The Voice of the Mexican People
In the midst of the Mexican drug war, violence and crime are major and very often glamorized topics in the popular norteño music, especially in the drug ballads of the so-called narcocorrido genre. Los Tigres Del Norte are one of the genre's old-established stars. Their 2014 music video «La Bala» condemns the life of crime – quite unusual for norteño musicians. Here, our author talks about the ambivalence one can see in the band's public representation. Read another commentary by Jorge Verdin on the same video here. From the Norient book Seismographic Sounds (see and order here).
«La Bala» (The Bullet) is a song about a teenager whose involvement with a gang of criminals results in his younger brother’s death in a drive-by shooting. His mourning parents decide to help the police arrest him. The message is that a life of crime is sad and ugly, and it is particularly powerful because of Los Tigres Del Norte’s history: in the 1970s, they transformed Mexican norteño music – which features accordion and is rooted in polkas and waltzes – into an edgy, contemporary genre. They reworked old heroic ballads, the corrido, into narcocorridos, cinematic songs about the glamour and violence of the international drug trade. Their songs were banned by radio stations for glorifying crime, but spawned popular movies and turned Los Tigres into international superstars.
Los Tigres always had some ambivalence about their reputation as narco stars, and by the late 1970s were pursuing a secondary career singing about the problems of Mexican and Central American immigrants in the United States (the band members arrived in California as undocumented immigrants in the 1960s). In the 1990s they became the first major stars to record songs explicitly denouncing Mexican governmental corruption. The combination of their deeply rooted, working-class style with strong topical material earned them a reputation as «La voz del pueblo», the voice of the Mexican people. However, they also continue to sing their early hits about thrilling smugglers, and Mexican fans have tended to see no contradiction in this combination. From a Mexican perspective, the drug problems have historically been north of the border, and smugglers have just been poor guys trying to get ahead.
In the last decade, a massive escalation of violent crime in Mexico has changed that perspective, and «La Bala» is Los Tigres’s way of acknowledging that shift. It is also a way of distancing themselves from a new wave of narcocorrido singers, the «movimiento alterado», which emulate gangsta rap with increasingly graphic songs that celebrate money and murder. «La Bala» has a lilting melody closer to Latin American singer-songwriter pop than the classic corrido melodies; and it is clearly intended to position Los Tigres as mature, meditative commenters on a crime-ridden world that is anything but heroic. It lacks the propulsive power and infectious energy of their defining narco hits («Contrabando y traición», «La banda del carro rojo»), nor is it as socially significant as another song on the same album, «Era diferente» (She Was Different), which expresses support for gay romantic relationships. Nonetheless, as a longtime fan of Los Tigres, I hear it as an important statement of their continuing evolution, a testament that they have grown older and wiser, and proof that it is possible for a group to remain firmly rooted in a traditional rural style and yet be relevant popular stars through almost half a century of cultural change.
Published on January 26, 2016
Last updated on January 16, 2020
Elijah Wald is a musician and writer whose books on blues, pop, and various other sorts of music include Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas.