“La música en las casas”: Musicalizations in La casa de papel and La casa de las flores and Netflix’s Global Audience
My first experience with Spanish-language television came in the form of the telenovela, soap operas from Latin America that follow a group of characters (generally a family or close-knit group of friends) through varying life changes, both socially and culturally. These shows were/are highly melodramatic, including a turbulent romance, a rupture in familial dynamics, severe social inequalities, and even a kidnapping or two: “Telenovelas are a very well established genre that garners large followings and the highest shares of overall television ratings.”1 I watched these shows during my early childhood, especially when I visited my family in Mexico. I had previously watched Mexican movies with my father on Los Angeles’ Spanish-language networks such as Univision, Telemundo, and Televisa, but telenovelas were the province of my summer visits to Mexico. I would sit with my cousins, my aunts, and my grandmother to watch these melodramatic narratives unfold.
My Spanish at the time was limited. I knew a few words and could barely communicate with my family, but when it came to understanding telenovela dialogue, I was at a loss. However, because of the physical and emotional melodrama involved in the shows and the strategic use of music, I understood the narrative gist. A striking feature I came to recognize was that several of the telenovela actors were also popular [End Page 472] musicians, famous for singing a wide variety of contemporary genres. These shows were highly musical, featuring the characters either as performing artists, which is the case with members of the pop music group Timbiriche in Alcanzar una estrella (Reaching a star, Televisa, 1990) and Baila conmigo (Dance with me, Televisa, 1992), or as solo artists, such as Thalía in María Mercedes (Televisa, 1992–93), Mari-Mar (María of the sea, Televisa, 1994), and María la de barrio (Humble María, Televisa, 1995–96). Music and musical performance were key features in the narrative, leading to the show being labeled as a musical.
Moving into the twenty-first century, the effect of the telenovela has grown considerably, impacting viewing practices in the United States, particularly with new interpretations of the genre for English-speaking audiences, including Ugly Betty (ABC, 2006–10), Devious Maids (USA, 2013–16), and Jane the Virgin (CW, 2014–). Streaming media websites like Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Netflix have aided in the wide diffusion of not only the melodramatic telenovela but also other Spanish-language serials. Intriguingly, over the past eight years, Netflix has expanded its online streaming library to incorporate more programming from several Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking regions. These shows were at one time available on network television in their respective countries or are Netflix Original Series in Spanish, serials (both dramatic and comedic) produced by Netflix studios specifically for distribution through their online platform. This streaming media option has changed audiences’ viewing practices by making more programs available at any time (as long as the individual has internet and a subscription or access to one). It has also impacted listening practices, especially for serials. Both the selection and function of music for these serials varied but catered to a format designed for continuous streaming and was geared to the concept of a larger, global audience. The available Spanish-language shows on Netflix feature several musical and sound elements that could be considered to be part of the local culture, but they also exhibit a sonic fabric made approachable and entertaining to a more substantial and diverse audience.
Two highly popular and contemporary Spanish-language serials available on Netflix are Spain’s La casa de papel (Netflix’s title is Money Heist, 2018–) and Mexico’s La casa de las flores (The House of Flowers, 2018–). Both serials have garnered considerable success and a huge fan following in their respective countries, as well as among audiences in the United States. Although not following a strict paradigm, music—functioning both diegetically and nondiegetically—plays a significant and meaningful role in the developing narratives, highlighting and magnifying elements that reflect both the local and the global and incorporating past practices into a new format for a new generation of audience members who attempt to transcend borders. [End Page 473]
The Phenomenon of Netflix and the Creation of a Global Audience
Spanish-language programming on television is typically only offered through cable packages outside of areas of larger diasporic communities. Growing up in Southern California, I was exposed to several channels on regular network television dedicated to programming from Mexico and, to a lesser extent, Colombia. When I moved to East Tennessee in 2012, which has a smaller Spanish-speaking population, Spanish-language channels were made available only through select cable and satellite packages. DVD collections have made several popular Spanish-language serials available for purchase, and other digital outlets, such as multi-lingual websites, provide “synopses of the programs, viewer discussion boards, historiographies, and fan blogs.”2 Mari Castañeda astutely observes that contemporary audiences now watch telenovelas not on traditional television sets but on computers and mobile devices. She points to the “changes in content production that are taking place in order to correspond with the changing digitally inspired practices of viewers.”3 Spanish-language television networks such as Univision began offering its telenovelas online, leading more viewers to change their habits.
Beginning first with DVD distribution and video-on-demand options in the United States, then with the expansion of broadband Internet and a streaming media platform, Netflix quickly became the most popular conduit for the digital delivery of programming in Spanish to a broader market. Much of the pull came from the expansion of Netflix into Latin America, beginning in 2011. Latin America was—and still is—viewed as “a geolinguistic region for the consumption of media, in which Mexico operates as the major media producer, adaptor, and distributor for this territory.”4 Netflix soon offered a larger variety of titles that challenged television networks, including a wider range of selections of film choices, exclusive series offerings (which included already programmed telenovelas and comedy serials), and original productions that are specifically geared to Spanish-speaking audiences. In her study on the digital delivery of Netflix in Mexico, Ella Margarita Cornelio-Marí states: “Netflix is directly reshaping the hegemony of the established local producers.” In other words, Netflix is becoming more popular and more profitable than the cable and satellite television providers in Latin America.5 As a streaming media platform, Netflix illustrates the changing state of media, entertainment, and digital accessibility during the twenty-first century, becoming one of the most popular (if not the most popular) option for streaming entertainment for audiences.
