Ricardo Arjona, the Guatemalan singer-songwriter pop phenomenon, is currently wrapping up a successful tour of the US. And if you grew up in Latin America, chances are that you first heard of him somewhere in the early nineties. On the radio or through a friend, you may have run into a song that summarized the tenements of all Christianity ("Jesus Is a Verb, not a Noun") and reflected on the fact that someone had made a religious analogy by way of grammar. Soon after, in 1993, you may have heard his song "Mujeres" and, whether you wanted or not, paid even more attention to the lyrics because the song was playing over and over again at parties and at the mall.
"And if [women] inhabited the moon, there'd be more astronauts than sand in the sea," went one of the lines. "They say it was a rib," said another passage, going all Old Testament on the origin of women, "but I would have given my whole spine just to see them walk." And then, at that precise moment, right before the guitar solo kicked in and Arjona became a continental star, you probably chose a side: you were either an Arjona lover or an Arjona hater.
As Arjona's popularity grew with unstoppable force during the next two decades, an equal and opposite force grew against his lyrics. While he was busy turning verses like "forgetting you is harder than running into Lady Di at the subway station" or a song to the menstrual cycle into hits, and selling out 35 straight nights at Buenos Aires' Luna Park in 2006, music fans, journalists, comedians and musicians were equally busy turning him into the living symbol of cheap songwriting.
Just to name a few highlights: as early as 1996 Mexican singer-songwriter Alejandro Filio wrote the song "El Reino de los Ciegos," where he insulted both his audience (the blind) and Arjona (their king); in 2010 singer Fito Páez associated his success in Argentina with "cultural annihilation and absence of ideas" in the country; and last year his detractors threatened to take it to the streets organizing a global demonstration against his "false poetry" via Facebook (which, in spite of receiving wide news coverage, doesn't seem to have materialized). And this is without getting into the Internet meme that attributes earthquakes in Chile, Mexico and Peru to his performances, or the fake news story (which some newspapers duly reprinted) that Iran would punish those who listened to his music with the death penalty.
Arjona himself has not been particularly interested in replying to his critics, but when he does, he displays admirable wit. He dismissed Páez's attacks attributing them to the Argentinean's artistic decline, and of those behind the alleged demonstrations against him, he said: "Somebody who devotes time and space to hate music he doesn't like, and turns that into a cause, is an idiot." More recently, in a biographical text published in his website, Arjona affirmed not to read any of the articles written on him, good or bad. "What's written about me is what I write," he concluded, suggesting that he didn't care for anyone's opinion but his own. True to his statement, in a recent interview with ABC/Univision, Arjona claimed to be unaware of the fact that last year the New York Times rather surprisingly called him "one of Latin pop's finest lyricists" after his sold-out performance at Madison Square Garden. (He recently sold out the arena again.)
"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."
Speaking of writing with a purpose in mind, during the course of the interview with ABC/Univision, Arjona rejected the suggestion that he wrote songs by design, trying to appeal to a certain female demographic. "No, no, no. I would never do that," he emphatically claimed. "I could write a song about a screw if you asked me to. Call me in an hour, and I'll have it for you, a song with a screw in it, but it would probably not stir emotions in anybody. At this stage in my career, the only songs I want to share with the world are the ones that move me first." Moved or not moved, the songs are sure to keep coming, regardless of what we think of them. And that is a good thing, says the always playful Stavans.
"Since when do we expect for our musicians to be married to the muses?" he asks, turning the accusation around. And then, with perfect aesthetic sense, he answers himself with a quip that would nicely fit into one of Arjona's songs.
"To expect for Arjona to write poetry like Borges or Quevedo is asking the cat to be a dog."