“Pop music means nothing to me. It’s absolutely nothing,” says Chile’s Alex Anwandter.
It’s a weird way for an interview to start when you’re speaking to an artist who’s made a career out of experimenting with the limits of pop music. But Alex Anwandter has a greater point. Since “pop music” doesn’t mean anything in particular, in can be anything you want it to be.
“As a genre I enjoy it because it’s the only genre I see that doesn’t self-impose limits, like stylistic or aesthetic boundaries to it. And I feel very identified with that – not having to follow other people’s rules,” says Anwandter.
Breaking the rules is at the heart of Rebeldes, Alex Anwandter’s debut album as a solo artist (he previously recorded as leader of the band Teleradio Donoso and under the pseudonym odiSEA). The album was released in the US in 2012 on Nacional Records and has quickly cemented Anwandter as one of the most exciting new artists to emerge in years from Latin America’s alternative music scenes.
With a sonic palette ranging from ‘80s-era Chicago house to oozy Juan Gabriel-style pop, the album shucks expectations about what a Latin American indie hit should sound like. But the real rebellion in Rebeldes takes place in the songwriting. In songs disguised as throwback dance pop tracks with catchy hooks, Alex Anwandter is issuing a subtle call to a new generation of young Latin America to rise up against the old conservative order and seek new personal freedoms. Though if you weren’t paying close attention, you might not notice.
“I like giving messages that I consider relevant in an entertaining way, because I think they come across better like they somehow, if they impact your body, they might have a better impact in your thoughts,” says Anwandter. “Everybody is surrounded by music all the time, so I feel it’s a really useful tool to get across social messages that I consider important.
Chief among those issues is treatment of sexual minorities. Anwandter has become a kind of spokesperson for the gay rights movement in Chile, though it happened somewhat by accident. It began in 2012, amidst the communal shock following the torture and murder of a gay Chilean youth named Daniel Zamudio. Zamudio’s favorite artist was Anwandter, and had interacted with him online, and soon Anwandter found himself speaking out publicly against homophobia in Latin America more and more in interviews (including with this reporter, last year).
But those issues were already present in his music, even if he didn’t previously go out of his way to point them out. He says, for example, the song “Como puedes vivir contigo mismo?” (“How can you live with yourself?”) has a personal meaning to him, but it also serves as an anti-homophobia anthem.
“It’s a metaphor for discrimination and the general conservative values of a group of people telling other people how they should live, who they can marry, and who they can love,” says Anwandter. For the song’s video, Alex filmed a South American tribute to 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning,” which celebrated underground gay culture in New York City.
He says although social conservatism still exists all over the world, it’s still very pronounced in the machista culture of Latin America. “It’s an inheritance of colonialism and the Catholic Church, which has very strict rules on how people should behave and promote those rules in legislation.” In recent years, several South American countries have legalized same-sex unions, including Uruguay and Argentina, but gay marriage remains illegal in most countries, including Chile, despite polls that suggest that public opinion is beginning to turn on the issue.
But Rebeldes isn’t a one-issue album, nor is it about hammering listeners with a political message. Anwandter thinks it resonated with people because it’s a deeply emotional record. “I went through a very intense personal process while writing the lyrics and putting myself completely on it and trying to find truths that are even hard for me to say,” he says.
Anwandter isn’t shy about baring that emotional energy for all to see. His songs are full of big, long notes that are hard to hit. He throws himself at them full force, closing his eyes and wincing as if in pain, unafraid to show any musical blemishes. It’s intense, and powerful.
The fundamental emotion communicated in the album, Anwandter says, is loss. “Loss is a very hard thing to go through but at the same time it's so much part of being alive, losing what’s most important to you,” he says. “And if it’s done in a really heartfelt and unassuming way, people will connect and react very emotionally to it. And that has happened to me all over the world.”
After all - nobody ever said we can’t cry and dance at the same time, right? If you’re ever in the mood to combine those activities, you know who to put on the stereo.