Compellingly, what Netflix provides is something much more diver-sified for audiences in terms of selections. Functioning as a form of “branded entertainment,” Netflix actively displays a push, or, rather, an amended conception, of storylines and their capabilities, building on [End Page 474] popular themes and narratives that are familiar to regional audiences and applying them to a larger demographic. There is a clear sense of cultural hybridity in the platform’s options that has appealed to audiences because it is designed specifically to convey a sense of both cosmopolitanism and globalization. For popular Spanish-language broadcast series, Netflix obtained permissions from networks such as Televisa and TV Azteca (from Mexico), Caracol Televisión (from Colombia), and Antena 3 Televisión (from Spain). The streaming service advertises popular genres of both television and film offerings that are recognizable by audiences within the region, making them at once familiar yet also unique and varied. Cornelio-Marí states: “The general strategy for Netflix in the country and the region seems to be focused on increasing the cultural proximity of its offerings; at the same time, it continues to provide international and Hollywood content.”6 Netflix provides a balance of both.
There are several Spanish-language shows that are now available on Netflix that have received massive notoriety due to content and audience appeal. Within the United States, much interest and attraction have been generated through social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Pop-culture and media websites such as Indiewire.com and Remezcla.com are dedicated to “spreading the word” on shows and popular entertainment from Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries to a broader—especially English speaking—audience. Remezcla has proven to be one of the major contributors in the push for the diffusion of Latin American media, with offices located in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and Mexico City.7 Other websites have provided readers with lists of the most popular shows in Spanish available on Netflix, several of which have been produced on regional networks in their home countries.8
Netflix Original Series, which maintains a large library of titles, operates on local and regional levels with the intention of distributing to a global audience. This global audience, however, is shaped and restricted to countries and regions in which the Internet and Netflix are both available and to viewers who can access the subscription, either through their own purchase or sponging off someone’s account.9 Netflix Original Series in Spanish borrow and utilize conventions mainly employed for cinema and established television series, creating shows with higher production values that garner as much acclaim and attention as films. Cornelio-Marí asserts: “Generally, local audiences choose films and television programs that spotlight situations and characters closer to what they experience in their daily life, and not only that—they also want them to be told in their traditional, familiar narrative forms.”10 Appealing to audiences on both local and transnational scales requires a bit of finessing. Ultimately, the narratives, the character construction, and the musical production, along with strategic Netflix marketing, have worked in tandem to reach larger audiences across the globe, further augmenting the Netflix brand of entertainment. [End Page 475]
Listening to Netflix
Music in television is a burgeoning area of study, as this special issue indicates. In his foundational essay on the topic, James Deaville discusses the beginnings of the discipline, offering references to valuable sources that have shaped and molded strategies for how to listen to music in television.11 His study includes examinations of music television, music in television programming, and music in advertising and television commercials. However, what can be said about listening to serials on streaming media? I find that there is no one model or approach that adequately addresses how music functions within this platform. Often, analytical approaches are dependent on the genre of the show, which will often consist of specific musical genres and underscoring to correspond with narrative conventions. Models for music in television can be applied but do require some tweaking, as the listening practice is varied.
When discussing music in television in her article “Aesthetics and Rhetoric,” Claudia Gorbman posits that “television and commercial media use more fragmentary, rationalized bits of music and much more repetition than do the sustained narrative forms.”12 The repetition of these aural fragments serves as signposts to the audience, providing necessary information regarding the narrative. For Gorbman, music’s role in enhancing character development in television is crucial: “I feel that music on the screen can seek out and intensify the inner thoughts of the characters.”13 Gorbman also takes into account the timing provided by television dramas, which allots a certain amount of time for story and character development before cutting to a commercial break. Linear narratives, more familiar in films, are broken into fragments where music plays a crucial role. The audience’s absorption and understanding of the narrative, which includes character development, occur during this short amount of time; music, therefore, works fast to provide the necessary meanings and messages.
Listening to streaming serials (rather than films) requires a form of practice different from network television. In his examination of Netflix as a form of branded entertainment, Kevin McDonald points out that Netflix’s programming is part of its brand identity, “encouraging extended periods of viewing engagement” by releasing all the episodes in one season en masse. With this approach, Netflix, he argues, is able “to escape the restrictive confines of linear television and empower viewers to watch what they want when they want.”14 Because of the streaming capabilities, audiences can watch and listen to shows at their own discretion, pausing and stopping when need be or moving through the entirety of a series rather than being at the mercy of the network schedules, which program on a daily or weekly basis. There are no commercials or scheduled pauses; audience members have the option of skipping recaps and the beginning [End Page 476] credits when the show’s theme music is articulated. The audience has more control over what they are viewing and listening to, when they are doing so, and how much content they want to see and hear. In this sense, Netflix streaming functions more like a “film’s one-time consumption” and encourages a more isolated viewing experience.15 This consumption is especially true for those in the practice of binge watching, by which viewers can experience a whole series in just a few days (or in a day for the truly dedicated individual). These streaming shows function similarly to films, maintaining sustained linear narratives that are not musically fragmented in the same way that network television is.
Indeed, streaming serials produces a distinct visual and aural flow and even cultural practice distinct from consuming television media. In his early work on television sound, Rick Altman addresses this concept of flow as an experience not just about watching television but about what exists around this practice: “Flow is related not to the television experience itself—because there is no such single experience—but to the commodification of the spectator in a capitalist, free enterprise system.”16 According to Altman, countries with this highest level of flow are those with the “most highly developed systems, since flow is linked to profit motives and spectator commodification.” Broadcast television, in effect, sells the audience to advertisers. For streaming media platforms, the impact of advertisers is reduced, since there are little to no commercials (except product placements in the actual show), yet the commodification of the spectator and the importance of ratings are central concerns in programming. As previously mentioned, the global audience for Netflix is in fact confined to those who have the Internet and a subscription to the platform. The flow associated with streaming is roughly similar to that of television but does not present as many interruptions, unless the audience member decides it can. Music and sound, however, can operate in comparable ways in terms of flow. Much like with television, streaming shows allows the audience to move about their houses or other spaces without directly watching the show; its music and sound design supply special cues and changes that the audience can recognize without being in front of the device. Altman states, “The soundtrack serves a value-laden editing function, identifying better than the image itself the parts of the image that are sufficiently spectacular to merit closer attention on the part of the intermittent viewer.”17 Much of this recognition stems from the audiences’ cultural practice and their familiarity with the conventions of the genre.
