- Refried Elvis: The Rise of the Mexican Counterculture
Eric Zolov’s path-breaking book on rock music, its audiences, and the student movement of the late 1960s in Mexico opens up important new questions for historians of Latin American. Anyone interested in Mexico should read Refried Elvis. So should cultural historians of other regions: this book works as a model for how to think about mass-media reception in poorer and less powerful parts of the world than the United States and Western Europe. In particular, scholars of cultural history and cultural studies should learn from the way that Zolov balances his understanding of the uses of popular culture in support of transnational structures of power with respect for the ways that audiences sometimes manage to transform mass media into a “weapon of the weak.” Refried Elvis is not a perfect book, but it is one that will make a difference far outside its field
Refried Elvis argues that rock music challenged the post-Revolutionary state in Mexico as no other cultural form could, and thus enabled the student movement of the late 1960s to come into existence and even continue after the government massacred hundreds or thousands of demonstrators at the Plaza de Tlatelolco in 1968. Rock music had this special role because it valorized generational conflict, while the Mexican state insisted on itself as a “Revolutionary Family” in which all conflict was to be restrained and resolved by the patriarch/President. By undermining patriarchal authority in real families, rock music threatened the [End Page 498] political authority of Mexico’s “Revolutionary Family,” the ruling party. Refried Elvis recounts how fans, musicians, businessmen and politicians responded to each other through shifts in musical styles. At first, rock music came to Mexico like any other imported dance craze. (Zolov compares the 1950s cha-cha-cha and mambo, both from Cuba, but he might have mentioned earlier fads such as Cuban boleros, or more recent ones like the German polka which crossed over from Texas to become norteño music.) In a culture that took social dancing very seriously, those middle- and upper-class families who could afford hi-fis and records in the early 1950s taught themselves the proper steps and danced them at multi-generational parties. By the end of the decade, the state had moved to restrain the potential for social disorder it saw in “the sudden impact of an imported youth culture”; but by then, local musicians had started playing “refried” Spanish-language versions of U.S. hits, “a sanitized version... [that] came to embody the modernizing aspirations of a middle class in ascendancy, but stripped of the offensive gestures of defiance that defined the original” (p. 11). In other words, rock from the United States had the place in Mexican middle-class urban culture of the late 1950s that “race records”—r-and-b records by African-American musicians which white singers like Pat Boone and Elvis Presley would rework for white audiences—held in the United States.
Yet the children of that new Mexican middle class had already learned to listen for the defiance which the locally made refrito music lacked. By the mid-1960s, they were buying the “authentic” imports of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones instead of “refried” Spanish-language versions, and attending concerts by local bands who played foreign groups’ songs in English. Imported, English-language rock became the soundtrack to La Onda, the Mexican counterculture, even though the student movement itself favored the Pan-Americanist (and more explicitly political) folk sounds of nueva canción.
These two strains of youth culture rejoined after the 1968 repression of the student movement in what Zolov calls La Onda Chicana, a new wave of Mexican rock bands who wrote their own songs, often with more or less political lyrics—in English. Zolov points out that Mexican counter-culturalists adopted styles—wearing sandals, consuming hallucinogenic mushrooms—which originated with indigenous rural Mexicans, but came to represent rebellion to urban, middle-class Mexican...