I “Cannot But Feel Exactly What They Felt” – On Rosalía, duende, and the heart in pop music
By Mandus Ridefelt
I guess we’ve all been there – that molten, not-necessarily hot-mess after endlessly pressing repeat on that latest track which happens to be able to take you on. Where and how does it happen? This fiddling of emotions between something that is your heart and something that is a heart in a pop production.
SCENE 1: PIENSO EN TU MIRÁ
The first shot of the video to Rosalía’s “Pienso En Tu Mirá” (“I Think About Your Gaze”) is a close up of a female figurine holding a guitar, dressed in a furbelow Sevillana dress. The epitome of Flamenco culture. The figurine dangles from the rearview mirror of a speeding truck, which eventually drives into a wall. Next, Rosalía enters the frame. A wind blows back the hood covering her face and a group of veiled women in black robes garner her with gold as if a wedding were about to happen. Or a funeral for that matter. Already now, the basic tensions of Rosalía’s icons and themes are sketched.
Flamenco, the Romani and Andalusian musical tradition, is brought into a realm of motorized pop-modernity, here in the shape of some lacquered truck-stop-aesthetics. The collective of black robed dancers asserts that feminine opulence always resided the cusp of some death. Elegance and pain – two sides of the same coin.
Somewhere here, duende can happen. Duende is an often referred to dark quality of Flamenco performances that makes the irrationalities of deaths and pains musically palpable. “Pienso En Tu Mirá” (and its video) is quickly staked on how the duende of age-old Flamenco traditions come together with the sounds of a glossy “hyperbae” whose chunky trainers are already firmly dug down in some future of pop.
In this text, I want to think with this conjunction. Not the conjunction of this skewed globalised make-believe moment when “styles” and “times” mix, but the conjunction of those minute aesthetic paradigms that arises over and over again, in each and every little piece of sound and music. The pop sounds shape our imagination just as more institutionally sanctioned culture does (for example, written literature). So let’s think with them, hear their imagination and follow urges like Alexander Wehlieye’s of “exalt their becoming”, instead of enclosing them. What is in an exalted becoming in the sounds of Rosalía? What is the autonomous proposition arising between the forces of a duende of Flamenco and an effervescent hyperpop envelope?
A DARK MOOD BOARD
Duende is a quality that can be found in Flamenco singing and dancing, but also in any other art. In a lecture from 1933 called “Theory of and Play of the Duende”, Frederico García Lorca characterizes the duende through wordings like “Dark sounds, behind which in tender intimacy exist volcanoes, ants, zephyrs, and the vast night pressing its waist against the Milky Way.” The duende is irrational, dark, emotional, devilish, a neighbor-of-death, painful, spiritually heightened and exaggerated. It is a struggle rather than a thought. It is not some virtuoso skill to be consumed from a distance but implicates its listener in the emotional combat that shapes the body of its idiom. These descriptions echo what other people have written about duende. What they have told me in person about it, how it is represented in films and writing. And indeed my own experience resonates with these. These descriptions surrounding the duende are a mood-board. The music will always make its case autonomously and the mood of the music is dark.
And yet, there is always more to the story. There is always more when describing music and its vicinities. It is often the case that one ends up describing that which undoes its description. “More”, here, is meant in the sense of Alexandra T. Vazquez’s writings, where the story of what is outside of musical hegemony is never a story of how the outside came to enter hegemonic legibility, but always how these outsides made the hegemony possible in the first place. So the question is not what is duende in Rosalía, but rather, what can we do with Rosalía’s duende that unsettles what we thought we knew by heart about the emotionality of pop music. And how this unsettling might allow us to flow differently through pop music in general? This is where I try to begin writing with Rosalía, Gitana/o musics, duende and emotions in pop.
GENERIC PASSIONS AT THE BEACH
Duende as an idea was popularized in the 1930s, a popularization that is strongly associated with the work of poet and playwright Federico García Lorca. García Lorca’s oeuvre engaged intensely with Romani and Andalusian traditions and, in particular, Flamenco music. At the onset of the Spanish civil war in 1936, García Lorca, being an outspoken socialist writing homoerotic poetry, was murdered by nationalist forces.
When coming into power after the civil war, the Franco-regime put García Lorca’s work under a strict ban that was not lifted until 1956. This was a point in time when international isolation had left the fascist regime in dire need of money. One of the regime’s answers to its economic problems was to aggressively develop an industry of tourism, which, in turn, needed a suitable Spanish national identity to sell the destination. Suddenly, García Lorca’s work on Romani culture and the duende, in particular, became indispensable, in no small part because the poet was born into an upper-class Spanish majority. This made him a more legible messenger for the fascist-nationalist project than any first-hand minority Romani sources on the Flamenco culture.
