came out in April. But I make the rules, and I’d like to see Ciara’s collab with Jackson Wang on the list. There’s an old-school quality to what Ciara’s bringing as she dances on a slick set in hot-pink PJs. It’s giving Y2K-era Janet Jackson, and the duo’s physical chemistry is a pleasure to watch as they synchronize movements near the clip’s end.
Natalie Jane – “I’m Her”
American Idol Season 20 contestant-turned-TikTok star Natalie Jane brings the attitude and belts her face off on the techno-pop takedown “I’m Her.” The opening verse has a killer mic-drop, too: “Boys are like pennies and nickels and dimes/ If I don’t need them, I leave them behind.” Sick burn, Natalie.
Olivia Jean – “I Need You”
Jack White’s newlywed and former Black Belles singer Olivia Jean has been in her solo era for nearly a decade, and her album Raving Ghost just came out last week. Surf-rock/midcentury psych-goth entry “I Need You” would be a cool wildcard on any “Pop Rising”-type playlist.
Megan Moroney – “Traitor Joe”
Country-pop newcomer Megan Moroney strikes gold on the cleverly titled unrequited love anthem “Traitor Joe.” Instead of calling “Joe” out as a two-timer, it’s actually his unnamed girlfriend Moroney goes after: “She’s a traitor, Joe.” Plot twist! Meanwhile, I love the mix of ’00s country influences at play: Moroney’s arena-ready vocals and moody melodies take after Carrie Underwood, but the lyrics positively scream early Taylor Swift (“You Belong With Me”) or wordplay queen Kacey Musgraves.
SleazyWorld Go – “Off The Court” Featuring Polo G & Einer Bankz
Social-media-famous Michigan upstart SleazyWorld Go nabs Polo G to comment on a situation involving NBA star Ja Morant, who was recently suspended for eight games for “holding a firearm in an intoxicated state while visiting a Denver area nightclub” and will probably face even stiffer discipline after again flashing a gun on IG in recent days. That’s how we get “Off The Court” (produced by @EinerBankz), a sharp-tongued cut with a memorable toy-piano backing track. Whether you follow “Off The Court”‘s Morant reference or not, it’s easy to see why SleazyWorld Go has been named one of Spotify’s Artists To Watch.