There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think Julieta Venegas is a genius and those who’ve never heard her music before.
Okay, I exaggerate a little. But if by some cruel twist of fate you belong to the latter group, I would like to do you the great service of moving you to the former. The California-born singer-songwriter, who released her seventh solo studio album, “Algo Sucede” (Something Happens), in 2015, has by now reached iconic status. And for good reason. Just go a head and listen to “Me Voy” (“I Am Leaving”), her best known and most successful single. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
See? Didn’t I tell you? Venegas has earned a prominent place among the female Latin American pop stars of her generation. Less commercial than Shakira, less angry than Paulina Rubio, she shares with both a self-assured and very personal approach to art, and life. How many other stars of her caliber accompany themselves on the accordion while onstage? Rather than intimidate with her voice, as the other two superstars do, she purrs, she cajoles. When she does up the volume, she wails rather than roars. Her music and stage persona are sweet, friendly, intensely feminine, yet not oversexualized. Her lyrics and musical compositions are deceptively straightforward, focusing on love, longed-for or lost, always with a more intriguing undercurrent of fatalism balanced by some clever, self-aware and self-referential humor.
It would take a long time to go over her enormous impact both inside and outside the music world. Her proverbial shelf is stuffed with awards, Grammys and Latin Grammys and uncounted local recognitions across Latin America and beyond. She has topped the charts and performed with such names as Diego Torres, Ana Tijoux, and Nelly Furtado. Her songs appear on the soundtrack of kickass Latin films like “Amores Perros” and “Subterra”. She’s been named a UNICEF ambassador and performed at the Nobel Peace Price Award ceremony in Olso, Norway.
She is equally lovely all dolled up for a concert or a music video and pared down, makeup free for quieter encounters. Check out her three-song performance for National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk concert series. (It’s ok. I’ll be here. Just do it).
Of all her songs, though, the one that people will still be listening to in twenty years will be the delightful, irresistible title single from her 2006 album “Limón y Sal” (“Lemon and Salt”). It has one of those sweet-as-honey melodies that, once you hear them, seem like they have always existed. The refrain, in particular, imprints on your mind like the most memorable lullabies from childhood. Humming it out loud just makes you happy.
As is her habit, Venegas pours onto this light-hearted musical canvas her thoughtful, often cryptic lyrics. “I must confess something to you”, she opens, “I don’t like the way you are”. “You disappear”, she complains, “you get in a strange mood once a month”. There’s a jokey reference to the werewolf of legend here, and also to the common complaint men make of women’s monthly cycle, but also a subtle sense of dread. “I must confess now”, sings Venegas, “I never believed in happiness”.
How are we to take the meaning of the words? Is this a fantastical tale of a girl in love with a mythical creature? Are these, maybe, just the normal growing pains of love, in which your perfect crush gradually turns into a flawed, but more real, human being? “I love you with lemon and salt”, goes the refrain, “I love you just as you are”. Good for her, you think. Good for them. Or, then again, is this a darker relationship, one of dependency, imbalance, domination? “I love you if you come or if you go/if you’re up or down/ if you’re not sure of what you feel”. Is there a hint of pleading here, of desperation? A veiled call for help, perhaps?
It’s quite a trick to create a pop song that will work as well for the naïve preteen set as for a more mature audience, knowledgeable about the pitfalls of love. Even more it is to craft a music video that captures the single’s delicious ambiguity while adding a unique visual flare. The video for “Limón y Sal” is shot in sepia tones as a faux film from the turn of the 20th century. The bright-faced Venegas effortlessly turns herself into a Charlie Chaplin heroine, exaggerating her movements and facial expressions, showing off her comedic instincts.
In the video, Venegas is paired with a wolf-headed creature who, we learn, occasionally turns into a man. This horrifies the girl, who after all just wants him to stay who and what he is. Venegas places a giant fish in a frying pan (alluding to an image that also appears in the video for “Me Voy”) while her wolf husband smokes a pipe in his rocking chair. Then things get weird. There’s an evil wizard who appears and disappears in puffs of smoke. There is a unicorn, and a giant ball of yarn that Venegas is presumably weaving into gold like the luckless heroine in “Rumpelstiltskin”. There are two military-looking creatures with pig faces and paws marching through the woods, and an elephant-faced one playing a giant drum. There are loads and loads of apples (are they symbols of lost innocence, as in the story of Adam and Eve, or perhaps harbingers of danger, as in “Snow White”?), and finally a beautiful horned boy (who turns out to be a goat-legged satyr) playing what sounds suspiciously like the first stanza of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”.
See? I told you it was weird. None of it is supposed to make complete sense. It’s all silly, in good fun. “Limón y Sal” is, for the most part, just a lovely song that you’ll never be able to get out of your head. And yet, there’s always that sense that Venegas is going for a little more depth, a little more complexity, like she knows something, and she wants to tell you, but you have to do the work yourself. And that just makes it even better. Here, go ahead and watch it. I dare you to tell me I’m wrong.