They say life imitates art. In some cases, though, it takes a long time before that happens. In August of 2011, tens of thousands of high school and university students took to the streets across Chile, to protest the terrible state of the country’s education system. They demanded that the government increase spending on schools and that it open new universities so the nation’s youth could have opportunities to get ahead. The call for change, though, had been made a generation earlier. As the marchers during the so-called Chilean Winter of 2011 well knew, they were picking up the fight first declared in, of all places, a 1980s pop song: “El Baile de los Que Sobran” (“The Dance of the Leftovers”) by Los Prisioneros.
It wasn’t easy to write a song with political overtones in Chile during the ’80s. The country was still under the tight control of the military government led by General Augusto Pinochet (who stayed in power until 1989). Artists who directly challenged the government through “protest music” had a penchant for disappearing and turning up dead. Most musicians preferred to stick to love ballads and dance hits, and away from the eyes of the Secret Police. Los Prisioneros adopted a different strategy. Rather than call out government policing or repression, they took aim at the dissatisfaction of working class youth, who had been promised a better future by Pinochet and his supporters. The problem, according to “El Baile de los Que Sobran,” was education.
A snappy beat underlies the song, inspired by the dance anthems of bands like Depeche Mode and the Pet Shop Boys. Accompanying it is a single acoustic guitar, which lends a slightly sadder and more intimate feel to the music. At the start a dog can be heard barking in the background (apparently a nod to the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No”) followed by the lead singer: “It’s just another night to walk around.” The dog returns at the end of the song, along with some indecipherable human whispers.
The young men depicted in the lyrics are hapless, aimless, lacking any prospects for the future. They spend days “kicking stones” and ruing their parents and teachers, who promised them a better future if they went to school and applied themselves: “But it wasn’t true. Those games ended with others earning their laurels and their future.” The implication is that education is a way forward only for the few lucky ones who went to the best schools and were able to enter higher education: “Others were taught secrets that I wasn’t.” For the majority of Chileans, education is a dead end, a scheme to pacify children that doesn’t deliver in the end. “Join the dance of the leftovers,” calls the band. “Nobody will miss us. Nobody really wanted to help us.”
The song struck a chord not only in Chile but across Latin America, becoming an international hit and one of the most iconic songs in the history of Rock en Español. It showed that a different kind of pop music, subtly political yet still focused on being fun and accessible, was possible. Whether it had any impact on real world events is a different question.
Chile has been democratic for almost three decades. It has become easier to complain and to march in protest. Yet, many of the same problems persist. The young feel like their government is not trying to help them, unless they are lucky enough to be born among the upper echelons of society. They still feel that, after graduating high school, their only option is to join the ever-growing ranks of the leftovers.