Rosalía Levels Up as a Global Pop Superstar

The Spanish pop star Rosalía is the rarest kind of modern musician: a relentlessly innovative aesthetic omnivore who also happens to have a decade of Old World, genre-specific formal training under her belt. As a teen-ager living on the outskirts of Barcelona, she was introduced to flamenco music by a group of friends from Andalusia, a region in the south of Spain where the style originated. Hearing the music of the flamenco giant Camarón de la Isla, she once told El Mundo, made her feel as if her “head exploded.” The discovery prompted Rosalía to throw her entire being into the practice of flamenco, an elemental genre built around hand-clapping, acoustic guitar, and a fierce and improvisational vocal style. She took flamenco dance classes; she learned guitar and piano, and, most important, she enrolled at the Catalonia College of Music, under the tutelage of the decorated flamenco singer and teacher Chiqui de la Línea. Pioneered by the Romani people (the term for Spain’s Gypsy population), the vocals of traditional flamenco are like kites—they follow unpredictable and precarious paths but sound as if they’re being buoyed by an invisible force of nature. Rosalía did not merely train to become a singer; she strove to master the intense and distinctive styles of flamenco’s beloved cantaores and cantaoras.

When it came time to record her own music, though, Rosalía abandoned some of the rigidity of her technical training. Her début album, “Los Ángeles,” was recorded with the help of a Spanish punk musician named Raül Refree, and included a cover of Will Oldham’s “I See a Darkness.” Her first major-label production, “El Mal Querer” (“Bad Love”), from 2018, was a high-concept reinvention of flamenco that she began working on as a school project, with each song based on a chapter from a medieval romance novel called “Flamenca.” On the record, she took the bones of flamenco—acoustic guitar, vocals, and rhythmically complex handclaps, or palmas—and augmented them with experimental electronic flourishes and flavors of R. & B. (One song, “Bagdad,” is an interpolation of Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River.”) “El Mal Querer”—recorded entirely in Spanish—sounded like nothing else. Though exquisitely beautiful, it was a challenging album not especially designed for global-pop crossover.

And yet, that’s what happened: with “El Mal Querer,” Rosalía became one of the most successful Spanish-speaking artists on the planet. The record garnered an unprecedented six Latin Grammys, billions of YouTube streams, and the affection of critics around the world who championed the ways that she braided experimentation into tradition. But the success of “El Mal Querer” was soon complicated by unfavorable attention. There were the Spaniards and flamenco purists who questioned her bona fides, accusing her of aping elements of Romani culture. And some segments of the global audience of Latin-music listeners were frustrated that a white-passing woman of European ancestry was at the forefront of Latin pop.

Rosalía’s new album, “Motomami,” is a defiant and swaggering rebuttal to her detractors that shows she is not interested in the constraints of tradition, nor those of the modern pop marketplace. (For one, she told El Mundo, “Flamenco does not belong to the Gypsies.”) Flamenco is but one minor piece of the complex puzzle of “Motomami,” an album that celebrates discordance. So much of pop’s globalism is about smoothing the stylistic edges of genres and eras to make them more palatable, but Rosalía is invested in exposing the seams. She zips confidently from free-form jazz to piano balladry to blustering reggaetón and trap, pitching her vocals to a broad spectrum of human and alien-like tones. She inserts unexpected samples and harsh transitions throughout the record, and pairs specific styles with incongruous lyrical themes. There’s a song called “Cuuuuuuuuuute,” whose drums sound like machine guns; there’s a hypersexual piano ballad called “Hentai” (a reference to anime pornography) on which she purrs a stream of lyrics so dirty that they’d make Madonna blush.

Rosalía has evolved from flamenco experimentalist to international deconstructionist, grabbing elements from Latin traditions such as bachata and reggaetón, and infusing them with some of the attitudinal signatures and touchstones of Japanese and Korean culture. “Chicken Teriyaki,” one of the first singles off the album, is a daring hybrid inspired equally by New York City’s motorbiking traditions and Japan’s obsession with cuteness, or kawaii. On the track, Rosalía is both a braggart and a jester, delivering barbs with an absurd, childlike sweetness: “Nothing here for you, chicken teriyaki.” Only one song from “Motomami,” “Bulerías,” could be considered true flamenco, but even here Rosalía asserts her right to break new ground. The track’s percussion joins the rhythmic signatures of flamenco’s handclaps with the sound of drum-line snares as she claims her place in Spain’s musical history. “I killed myself 24/7—that’s what I had to do,” she sings. “I’m as much of a cantaora when I’m wearing a Versace tracksuit or dressed like a bailaora.”

Though she rejects most modern trends and templates, Rosalía is still a savvy participant in the online attention economy. Like her most talented contemporaries, she understands that effective pop storytelling is as visual as it is musical. She’s released a number of extravagant music videos during the rollout of “Motomami,” flexing her ambitious and bold appetites for iconography and choreography. In the latest video, for “Hentai,” she’s shown writhing suggestively on a mechanical bull installed in the middle of a field. It’s a video that has earned dismay, confusion, and awe—along with nearly two million YouTube views in a single day. Like Beyoncé and Kanye West, Rosalía has an intuitive idea of how to channel disparate influences to rewrite the pop-music rule book, jolting mass audiences out of a prescribed comfort zone and transforming the avant-garde into something populist.

In moving so audaciously away from the genre and expectations that formed her sensibilities, Rosalía has shifted her gaze firmly toward the future. And yet “Motomami” may be more in synch with the lineage of flamenco than it seems. In spite of the debates that have erupted over the genre’s purity, flamenco is, at its core, a product of global migration and constant metamorphosis. Its origins are still vague, generally thought to be a fusion of Arab, Jewish, and Andalusian-Romani influences. Flamenco traditions have been rewritten again and again, almost never without controversy; when Rosalía’s flamenco hero Camarón de la Isla began incorporating electric bass into his songs, he caused an uproar among the traditionalists. A 2018 documentary about Camarón features a number of fierce debates about what constitutes real flamenco. In one clip from the nineteen-sixties, the cantaor Juan Peña weighs in: “If we want to save flamenco, if we want to take flamenco to the masses, we’ll have to find a new way. A new style,” he argues. “We have to create.”


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