News of the passing of Alberto Aguilera Valadez, better known as Juan Gabriel, were received with shock and grief by millions of fans in his native Mexico and across the Spanish-speaking world. At the time of his death he was the best-selling recording artist in Mexico’s history. He wrote and performed thousands of romantic songs, including some of his country’s most unforgettable ballads. His concerts were legendary for their pageantry. He was, however, much more than a beloved singer, stage and screen presence. While always working within the strict confines of Latin romantic pop, Juan Gabriel was a groundbreaking artist who sought to alter established norms regarding sexuality and gender roles in his society. In his lyrics, he introduced weak and flawed men who could not simply control the women in their lives. Through his flamboyant performing style, he also became a gay icon. He brought new ways of talking and behaving into the cultural mainstream. While he will be greatly missed, his career left a profound and indelible mark.
Juan Gabriel’s specialty was the first-person confessional ballad. While many of his predecessors used this form in romantic songs, Juan Gabriel broke with tradition by introducing a new kind of man. Rather than being stoic and bent on revenge against the woman who wronged them or the men who stole their love, Juan Gabriel’s men were not afraid to show emotion and weakness. In “Me He Quedado Solo,” for example, a man bewails the loss of his love; he is not afraid to show emotion – “You have left me alone and crying/I ask the heavens that you come back to me” – or to admit his mistakes – “Now that you are far from me/I realize how much I love you.”
In over 1,500 songs, Juan Gabriel’s men reveal their inner selves, their flaws, their fates, through one-sided dialogues with the objects of their devotion: current, former, or prospective lovers. In “Hasta Que Te Conocí,” he complaints to his beloved: “I was happy/I lived well/Until I met you.” In “Querida” he pines for the lover that left him for another: “Tell me when you will come back!” In “Por Qué Me Haces Llorar” he bewails his unrequited love: “You mock me/You laugh at me!” In “Inocente Pobre Amigo” he is spiteful: “That fool who wants you/and fell for you/doesn’t know what he is in for.” In “Adios Amor, Te Vas” he is plaintive: “I love you so/Why do you go?” Some songs are uplifting, like “Ya No Vivo por Vivir,” some terribly depressing, like “Yo No Nací para Amar.”
Juan Gabriel said throughout his career that one of his goals was to introduce femininity to the men in Mexican popular music. But this was only part of his influence. It was well understood by his audience that Juan Gabriel was gay. He had a flamboyant performing style and had a penchant for wearing outrageous outfits reminiscent of the American musician Liberace. There were also many rumors about his personal life, stormy affairs with men and a distant, almost professional, relationship with the mother of his children.
Almost from the beginning, his songs were appropriated by Mexico’s underground gay community. Drag queens took on his mannerisms, gay clubs blared his music, and many of his songs accompanied pro-gay-rights parades and marches. Many of them were assumed to have coded messages about homosexuality. One of the earliest, “El Noa Noa,” talks about a dance club where everyone can dance and be who they want to be. In “Ya No Vivo por Vivir,” he seems to complain about the difficulty of finding love in a world that doesn’t understand him. A late-career hit, “Pero Qué Necesidad,” was widely assumed to be a coded anthem in favor of gay marriage: “There is nothing like the freedom,” he sings, “to be, to go, to do, to speak, to love without shame.”
In the 1970s and 80s the Mexican public, religious and socially conservative, would not embrace an openly gay performer. As a result, Juan Gabrel and his managers sought to cultivate a heartthrob persona for him, especially early in his careers. He starred in several films in which he seduced and passionately kissed beautiful women, and he was always sure to be seen in public with female celebrities, suggesting but never explicitly declaring romantic ties. His outfits too, early on, were more subdued and masculine. Ironically, during this period Juan Gabriel allegedly entered into his first serious relationship, with his manager Joaquín Muñoz Muñoz. According to Muñoz’s memoir, Juan Gabriel y Yo, the two would canoodle backstage before and after concerts, and would go on long romantic trips together. Juan Gabriel never confirmed the veracity of this account, but the many pictures in Muñoz’s book left little doubt that they were true.
As he became more successful, Juan Gabriel became emboldened to let his true personality loose, especially onstage. He was better seen than heard, was the consensus among his fans, and best of all seen live. His carefully sculpted hair and outrageous outfits became legendary. He swayed his hips and shoulders, he snapped his head back teasingly, he snapped his wrists, puckered his lips, winked at his audience. In a famous interview, upon being asked point-blank about his sexuality, he retorted: “lo que se ve no se pregunta” (“what you can see you don’t need to ask about”).
Despite the more open attitude, his fans, men and women, young and old, remained loyal. The effeminate mannerisms did not, could not, go unnoticed, but his popularity never wavered. Through his talent and his art he forced himself into acceptance. This required a certain willful blindness on the part of his fans, who loved the dancing an the music and knew who and what their idol was, as long as he didn’t speak openly about it. The gay and lesbian communities adopted him as their own, as did other marginalized groups, such as sex workers. Their love was fierce and loud, and there is every indication Juan Gabriel was delighted by it.
The acceptance of Juan Gabriel for who and what he was became undeniable during what was perhaps his most memorable performance: the concert he headlined at Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes in May of 1990. The Mexican Ministry of Culture had invited Juan Gabriel to perform as part of an effort to raise funds for the National Symphony Orchestra. These days nobody would blink at such an arrangement. Juan Gabriel was already a musical icon after all, with two decades of stardom on stage and in film and multiple gold records under his belt. In 1990 the news was received with horror by the self-appointed guardians of good taste and moral respectability. It was outrageous, argued his critics, that an artist like Juan Gabriel be allowed to perform at Bellas Artes, the nation’s cathedral of high culture. He was nothing but a romantic balladeer, they argued, the peddler of schlocky, escapist, melodramatic kitsch. To add insult to injury he was “a queer,” a “degenerate,” who would stain the pristine stage with his presence.
As it turned out, Juan Gabriel silenced his detractors with the pure, joyful energy of his performance. Clad in a golden vest and a sequined ensemble, he shimmied and winked and blew kisses at his fans, who knew every word of his songs by heart. He embodied the popular tastes and forced them into the cultural conversation. “I must do everything with love,” he crooned, accompanied by some of his country’s finest classical musicians. “Maybe this night will be my night/I want to feel alive once more!” He faced the high-browed intellectuals that night, the conservative gatekeepers, the snobs, the homophobes. And he triumphed over them all.