Selena and the Enduring Prison of Pop Stardom

Movies Features Selena Quintanilla
Selena and the Enduring Prison of Pop Stardom

It was recently revealed that Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, the Mexican-American “Queen of Tejano music” who was murdered in 1995, will soon have a new album released posthumously. The project is the undertaking of her nuclear family—who comprised her backing band and management—compiling previously unreleased recordings of the singer who died at just 23. In a bizarre move to preserve the artist’s image as it was before her murder, the Quintanillas made the active decision to digitally alter the singer’s voice on at least one of these tracks, as she recorded the song when she was no older than 13. Pitching her voice down to replicate the sultry soprano vocal range she was known for at the height of her career, there is a palpable sense of scrutinizing control that was not only evident when the pop star was alive, but has continued long after her corporeal form ceased to be a tangible, malleable presence. Director Gregory Nava attempts to depict the circumstances that led to the highly controlled image of the “Mexican Madonna” in Selena, released just two years after its subject’s assassination, with pop legend Jennifer Lopez starring in her breakout role. Yet there’s a central paradox to the film: In documenting Selena’s life and career, it also molds a certain image of the late singer that feels much too glossy and idealized to accurately reflect the tumult inherent in your success being predicated on an aesthetic demand. Because Selena died in her prime, she will be eternally remembered and recognized as that perfect image—in part solidified by the overwhelming success of the film.

While adopting a totally conventional approach to the Hollywood biopic, Nava nonetheless manages to preserve the oft-conflicting liminality of the Mexican-American experience, one that deeply affected Selena’s own personal and professional exploits. While the grand majority of her catalog consists of Spanish-language lyrics, the singer was not fluent in the language, having grown up in an English-speaking household in the Houston suburb of Jackson Hole. She was coached to phonetically pronounce her own lyrics by her father Abraham (Edward James Olmos), who was largely in charge of constructing his daughter’s image. This is highlighted often in the film—his initial aversion to her skimpy wardrobe choices, his insistence that she must cater to Mexican audiences, his hard-line stance on her not dating guitarist Chris Pérez (John Seda)—with consistent countenance by Selena herself. Bustiers became her trademark, she began work on an English crossover album after her Grammy win and Pérez became her husband after a secret elopement that made immediate headlines. In a sense, Selena’s rebellion is far less liberating than it is a necessary and enduring struggle—against the stifling command of her family and the anxiety of displeasing her fans—one which conveniently comes to a halt due to the singer’s unexpected death. What would these pushbacks continue to look like had Selena’s career continued to skyrocket? While she was perfectly content in her role as a family-friendly role model to young children—especially fellow Latinas—there is a dangerousness in this all-or-nothing approach to appearances, leaving little room for error or trespass without immense consequence.

While Selena’s family is certainly depicted as having an autocratic air (with Abraham having final say over each and every decision Selena made, down to when she could go on solo shopping trips), the public idolization of the singer has continued to shape the image of her immortalization. It’s one thing for an intimate family member to set parameters of performance, and an entirely different matter to peddle commercial portrayals of a pop icon who will forever be remembered as an exciting, sexy phenomenon. 25 years after the Selena biopic made the artist a household name (though her death had already shaken the country and its larger music scene to its very core), Quintanilla’s face continues to be plastered on memorabilia, from Funko Pops to La Lotería-inspired t-shirts on which she’s afforded the title “La Reina,” or The Queen. While buying bootleg and official merchandise in order to brandish individual pop culture leanings is far from an anomaly, it does feel peculiar in this particular instance. It’s true that most celebrities who died young are forever doomed to appear on Target-brand t-shirts—Tupac, Marilyn Monroe, Biggie Smalls, Jimi Hendrix, et al.—yet Selena’s strict affiliation to the Latino community when she was alive contained a certain exclusivity, making it all the more odd when white Anglophones began to profess a feverish fanaticism over the pop star.