Telenovelas typically feature almost continuous music, augmenting moments of extreme drama or romance. One of the more important features, especially for the musical telenovela, is the theme song, which is played at the show’s beginning credits and reappears at strategic moments throughout the duration of the series. The importance of the [End Page 477] theme song in the telenovela has been addressed in popular periodicals, especially Billboard magazine, which indicates that while the theme song is attached to the show, it launches the career of the artist, serving as a rite of passage.18 Spanish-language dramatic serials operate in much the same way in terms of featuring underscoring intending to emphasize dramatic moments, but pop stars typically did not appear as specifically performing in the serials. Several genres of popular music, however, are prominently featured in these shows, shaping an eclectic soundtrack for audiences.
Much like serials on television, streaming media serials cross several genre boundaries, and according to Ron Rodman, the music for television narratives focuses on “certain styles of music that connect easily with the viewers’ expectations of genre conventions.”19 Originally composed underscoring, originally composed songs, and licensed popular songs are all incorporated and function in critical and stylized ways. Rodman eloquently states, “Like television as a whole, music, and musical style in particular, relies upon conventions and formulas of production and reception for intelligibility with its audience.”20 Musical practices in serials are built on and from existing cultural practices. For Netflix and its attempt to reach (or form) a global audience, the inclusion of music and the focus of musical practices typically stem from the location in which the show takes place. But character development, as pointed out by Gorbman, is essential and is the driving force for serials, especially La casa de papel and La casa de las flores.
“La casa de papel” and the “Bella ciao” Leitmotif
Netflix’s online catalog features several titles from Spanish television. Some of the more prominent titles include Gran Hotel (Grand Hotel, Bambú Productions, 2011–13), which tells the story of a family-run hotel at the turn of the twentieth century that sets the stage for love triangles, murder, blackmail, comedy, and suspense, all set to a romantic orchestral underscoring by the prominent Spanish composer Lucio Godoy, and Velvet (Bambú Productions, 2013–16), which is about a 1960s high-end clothing store for women that serves as a hot spot for stories of sex, revenge, love, murder, and family struggles. Both shows, among others, have garnered considerable critical and popular attention both inside and outside Spain, but the most prominent Spanish serial available on Netflix is La casa de papel.
Written by Álex Pina, La casa de papel is a Spanish crime drama that details a carefully and meticulously constructed heist undertaken by a group of select yet remarkable individuals. Led by the mysterious Professor (Álvaro Morte), who works remotely in an abandoned warehouse and has eyes and ears on the whole situation, the group of eight infiltrates [End Page 478] the Royal Mint of Spain, located in Madrid, to print out €2.5 billion to be divided among themselves. To hide their true identities, group members dress uniformly in red overalls and wear Salvador Dalí masks, and they refer to each other by the names of major metropolitan cities (Tokyo, Nairobi, Denver, etc.). The heist is scheduled to take approximately eleven days and involves sixty-seven hostages, many of whom are required to operate the print machines and assist in storing and transporting the money. Narrated by the group member named Tokyo (Úrsula Corbeó), the show moves through past and present, exhibiting how the group formed and developed the heist while also depicting the different components that make up the theft in action. The two available seasons on Netflix follow the group as they infiltrate the mint and set up shop while also providing flashbacks regarding the group’s background in crime. Outside of this heist group is the police inspector, Raquel Murillo (Itziar Ituño), who desperately tries to bring a safe resolution to the event while dealing with her own personal battles.
At the heart of La casa de papel are questions and even interrogations of social standing, politics, and economic welfare on both local and global levels. Ultimately, all the characters hired to participate in the heist want to improve their personal economic situation, but at the same time, the heist itself comments on the economic crisis that had recently impacted Spain and by extension the rest of Europe. The reasons why the heist occurs are hidden from the audience until Season 2, episode 8. In a discussion with Inspector Raquel, the Professor admits that he has deep personal issues associated with his father, as well as specific ideological concerns stemming from the aftermath of the economic crash that took place about a decade earlier. In this episode, he provides the much-needed explanation for this heist, which he quite convincingly argues is not actually a robbery, since the group is printing its own money: “In 2011 the European Central Bank made €171bn out of nowhere. Just like we’re doing. Only bigger.”21 Every year, he explains, billions of euros were printed and given to the banks, lining the pockets of the rich under the title of “liquidity injections.” The Professor states that the group is doing the same thing, only group members are inserting the money back into the real economy. The show, adequately summed up by Pauline Block, offers a “not-so-subtle but striking allegory of revolt against capitalism.”22 La casa de papel originally premiered in Spain on the national television channel Antena 3 in May 2017 and was released by Netflix later that year, becoming the site’s top-grossing foreign-language serial.
How does music function and augment this “allegory of revolt”? The musical track for both seasons of La casa de papel consists of a mixture of songs that range from dance music from Mexico, music from Greece, Portuguese fado, and other examples that, in a sense, correspond to the diversity of the heist members and, by extension, the audience. A [End Page 479] common musical practice for serials made and produced in Spain is the inclusion of songs in English generally performed by Spanish singers and performers.23 The theme song for La casa de papel is a ballad entitled “My Life Is Going On,” written by Jerry Buck and performed by Cecilia Krull. This theme, which begins every episode, creates a rather somber atmosphere, accompanying a visual tracking shot of a model of the mint with photographs of the members, along with copies of documents and maps to demonstrate the depth of preparation and the attention to detail that went into the heist. The theme, a modified version of the original song, begins with pulsing ostinatos in electric guitars before the female voice enters with a static melody. The refrain, “I don’t care at all / I am lost / why not have it all?” speaks to the struggles that are felt by the group, highlighting the internal conflict felt by each character, which surfaces throughout the series. Netflix, however, offers the option of “skip the intro,” so the importance of that theme is only provided during the first minute of the credits (figure 1).
