It ranks as one of the cruelest ironies in the history of modern
celebrity: In 1995, in Room 158 of a Days Inn in Corpus Christi, Texas,
Selena was killed by the president of her fan club. Since then, the spirit of the still-reigning queen of Tejano has been kept alive with Selena dolls, Selena posters and Selena clothes. Now with "Anthology" -- a new 30-track retrospective of Selena's career, which follows her from "Rama Cada" (recorded when she was 14) to "Captive Heart" (recorded three weeks
before her death at 23) -- we get something even more clever: the Selena
Organized by Selena's father, her most relentless post-mortem marketing coach,
"Anthology" unfolds into a three-CD spread, with each flap bearing the image of
a different part of Selena's hilly, reclining body. In a sense, by removing each CD, we take aural communion -- every listener becoming the next candle-clutching convert to put their faith in Santa Selena. "Anthology" makes the conversion easy. Accessible and geared for a cross-market audience, it gives us Selena at the beginning and end of her life: the bright-eyed 15-year-old winner of the Tejano industry's coveted Female Vocalist of the Year award and the mature, married pop icon who so completely captured the hearts and minds of a new generation of Mexican-American fans that People magazine bumped "Friends" off the cover of its Southwest editions to memorialize her.
At a time when Lilith Fair has made pop divahood virtually synonymous with self-indulgent whiteness, hearing Selena clubify "La Bamba" or growl her way through "No Debes Jugar" couldn't sound more refreshing -- or more culturally necessary. After all, Selena was the anti-Lilith: brown, bilingual and blessed with a big Texas bottom that she flaunted in the
face of both Latino and Anglo bleached-blond beauty standards.
But if "Anthology" is about the pleasures of memory, it's also about the
pitfalls of marketing it. Instead of an actual retrospective, "Anthology" is
a selectively compiled tour of three different phases of Selena's career --
"Pop/English," "Mariachi" and "Cumbia"-- only nearly every original song
has been remastered, remixed and rerecorded by Selena's brother and
songwriting partner, A.B. So the rural ranchera of "Yo Fui Aquella" is now a
sugary, pop ballad, and the salsa tendencies of "La Puerta Se Cerr" have been
channeled into a mariachi-laced cumbia. Which makes "Anthology," depending
on where you stand in the remix-after-death debate, either a polished pop
treasure chest that keeps Selena's commitment to constant change alive or a
dubious and somewhat cruel exercise in exploitation that treats her catalog
as an endless fountain of profit.
On Disc 1 (Selena's head), we meet crossover Selena, the last Selena to go
public. Ever since her teen debut with Selena y los Dinos, Selena had her sights set on a bilingual commercial breakthrough, a goal partially realized on the triple platinum "Amor Prohibido" (with its "Techno-Cumbia" and its Pretenders make-over "Fotos y Recuerdos") and more
fully achieved with the more English-heavy hits of "Dreaming of You" (which
included "God's Child," her duet with David Byrne). On "Anthology," her
genre-juggling skills shine as she flies through makeshift Latin house
("Amame"), eases into generic dance-floor schlock ("I'm Getting Used to
You") and rattles off '80s synth-happy freestyle as if she were Debbie Deb
or Lisa Lisa ("Always Mine").
By putting this disc first, her father reminds us that Selena's fame and
success weren't based on her reputation as an interpreter of traditional song styles. As with the flashy clothes she designed and sold at her boutique, Selena Etc. (remember the purple pantsuit Jennifer Lopez wore at the beginning of the biopic "Selena"),
Selena had a knack, not for preserving regional styles, but for transforming
them into colorful pop hybrids.
The mariachis and cumbias on Discs 2 and 3 (her waist
and legs) bear witness to this. The new mix of "Dame Tu Amor" has
enough brass and strings to make it sound like a Bacharach-penned ranchero,
and "Qu* Creas" proves that when she needed to, Lake Jackson, Texas'
favorite good girl could be all finger-pointing fierceness. And though
"Anthology" curiously omits the adored "Amor Prohibido," it at least has the
good sense to wind down with the playful and commanding "Baila Esta
Cumbia," a quintessential slice of cumbia-pop that rightfully remains one
of Selena's most beloved singles.
When Selena played the Houston Astrodome in 1994 and mixed a number of
these songs with her own refried medley of disco classics ("Last Dance,"
"The Hustle," "On the Radio"), she was living directly within the Tejano
pop moment. The same medley shows up on "Anthology," but in place of 61,000
screaming fans (the same number who visited her casket when it was on
public display at a convention center), we get drum machines. Her
performance is still stunning; only now, all we're left with is a manufactured memory.