Though her English-language pop songs did end up being released shortly after her death, what catapulted Selena to fame was her success not just among American Latinos, but Mexicans at large. It is the Mexican community which sanctioned her success, and it was the Mexican community that gathered to mourn her tragic death. It’s important to note that the fanaticism surrounding Selena’s pop culture presence is essentially what led to her demise, with the president of her fan club, Yolanda Saldívar, fatally shooting her after a confrontation in which Selena accused Saldívar of embezzling money from the fan club funds. Obsession is certainly one of the overwhelming factors in fan-motivated murder plots, but this same obsession continuing to grow well after the horrors of celebrity worship led to celebrity bloodshed is somewhat baffling. Donning the profile of a woman who was killed by a fan-turned-friend reads as particularly tone-deaf—as a culture, we expect far too much of our idols, including the free reign to co-opt the likeness of another in order to profess our own individuality.

In this sense, the mass commodification of Selena’s image draws parallels to that of Frida Kahlo, the Marxist Mexican painter who has been transformed into a visual husk of her artistic ideals. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a kitschy Kahlo-inspired notebook, pair of socks or keychain, likely produced by workers enduring inhumane conditions so that a Westerner can easily display their colorful personality. Laughably against the ethos Kahlo spent her entire career mapping out—which includes a radical queerness meant to make her appearance as unpalatable and gender-nonconforming as possible, decidedly not t-shirt-worthy in its transgression—this image-based idolatry feels apt when dissecting the legacy of Selena. So invested are her fans in wearing the singer’s red-lipped image, that even 27 years after her death the pop star must still adhere to the self-performance she gave in her 20s, with fans and family still unable to confront that she could have once been a 14-year-old with a dream. Did her dreams really come true, or did she simply not live long enough to witness them unravel and pale in comparison to her imagination?

This isn’t to say that Kahlo and Selena occupy the same galaxies of feminism, one actively subverting the expectations of what a Mexican woman looks and acts like while the other candidly catering to Latina beauty standards. However, as beloved cultural icons among Mexicans, it feels strange that these two women are so inextricably tied to a Latino-driven consumerist movement, particularly when they adhered to completely different creative personas. Interestingly, Nava is connected to the on-screen canonization of both Mexican icons, writing and directing Selena and then serving as the screenwriter of 2002’s Frida starring Salma Hayek. Both films have amassed a great many accolades alongside heavy household rotation, likely having much to do with the enduring appeal of both artists in the United States. This isn’t Nava’s “fault,” per se, as much as it’s any director’s fault for making a film that is an immense critical and commercial darling. However, both films contain the filmmaker’s trademark fascination with dual or conflicting identities, perhaps most beautifully examined in his 1983 immigration epic El Norte, which follows Indigenous refugees of the Guatemalan Civil War as they migrate up through Mexico and eventually find themselves crossing the U.S. border. In shifting his focus from underrepresented communities to famous figures, the reality of embodying a liminal identity loses its political impact, instead becoming a mere facet of a celebrated character study.

As a film, Selena is entirely effective, humanizing and delving into the interiority of a woman who had previously only been seen as a Latino-specific pop culture sensation. Lopez hits the mark, girlish and funny with an enormous pressure placed on her fame by fans and family alike. Clearly a memorialization, Selena doesn’t dare grapple with thornier topics like body image, beauty standards and sexualization—and that’s fine. Yet in the wake of both the singer and film’s legacy, a fever has erupted which has gotten way out of hand. There’s a likelihood that those who sport Selena t-shirts don’t have any affinity to her music, but rather what she has come to represent. A Latina pop star gunned down in her prime, she’s been effectively martyred and elevated to a divine status, when her oft-obscured humanity is what’s truly most compelling about her. Thoroughly American in upbringing and outlook, Selena never aspired to be a modern-day Virgin of Guadalupe—the sheer presence of her image a unifying and comforting force among Latinos, and specifically among Mexicans. The fact that she died before her English language crossover album garnered rave reviews means that the Selena we all hold so dear to our hearts is one who never molded her own image as an artist—her personality, her language and her identity preemptively construed to cater to a built-in audience which she herself was not a part of. Though Selena depicts an accurate portrait of her life, it is not her whole artistic story. That tale, unfortunately, is forever lost to time—as such, we should respect her enduring image as one that’s incomplete, and one that does not need to remain static. Amid the cosmos, Selena is 13, 23 and 50 years old. Let’s allow the legacy of her music—and most importantly, her image—to reflect that.

Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste, Blood Knife and Filmmaker magazines, among others. Find her on Twitter.

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