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.
"I think it has to do with the fact that every musician has an aesthetic world that is rather particular, and that has matured in its expression," says Gepe, 31, in Spanish when asked to explain the unprecedented recognition of acts like himself, Anwandter and Mena (both 29) in the international indie circuit. "This success may have to do with integrating in the general concept of our songs the notion of 'pop' as a standard sound — a sound that is more or less international."
The idea of embracing a notion of pop that didn't know stylistic boundaries —from Brian Wilson to Daniela Romo to roots music— was, in a way, revolutionary in itself, breaking with decades in Chile in which the only respectable form of indie music was rock, while pop was reduced by the young and hip to merely a "guilty pleasure."
"It was common in Chile to frown upon the so-called 'AM culture'," says Chilean music critic Marisol García regarding the ballad-heavy, sung-in-Spanish canon of AM radio formed by artists such as Camilo Sesto, Nino Bravo, Leonardo Favio, or Ana Gabriel. "It is deep inside all of us, much more than rock. If you're over 25, it gave you the chance of listening to Latin American ballads that were better built that those that get played today."
"I think that the most decisive factor [in the inception of this musical scene] is the exhaustion of a certain speech that, until the early aughts, imposed rock as the only musical genre that merited attention," adds García, "as well as assuming that liking Camilo Sesto, Miranda!, Britney Spears or La Ley was no reason for being ashamed." Alex Anwandter, who this year has taken his dance-ready electro-pop to New York and Los Angeles and is sometimes called by the press the "Prince of Chilean Pop," sees a similar influence of a shared radio culture, but adds another factor to the musical explosion: the Internet.
"When the whole Napster/Soulseek thing exploded, we were probably the generation to take most advantage of it," says Anwandter. "It changed the way we approached the music."
The Chilean scene is also defined by something else: the mutual collaboration between its members. Gepe played drums for Javiera Mena and sang along with her in the torch ballad "Sol de Invierno," and has recorded and played with Pedropiedra; Alex Anwandter has directed videos for Mena and electro duo Adrianigual; and both Anwandter and Gepe are about to release Alex & Daniel, an album they recorded over the last year during their "spare time."
"I would say the complete lack of support in which we started making music, or perhaps the total absence of a music industry here [in Chile] determined the way musicians here relate to each other," reflects Anwandter. "It would've been completely pointless to be jealous of each other or selfish, because, when we started, very few were listening and even fewer helping us. I guess it just didn't make sense not to collaborate."
The music and the scene are happening, and projects like Alex & Daniel could take it to higher levels in the international context. But what will come next? Will other members of this scene see their records released in the US the way Anwandter did? Will they follow the path of Chilean rock acts such as Los Angeles Negros, La Ley or Los Bunkers, who decades ago set residence in Mexico to consolidate their international presence? Will they be making electro pop when they're 60?
"I can't really speak for others, but I'll keep making records for some time," says Anwandter. "Not indefinitely, however. I see that 99% of the work of musicians I admire declines as they grow old, eventually relying on playing their 'hits.' That's not what I want for me."
"I still have better records left in me, though. And pop is the word, sure: it's the only genre that doesn't impose limits on itself."