One of the driving forces behind music in a serial drama is the leitmotif, or musical theme attached to a person, place, object, or idea. Typically, this material is provided at the beginning of the show, during the opening credits, serving as a recognizable aural signifier for the audience. In La casa de papel, the show’s dominant leitmotif is heard not in the opening credits but at the end of Season 1 and throughout various episodes of Season 2. Entitled “Bella ciao,” this popular Italian song from the 1940s was considered an anthem by the antifascist resistance movement in Italy during World War II. Not much is known about the song, but die-hard fans of the series have taken to the Internet to provide tidbits and facts about its meaning.24 The song, sung by a male voice and accompanied initially by mandolin and strings and then by clarinet, trumpet, and other instrumentation, is interwoven both diegetically and nondiegetically in the narrative to illustrate two specific and significant ideas: notions of camaraderie and notions of resistance.
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The first iteration of the song takes place toward the end of Season 1, episode 11 when the group member named Moscow (Paco Tocus), who has been working exclusively in the vault, successfully completes digging through the concrete floor and hits soil (the intended goal was to dig a tunnel to another venue for the eventual escape). A small, battery-operated vintage radio placed on a stack of money emits “Bella ciao” performed by Manu Pilas, and through a slow close-up tracking shot, we realize that it is the point of audition. Initially, the strains of the strings and the male voices singing the Italian lyrics are accompanied quietly by Moscow, who is using a pickaxe to puncture the concrete. He sits and picks up the broken concrete slabs, singing quietly. Upon reaching the patch of soil, he lets the dirt fall gracefully through his fingers and continues to sing, but now more joyously and loudly, interjecting boisterous laughs. Gradually and with just as much enthusiasm, the others filter into the vault one by one, and when they realize what has just happened, they join him in the singing. The song shifts into a slower section, which the members recognize and follow, then it speeds up, adding brass to the new section, which becomes much more rhythmic and continues to speed up in tempo. Interwoven in this sequence are cuts that take the audience back to the printing rooms as the group member named Nairobi (Alba Flores) yells instructions through a bullhorn. At that moment, we realize that the group and hostages have printed €400 million, marking an important and also transitional moment in the heist: they are getting closer to their goal. While in the printing room, “Bella ciao” continues as nondiegetic accompaniment, providing a polyrhythmic layer to the repetitive rhythms of the printing machines. The scene then cuts back to the group in the vault to accompany their singing. When most of the members are present, they begin to dance energetically in a circle, belting out the lyrics in a celebratory and enthusiastic manner (figure 2). Surprisingly, as each group member enters the vault and joins in the festivities, we see and hear each one passionately and effortlessly sing the lyrics; we hear their own individual voices and, after they join the group, witness the camaraderie that takes place. The inclusion of this song here emphasizes a sense of camaraderie as all members, even those from different countries and backgrounds, know the song and engage with it in a positive way. The song also emphasizes the euphoria felt by all through this first major success while being trapped in the mint.
What is the purpose of this song, and why is it so significant to the storyline? Although performed in episode 11, a full explanation is given during Season 1, episode 13. The Professor and the group member Berlin (Pedro Alonso), who is regarded as a harsh, militant, and unlikable individual, are sitting together after an evening of dining, the night before the heist takes place. As Berlin and the Professor share a glass of red wine, Berlin tells the Professor that if things go wrong, that if the heist takes a drastic turn for the worse, he must run away. The Professor assures Berlin [End Page 481] that nothing will go wrong, but Berlin is adamant that the Professor make this promise. This highlights a side to Berlin, who is by far the most violent and nonsympathetic member of the group, that indicates that he may have feelings, either doubt or genuine concern for the welfare of the Professor. The Professor then begins singing “Bella ciao” slowly and quietly, almost nostalgically, while Tokyo’s voice-over narration explains the song’s significance. When he was a child, the Professor’s father, who fought with the resistance movement against the fascists in Italy, taught him this song. In order to instill resistance as a major goal for the heist, the Professor teaches the song to the group, which explains how they all knew it in the previous scene. “Bella ciao” here does not take on the feeling of euphoria that it previously conveyed; its use here clearly aligns with this element of resistance and even fear. Berlin and the Professor exchange glances throughout this scene before Berlin begins to sing as well, making the song a duet shared between the two men (figure 3). The scene then cuts to the present as the Professor drives Inspector Raquel to the gang’s house in Toledo, where evidence of their identities and the heist is kept. “Bella ciao” moves from a diegetic duet to the recording by Manu Pilas with multiple male voices as underscoring, accompanied by a militaristic snare drum that accentuates the dire circumstances in which the Professor finds himself. We in the audience are left to believe that he and the group will finally be exposed.
The “Bella ciao” leitmotif comes back in the final episode, when the group departs the mint. The police have now infiltrated the building, and the remaining group members struggle to leave through the tunnel to the empty hangar where the Professor is waiting. Although several members are able to get to the tunnel, Berlin stays behind to fight off the heavily armored police. Here, the song, arranged in a slower version, functions nondiegetically and at a softer dynamic, first aurally discerned by the male voices humming the melody before the lyrics are articulated by the principal singer. “Bella ciao” continues the idea of unification that it initially exhibited when first performed by the heist group and also [End Page 482] augments the atmosphere of resistance. In this scene, Berlin sacrifices himself so that the others can get away, despite the loud and vocal protests of both the Professor and Nairobi. The song continues to sound throughout the stand-off, emphasizing the dramatic atmosphere, the now selfless nature of Berlin, and the resistance to authority. He is shot in a blaze of gunfire and falls to the ground with his eyes open as the explosives in the tunnel are detonated, ensuring that the police will not get through.
