Like most musical phenomena, the Chilean pop explosion started without a blueprint.
Take for instance its most representative figure, Javiera Mena. During her first major performance, at a Santiago movie art house in 2002, she was still looking for a sound. Standing with her acoustic guitar in front of the microphone, the then 19-year old sang beautifully disarming songs that reminisced of the folk compositions of Violeta Parra, but many things set them apart: the metrics were somewhat broken, the attitude was simultaneously juvenile, defiant and insecure. Yet in spite of everything that was missing, she was clearly onto something, as if she could somehow thrive on her contradictions.
Three years later, she had found herself. While playing with an ever-rotating lineup of backing musicians, Mena had gone back to the electronic sounds of her first instrument —a toy keyboard— and fused her folk influences with the radio pop ballads she loved so much. Her first album, Esquemas Juveniles, a collection dominated by melancholic electro-ballads, was released in 2006, when the hype around her name had grown among local critics.
Thanks to the Internet, the album eventually found an audience outside of Chile and Argentina (where it was first released), particularly in Mexico, Spain (where Mena would soon be touring and appearing at major festivals) and among the bilingual crowd in the United States, where Club Fonograma called it "a one-of-a-kind revolution … the landmark album that we'll keep in our hearts as a generation-best."
Mena's revolution may have been one-of-a-kind, but she wasn't alone. Other Chilean pop singer-songwriters were following similar paths in search for their own musical personas. Gepe (Daniel Riveros) and Alex Anwandter are currently sharing the international recognition with Mena, but several other acts — Dënver, Astro, Pedropiedra, Protistas — have also contributed to the idea that as of this writing Chile may well have the strongest pop scene in the Spanish-speaking world.
What's more, the quality and international impact of the latest albums by Anwandter (Rebeldes, published in the US in June by Nacional Records) and Gepe (GP, released this month) proves that this scene is more than a fad or the hype created by a few bloggers and festival programmers.