"I wasn't aware of what the New York Times had said about me. I don't often read the reviews, you know?" the singer said on the phone from Guatemala a few days before starting his current tour. "I stopped caring when I realized that the rigor of the showbiz journalists —mainly in Latin America, but the same happens elsewhere— was going in a direction that I wasn't interested in. People who were more interested in who do I sleep or wake up with than in what do I do when I stand on a stage, or who is the producer of my record."
"I do consider the praises and criticism to some extent, but I try to not believe in them," he conceded after being pressed to elaborate on the notion of being totally immune to what was said of him. "I can't bring what is said about me to my home or my workplace, because then it would affect me. Even if it's a nice thing, you can't put it to work next to you. I mean, I've sang in empty bars for five drunkards, so even when I sing in front of so many people at Madison Square Garden, I can't bring that tremendous delirium home with me. It's just too heavy to carry with you everywhere you go."
"I'm not trying to have an arrogant or extremely humble pose here," he concluded, looking for a way to end his analysis. "It's actually the opposite." Classic Arjonism.
But is the widespread hatred for Arjona's work justified? We set out to find out what did Latino scholars and bloggers think of his lyrics and continental success.
"My problem with Arjona is not that his lyrics are 'simple.' The problem is that he tries to be complex or profound, but he fails at it," says Latino pop culture blogger Laura Martínez. "I clearly remember the first time I listened to him, thinking that he was a Joaquín Sabina wannabe but without the edge. Then, he tried to be like Pablo Milanés and also failed at it."
Yet Martínez also puts a limit to her criticism: Arjona, she says, has become a "sort of punching-bag for pseudo-intellectual Latin Americans." Interestingly, the professional intellectuals interviewed for this article were cautious in their criticism of Arjona. Popular music, they said, is full of obvious rhymes and easy metaphors.
"His lyrics are no better or worse, more inspired or melodramatic than the regular musical fare Hispanics are used to," declares Amherst College professor Ilan Stavans, who has edited the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, the Enciclopedia of Latin Music and the FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry among many works. "Poetry, needless to say, is subjective. Neruda left us over 3,000 poems in total. How many of them are wonderful? Maybe just 30."
So what is the secret of his exorbitant success, as well as the particular ire he draws in people? How does he get away with a self-evident image like "penguins in our bed" to illustrate marital discord?
"I think that what makes Arjona's lyrics so attractive to so many people—and at the same time so hateful to many others—is that [most of them] are like jingles," adds Columbia University's Center for American Studies professor Claudio Iván Remeseira. "When you hear: 'Señora, no le quite años a la vida, póngale vida a los años que es mejor,' the Pavlovian conditioning created by advertising immediately adds in your mind: 'Neutrogena, the best way to stay young,' or something like that. I am not saying that he deliberately writes his lyrics in this way, but that this is nonetheless the effect."