“Bella ciao” functions both diegetically and nondiegetically, which, along with its continued repetition and its stamp of association with the group members, indicates its importance; as a leitmotif, it provides an aural synthesis to events, to actions, and to characters in more ways than one. The sound of the song, its ability to encourage communal participation, and its social and cultural meaning become the most significant. The lyrics are not provided in the English subtitles or in the Spanish closed captioning, and an explanation of the lyrics is not provided by either the Professor or Tokyo’s narration. The song unifies the storyline and the characters and succeeds in engaging with the audience as an identifiable marker, fusing the present and the past. The significance of this song is explained by the narration to the audience, which not only aurally accentuates the unification of the group but also serves as the sound of resistance or the protest against the established order.
This show has succeeded in providing enough suspense, intrigue, thrills, and close calls to garner a huge following with audiences around the world. According to Block, the show “has resonated with international audiences because of the social and economic tensions that it depicts, and because of the utopian escape it offers them,” augmented strategically by the show’s utilization of “Bella ciao.”25 Although the show was initially intended for only two seasons on Spanish television, Netflix has acquired the permissions to the show and has extended the contract in order to produce Season 3, whose teaser trailers are accompanied again by “Bella ciao,” implying that the resistance and the camaraderie will live on.26 [End Page 483]
“La casa de las flores” and the Signifiers of the Mexican Telenovela
Of all the Spanish-language serials that Netflix offers in its library, Mexican telenovelas are the most numerous, including several selections from Mexican television networks. Netflix Original Series, however, have supplied another avenue for the diffusion of the telenovela to audiences. Building from the success of the telenovelas La Reina del Sur (The queen of the south, Telemundo, 2011) and El Señor de los Cielos (The Lord of the skies, Telemundo, 2013–), which both feature narratives about Mexico’s drug war and narco culture, Netflix produced the dramatic Mexican-Colombian serial Narcos (Drug lords, 2015–17), which details the beginnings of the drug trade in Colombia and the cartel empire of Pablo Escobar. Recently, the Narcos franchise has branched into another series that just focuses on the drug trade in Mexico during the 1980s and 1990s entitled Narcos: México (2018). Narco themes—violence, sex, extortion, kidnapping, and drug use—have been exploited on these shows, providing audiences with dramatic and violent takes on the current state of contemporary politics and narco culture throughout the Americas.
There are, however, exceptions to this trend. One of the most highly anticipated Netflix Original Series from 2018 was the Mexican-produced La casa de las flores, written by Manolo Flores (figure 4). Tapping into both the success of the comedic serial and the popularity of the telenovela, the show tells the story of the highly dysfunctional and hilarious De la Mora family. After Roberta Sánchez (Claudette Maillé), the mistress of the family’s patriarch, Ernesto de la Mora (Arturo Ríos), hangs herself in the De la Mora flower shop—La casa de las flores, located in the affluent neighborhood Las Lomas in Mexico City—the family quickly begins to self-destruct in a variety of ways as a result of the affair and the suicide. Although the family appears highly moral and perfect on the surface—a consequence of the consistent struggles of the family’s matriarch, Virginia (Verónica Castro)—throughout the season we come to realize that the De la Moras—Ernesto, Virginia, Paulina, Elena, and Julián—carry masks that hide secret lives of extramarital affairs, sexuality, drug use, money laundering, and social standing. Each character is unmasked, although each continues to preach from his or her moral high ground, with disastrous yet hilarious results.
La casa de las flores successfully fuses several prominent elements of Mexican popular culture within the serial format that harkens back to the beloved telenovela, even starring several telenovela stars of the past, including the iconic Verónica Castro.27 The show brims with love triangles, secret children, double lives, corruption, and at times violence. Mixed in, however, are concerns and themes from contemporary Mexican culture, including open discussions on sexuality and sexual dynamics— Julián de la Mora (Dario Yazbek Bernal) comes out as bisexual, and the [End Page 484] ex-husband of Paulina de la Mora (Cecilia Suárez) is transsexual—and the presence of drug use and corruption. La casa de las flores provides plenty of humor, dysfunction, snarkiness, hypocrisy, and adequate back-stabbing between family members, all of which have made the genre of the telenovela so successful (and addictive) in the past. Interestingly, the episodes of La casa de las flores are named after flowers and their symbolic definition, which reflects certain narrative elements. The first episode, which abruptly begins with the hanging of Roberta during an extravagant party, is labeled “Narcissus: symb. lies.” This episode provides the impetus for the unraveling of the family. Episode 13, the show’s last installment, carries the label “Poppy: symb. resurrection,” which details the flower shop’s fifty-year anniversary and the business’s successor.
At the center of the show is La casa de las flores, a name that is carried by two important locations: the flower shop in Las Lomas and a cabaret managed by the deceased Roberta. The inclusion of and concentration on the cabaret tap into a significant part of Mexican popular culture through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The cabaret, both onand off-screen, served as a space of escape where fantasy and pleasure are explored through musical and dance performance. Cabaret culture was heavily explored in Mexican national cinema during the época de oro (golden age, roughly 1936–52), through the fichera film genre (a variant of the cabaret or prostitute melodrama) during the 1970s, and in queer cabaret performances during the 1990s and well into the 2000s.28 In her work on Mexico’s cabaret culture, Laura Gutiérrez focuses on the identity politics that come to life in cabaret performances in Mexico, particularly queer cabaret performances in which “artists interrogate identities and political and economic systems from within the popular discourses whose mass-mediated characteristics have aided in forging the nation: melodrama.”29 Melodrama was a cornerstone of Mexican national cinema during the twentieth century and continued into the telenovelas and also onto the stage, where emotion and feelings become excessive, humorous, and campy. In the show, the second La casa de las flores, which plays [End Page 485] on the referential terms in Caló for gay men, florecita and floripondio, is a highly popular and at one time highly lucrative cabaret, starring drag queens as pop divas from the 1980s and 1990s Mexican television and popular music currents such as Yuri, Gloria Trevi, and Paulina Rubio. Their music and the drag queens’ performances make up a substantial portion of the diegetic musical content for the show.
