Classics of Latin Music: “Qué Te Pasa” by Yuri

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Thirty years ago, Yuri spoke the language of urban young in Latin America. Her upbeat, accessible brand of pop, heavily influenced by American singers like Madonna and Samantha Fox, made her a household name first in her native Mexico and later across the Spanish-speaking world. By the time “Aire” (“Air”), her seventh studio album was released, Yuri was at the height of her fame.

The first single release from the album was “Qué Te Pasa?” (“What’s the Matter with You?”), a sunny song with a danceable uptempo beat that became one of the biggest Latin pop hits of the 1980s. Partly because it contrasted nicely with the more maudlin hits dominating the charts at the time, partly because it incorporated the instrumentation of salsa bands into its pop sensibility (following the pioneering example of Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine), and partly because of Yuri’s fresh-face-with-an-edge presence, “Qué Te Pasa?” rose like a rocket to the top, and then stayed there. It spent sixteen weeks at No.1 on the Billboard Hot Latin Songs list, a record for a female Latin singer only recently broken by Shakira.

“What’s the matter with you?” Yuri wants to know, accoutered in all the trappings of late ’80s fashion (bleached-blond, puffed up hair, ripped jeans, jewelry from the mall), “What are you doing home?” Rather than focus on the pain of lost love, “Qué Te Pasa?” moves right onto the aftermath, when a broken heart begins to heal and what one needs is a friendly push to get out there and try again. “In the end/ just like me/ with your soul in pieces/ you start again/ always from zero.”

A generation later, “Qué Te Pasa?” is an artifact of its time. It’s hard to believe that young listeners today, accustomed to the coarser imagery and street stylings of hip-hop and reggaeton, would have much time for it. This isn’t the fault of Yuri or of José Ramón Flores, who penned the song. They were riding straight down the middle of the mainstream in Latin American pop: apolitical, chaste (at least on the surface), risk-averse. While in the United States and Britain such a worldview had been pushed aside for good by the end of the 1960s, it reigned supreme in Spanish (and in most other languages around the world) well into the 1990s.

Despite its success, “Qué Te Pasa?” was a miscalculation, or at least a missed opportunity, on the part of Yuri and her team. They gave the sound and rhythm of “tropical music” a try but made sure it was subsumed by the pop sound, presumably believing that audiences preferred the latter to the former. But the coming years would show that not to be the case, as musicians such as Juan Luis Guerra and Carlos Vives brought the “tropical” sounds of bachata and vallenato into the mainstream and to the top.

Yuri never fully acclimated to the new normal, and her career took a stumble in the late 90s and early 2000s. But the last decade has seen her return to the fore and now, thirty years into her musical journey, she has settled into her role of elder stateswoman of Mexican pop.

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