Both casas mirror the social position of the two matriarchs: the “big house” refers to Virginia, Ernesto’s legal wife, and the “little house” refers to his mistress Roberta’s cabaret. It is revealed rather quickly that the cabaret and its christening as La casa de las flores was Ernesto’s idea; he used money from the flower shop to open this business for his mistress. The cabaret is by far the most successful venue, paying for the expensive lifestyle that the De la Moras enjoy in Las Lomas. When the rest of the family realizes that much of their wealth is due to the success of the cabaret, they are stunned and seek to further place the flower shop on a pedestal, implying that it is the better La casa de las flores, more moral and socially acceptable, and equating the cabaret to a brothel or whorehouse.
Much of the discovery or unmasking of the truth about the second La casa de las flores occurs during Roberta’s funeral in the cabaret during episode 2, “Chrysanthemum: symb. pain.” Here, we see and hear the cultural and social dynamics of the cabaret, but, by extension, we also see the varying attitudes and contradictions regarding sex and sexuality that exist in Mexican society. The pain that labels this episode surfaces in two ways: loss and betrayal. The pain of loss is felt by Roberta’s children, the eldest son, Claudio (Lucas Velazquez), from a previous marriage, and the youngest daughter, Michaela (Alexa de Landa), who is also Ernesto’s daughter, and by the drag queens of the cabaret, who gather together dressed as their diva personalities in order to perform several signature songs in her memory. The De la Mora family from the big house experience the pain of betrayal as they witness their father’s second life. In an attempt to find out the truth, Virginia, Julián, and Elena arrive at the cabaret for the funeral, stunned that the building bears the same name as the flower shop.30
This funeral scene features an eclectically compiled, diegetic song list made of popular hits from the early 1990s to the late 2000s. But rather than reinforcing the mournful atmosphere of a funeral, the music and the corresponding performances provide a sense of camp and comedic relief. Inside the cabaret, Roberta’s casket is surrounded by the drag queens, dressed in black and performing Yuridia’s 2005 arrangement of “Maldita primavera” (Goddamned spring), a forceful pop ballad that details a love affair that comes to a brutal end when one of the partners departs, leaving the other broken-hearted, alone, and resentful. The drag queens sing the bitter lyrics loudly—the translations of which are provided in the subtitles—and invite the young Michaela to sing along with them in tribute. As the De la Moras gather together, they begin to [End Page 486] argue, accompanied by the strains of the chorus, which repeats “Maldita primavera.” The bitter yet somber lyrics mirror the pain felt not only by the divas in the cabaret but also by the De la Mora family, who are experiencing the pain of their family and, by extension, their way of life breaking apart: “The only thing that you’ve left me with / Is a kiss without meaning or feeling.” Paulina had known all along about the affair and the cabaret and was already at the funeral, but she kept everything secret for the peace of the family. Virginia and Elena both confront her at the funeral, but she brushes them off as “nuts” and continues to sing with the rest of the crowd, only to be referred to later by her mother as “hija de Judás” (Judas’s daughter or spawn).
Paulina eventually is asked by the Paulina Rubio drag queen, her namesake, to say a few words about Roberta. In her short and measured speech, she reveals that Roberta was the one who taught her how to dance, which surprises her mother and sister. Although this scene is highly uncomfortable and awkward, Paulina’s contribution provides a more comedic spin. After she states, “I can still remember the day she told me . . .” El General’s 1991 reggaeton hit “Muévelo” (Shake it) begins to play on the cabaret’s sound system. Paulina awkwardly sing/speaks the lyrics in karaoke style, featuring a call and response from the crowd:
Muévelo, muévelo (Shake it, shake it)
Que sabroso (So tasty)
Muévelo, muévelo (Shake it, shake it)
Como lo hace (Look how she does it)
Ven a bailar (Come and dance)
Ven a gozar (Come join the fun)
Alza la mano si tú estás gozando (Lift up your hand if you’re having fun)
Overcome with emotion, she passes the microphone to the drag queen Paulina, who continues to sing the song with the crowd, who raise up their hands in the air. The crowd sings and dances together while Paulina, crying, is comforted by her father. The campiness of the scene reaches its apex with this tortured yet hilarious performance.
As the funeral comes to a close in the cabaret, the drag queen dressed as Gloria Trevi sings and dramatically performs “El recuento de los daños” (The recount of damages), focusing on one verse that seemingly reflects the demise of Roberta and Ernesto’s affair:
After damage assessmentof the dreadful crash between us,after the impact of your hands,my caution was pronounced dead. [End Page 487]
While Gloria performs on the cabaret’s dance floor, the camera zooms out to reveal Paulina and Ernesto in an important conversation about what has just transpired. For Ernesto, the cabaret, he admits, is the real La casa de las flores. Paulina looks back at Gloria performing and comments, “She’s good, isn’t she?” breaking the tension of the moment and allowing Gloria to be the center of attention of that scene (figure 5). Ernesto Diemartínez states that in this particular moment we see and hear a strategy to subvert the conventions of the telenovela for a digressive look into other important cultural practices, thereby deconstructing and then reconstructing the genre.31 Gloria’s performance remains in the center of the scene, flanked by the bodies of Paulina and Ernesto like a frame. Gloria becomes the focal point, not Paulina and Ernesto.
The influence of the cabaret manages to infiltrate the De la Mora house in episode 3, “Lily: symb. freedom,” highlighting a synthesis of the two houses. Julián decides that he wants to move in with his boyfriend, the family’s accountant, Diego (Juan Pablo Medina). However, Julián has yet to come out to his parents, which makes him nervous. He goes to the cabaret for solace and advice, asking one of the drag queens dressed as Amanda Miguel how she would deliver this message. She states, “As my friend Gloria Trevi says, ‘I put on my heels and dressed as a queen.’ . . . Tell them in song.” To which he replies, “But I can’t sing.” Julián, however, takes this advice. At the family dinner, he decides to share his news. The dinner itself moves like any family dinner: it is dominated by loud discussions and arguing. When Julián stands up, he says that he has something to say and will do it in a song, much to everyone’s surprise. He begins reciting the lyrics to the 1986 Alaska y Dinarama electronic pop song “A quién le importa” (Who gives a damn) then, with some suggestive movements of his shoulder, he begins singing and dancing to the song. Magically, the scene cuts to the blue-lit cabaret, where the diva Gloria Trevi, complete with her bra of doll’s faces, performs energetically. The De la Mora dining room then fuses as a cabaret space, featuring [End Page 488] the blue lighting and reflections from a disco ball while Julián sings the song, dramatically ripping off his shirt and even straddling Diego. The family even dances along with him cheerfully (figure 6). The lyrics of “A quién le importa” describe a person who is criticized for being different: “I know they criticize me / I know they hate me.” The chorus of “Who gives a damn” comes back repeatedly throughout the song, reinforcing the notion that although the person is receiving criticism, they do not care and will continue to act the way they want to. This song quickly became an anthem for the LGBT community, particularly in Spanish-speaking countries, and is still recognized as such to this day, which explains why Julián chooses to perform it for his family. Once he reaches the cadence, the dining room returns to its normal atmosphere. The message, however, is lost on his mother, who is in denial and interprets his act as wanting to be a singer instead. Julián’s coming out and the linking of the cabaret performance, both in real life and in fantasy, synthesize the practices together. Although initially not wanting to have anything to do with the other La casa de las flores, Julián’s sexual identity is pushing him to align with the cabaret more and more.
Although diegetic pop music plays a crucial role in the series, the voice also has a significant part. Much like La casa de papel, La casa de las flores features voice-over narration. Functioning as Michel Chion’s concept of “textual speech” in which speech “has the power to make visible the images that it evokes through sound—that is, to change the setting, to call up a thing, moment, place, or characters at will,” the show’s narrator, the deceased mistress, Roberta, provides commentary and explanations on the events in every episode.32 Her position as a ghostly omnipresent voice is strikingly similar to the narrator in Alfonso Cuarón’s road film from 2001, Y tu mamá también (And your mother too).33 Her voice links up fragments of the narrative and even serves as a type of prophet and philosopher, indicating that trouble is ahead and judging and criticizing the family’s decisions even from beyond the grave.
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Perhaps the most captivating sound element of the show is the voice, accent, and manner of speaking of the eldest De la Mora daughter, Paulina or Pau, played by Cecilia Suárez. In a manner mirroring Chion’s “theatrical speech,” which has a dramatic, psychological, informative, and affective function, her slow, methodologically precise, and accentuated delivery of her dialogue has made her one of the major aural signifiers for the show and an audience favorite, with many of her most memorable lines appearing on memes with spaces to indicate her slow articulation. This vocal styling is not uncommon in Mexican cinema, used by popular comedic characters such as Cuca, la telefonista (Cuca, the telephone operator, played by Cuquita Escobar), who appears in El hijo disobediente (The disobedient son, 1945, dir. Humberto Gómez Landero), a comedy that stars one of Mexican cinema’s most significant comedians, Germán Valdés “Tin Tan.” Cuca, la telefonista is a lazy telephone operator who does not want to work; her identifying feature and aural signifier is this slow and labored articulation, which is both funny and annoying.34 Pau does not convey this sense of laziness, as her character is a control freak who is constantly solving the problems of her dysfunctional family; she knows and keeps all the secrets, including affairs, hidden cabarets, and dead bodies. More so than the other characters of the series, she provides a sense of comedic relief, rescripting the accent for a funny woman who is more capable and present. According to popular sources, Suárez cannot perform this accent outside the show, not even in interviews, as stipulated by her contract with Netflix.35 Her voice and delivery, which is perhaps a disability that is never quite explained (although her character admits in one episode to having an addiction to Xanax), creates a fascinating sound synthesis that moves away from compiled music.
Netflix’s streaming digital platform has aided in establishing the concept of a globalized audience. The options available in Netflix’s library not only speaks to a wide variety of shows and genres but also provides audiences with new opportunities to experience cultures on both localized and globalized levels. The options for Spanish-language serials have tapped into viewers’ interests in more contemporary issues, including narco and cartel violence, social and economic change and instability (on both local and global levels), changing attitudes toward gender and sexuality, and the breakdown of the familial unit in the twenty-first century. Music is used as a crucial asset in the exploration of these themes, augmenting in particular the development of the characters, as demonstrated in both La casa de papel and La casa de las flores. Although at times harking back to older traditions, the strategic use of music in the [End Page 490] streaming serials and Netflix Original Series in Spanish provides a more cinematic approach that encourages a more prolonged and attentive listening strategy rather than relying on shorter episodes and pauses for commercials. La casa de papel and La casa de las flores select and exhibit music in a way that caters to the localized audience in its country of origin, utilizing popular currents in music and even tapping into that country’s popular culture, while also appealing to the larger global audience, eager for the escape to another culture, time, and place.
Jacqueline Avila is associate professor in musicology at the University of Tennessee. Her research focuses on film music and sound practice from the silent period to the present and the intersections of identity, tradition, and modernity in the Hollywood and Mexican film industries. Her publications can be found in the Journal of Film Music, Latin American Music Review, Opera Quarterly, and the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Her book entitled Cinesonidos: Film Music and National Identity during Mexico’s Época de Oro was recently published with Oxford University Press, Music/Media Series.
1. Ella Margarita Cornelio-Marí, “Digital Delivery in Mexico: A Global Newcomer Stirs the Local Giants,” in The Age of Netflix: Critical Essays on Streaming Media, Digital Delivery, and Access, ed. Cory Barker and Myc Wiatrowski (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2017), 209.
2. Mari Castañeda, “The Transcultural Political Economy of Telenovelas and Soap Operas in the Digital Age,” in Soap Operas and Telenovelas in the Digital Age: Global Industries and New Audiences, ed. Diana I. Rios and Mari Castañeda (New York: Peter Lang, 2011), 11.
3. Ibid., 12.
4. Cornelio-Marí, “Digital Delivery,” 202.
6. Ibid., 211.
8. See, for example, blog entries such as “42 Best Spanish TV Shows on Netflix (2019),” Second Half-Travels, https://www.secondhalftravels.com/spanish-language-tv-shows-netflix/ (accessed January 2, 2019). The author of the blog has been updating this list since 2017.
9. Netflix permits up to five users on one subscription.
10. Cornelio-Marí, “Digital Delivery,” 209.
11. See James Deaville, “A Discipline Emerges: Reading Writing about Listening to Television,” in Music in Television: Channels of Listening, ed. James Deaville (New York: Routledge, 2011), 7–33.
12. Claudia Gorbman, “Aesthetics and Rhetoric,” American Music 22, no. 1 (2004): 17.
13. Ibid., 18.
14. Kevin McDonald, “From Online Video Store to Global Internet TV Network: Netflix and the Future of Home Entertainment,” in The Netflix Effect: Technology and Entertainment in the 21st Century, ed. Kevin McDonald and Daniel Smith-Rowsey (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Inc., 2016), 210–11.
15. Ibid., 210.
16. Rick Altman, “Television/Sound,” in Studies in Entertainment, ed. Modelski Tania (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 40.
17. Ibid., 47.
18. Leila Cobo and Justino Aguila, “The Telenovela’s Rhythm: How Modern Latin Music Still Gets a Kick out of the Long-Running Soap Operas,” Billboard, November 23, 2013, 38+, Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A352492927/AONE?u=tel_a_utl&sid=AONE&xid=25d52770 (accessed January 1, 2019).
19. Ron Rodman, “‘Coperettas,’ ‘Detecterns,’ and Space Operas: Music and Genre Hybridization in American Television,” in Deaville, Music in Television, 36.
20. Ibid., 37.
21. Pauline Block, “Spanish Hit Series ‘La Casa de Papel’ Captures Europe’s Mood a Decade after the Crash,” New Statesman America, August 24, 2018, https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/tv-radio/2018/08/spanish-hit-series-la-casa-de-papel-captures-europe-s-mood-decade-after (accessed March 1, 2019).
23. See, for example, the hit Spanish shows now streaming on Netflix, Velvet (Bambú Productions, 2013–16) and its spin-off, Velvet: Colección (Bambú Productions, 2017–). Both shows feature several covers of English-language rock and roll, ballads, and other genres from the end of the 1950s and the 1960s.
24. See, for instance, the short article from Antena 3: “La verdadera historia de ‘Bella ciao,’ el tema clave de ‘La casa de papel,’” ObjetivoTV, March 27, 2018, https://www.antena3.com/objetivotv/actualidad/espana/verdadera-historia-bella-ciao-tema-clave-casa-papel_201803275aba1b630cf240aa71208154.html (accessed March 1, 2019).
25. Block, “Spanish Hit Series.”
26. The third season of La casa de papel premiered July 19, 2019. Through this season, the group takes on a new and more complicated heist involving the Bank of Spain. The “Bella ciao” theme appears in two episodes. In episode 6, “Everything Seemed Insignificant,” a group of agents is captured in the bank and forced to sing the song for a recording. In the final episode of the season, “Astray,” the song appears at the end when the police attempt to storm the bank and the group retaliates.
27. Castro played in Barata la primavera (Spring is cheap) during the 1970s, Yolanda Luján (1982), and, her most famous series, Rosa salvaje (Wild rose, 1987–88), among others. Claudette Maillé has appeared in several telenovelas that are more recent, including Camelia la Texana (Camelia the Texan, 2014) and another Netflix original, Ingobernable (Ungovernable, 2018).
28. For a discussion on the impact of the cabaret on Mexican popular culture during the first half of the twentieth century, see Jacqueline Avila, Cinesonidos: Film Music and National Identity during Mexico’s época de oro (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019). See also Sergio de la Mora, Cinemachismo: Masculinities and Sexualities in Mexican Film (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006).
29. Laura Gutierrez, Performing mexicanidad: Vendidas y cabareteras on the Transnational Stage (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), Kindle file.
30. Virginia especially feels betrayed because the flower shop is her family’s legacy.
31. Ernesto Diezmartínez, “Una telenovela de digresiones y referencias de pop,” Letras Libres, https://www.letraslibres.com/mexico/cinetv/ernesto-diezmartinez-la-casa-de-las-flores-telenovela (accessed January 1, 2019).
32. Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 172.
33. See Deborah Shaw, “(Trans) National Images and Cinematic Spaces: The Cases of Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Y tu mamá también’ (2001) and Carlos Reygadas’ ‘Japón’ (2002),” Iberoamericana 11, no. 44 (2011): 117–31.
34. Diezmartínez, “Una telenovela,” makes a note of this similarity in his article about the show.
35. See “‘The House of Flowers’: Cecilia Suárez Is Forbidden to Speak as Pauline,” NewsBeezer, August 24, 2018, https://newsbeezer.com/perueng/the-house-of-flowers-cecilia-suarez-is-forbidden-to-speak-as-pauline/ (accessed March 1, 2019).