Naturally, García Lorca’s intentions were skewed. No longer did his work amount to a witnessing of the arts of a largely Romani political reality, its dirt and struggles, but reshaped around a politically depotentiated notion of a generic “passion”. This picturesque imaginary of Franco’s Spanish stereotypes is the basis of the audiovisual landscape reproduced on post-cards and records; (re)enacted along Costa del Sol and, perhaps unavoidably, travels all the way into the first frame of “Pienso En Tu Mirá” (this book addresses the topic). In some form, the qualities of the duende lures in these imaginaries too, threaded into and in-between the layers of appropriation, exploitation and strategic recontextualization. And, indeed, my encounter with Rosalía happens in the wake of these histories of the duende. Their hauntings echo throughout Rosalía’s musical iconography, between the duende and pop music success-stories of the 2020s.
DUENDE AS NARRATIVE
Maria Fernandez Pello introduces an account of duende that reaches beyond these schemes. Her inquiry rejects the mode of musical ethnography formed under a colonial logic based on discovering, locating, describing and turning into commodity. Instead, Pello quite quickly concludes that no unified thing that is duende exists. Pello’s idea is that the description and function of duende crucially depends on narrative.
For example, if you make a living from ticket sales and sangria servings in a tourist tablao (authentic flamenco saloon), the pastoral narrative around Flamenco culture as an indispensable pivot in fascist dictator Franco’s Spanish nationalist project is something keeping business afloat. If you are a musician performing at these tablaos or doing duende elsewhere, the duende might exist in an unsettled negotiation between the wear and tear of the everyday life of a working musician. The love of the music, and leading a life through the music are part of continuing a living heritage. If you are an avant-gardist poet, like García Lorca, the aesthetics of duende might be foregrounded. Its liminal state between death and non-death entices, so does its propensity to “destruct and reconstruct form” in the course of one performance, as García Lorca writes.
What is Rosalía’s narrative when writing and producing for chart-topping hyperpop-reggaeton-duende tracks? Where does the duende shape in her songs on the 2018 album “El Mal Querer” (The Bad Love)?
SCENE 2: DE AQUÍ NO SALES
Perhaps it is in “De Aquí No Sales” (“You Won’t Be Leaving Here”) that the most acute juxtaposition of the duende and pop music resides. It is one of the less smooth listens of the “El Mal Querer” album, perhaps since it is the track that takes these two main elements furthest in dialogue, blurring their respective forms while retaining each of their temperaments and mannerisms crystalline.
“De Aquí No Sales” starts out with what could be interpreted as a testimony of domestic abuse. The melody is unsettled, improvisatory. A scarred darkness is trembling inside the phrases, existing side by side with the hands-on-combat of a duende. The vocal performance is intense insofar it demonstratively holds back much more than it gives away. Here is the trembling quality that asserts that scars do not heal. Instead, they turn into a threat of disobedience, an irreversible change that no longer can be assimilated into subjugation, if so patriarchal or neoliberal. Kawasaki roars and police sirens punctuate the vocals from afar, rhythmically arranged and tonally organized. The melody continues to dwell in the autotune effect. It insists on long semi-improvised lines and embellishments that seep into the cracks between the 12-tone grid of modern western totality. Letting the voice crack is an idiomatic of the duende, but now heard through pop and its fleeting technologies. The autotune cracks and whines when Rosalía aims for the microtonal-pitches derived from the influence of Arabic maquamats on Flamenco. Suddenly, the software effects facilitate a different kind of musicality than what they were constructed for. They become disruptors, waiting to become sonic idioms of their own, if not already being that. About halfway through, an agitated bulería is struck up by claps and snaps, a sonic watermark of Flamenco. The morphing rhythm becomes the backdrop for a chopped-up montage of Rosalía’s “oohs” and “aahs”.
Another layer of intimacy is added by the mixing of Jaycen Joshua whose “expensive” style of coupling deepened percussion with high resolution, dry vocals has recently become a staple in the Latin pop industry. The mixing technique always keeps an unprocessed vocal line at the front of the sound, adding effects just a blink of an eye later. All in all, it fits perfectly into Spotify-lists called things like hyperpop, Latin-pop or even deconstructed club, yet, a tension lingers. Its head-on emotionality; its felt sincerity results in a dissonance with the hyperpop envelope’s basic principle – artificialization. Perhaps it is too obvious. Still, I think it is here that there is more to the story.
A PARADOX OF POP AND FEELING
By threading itself into the pop music idiom, “De Aquí No Sales”, poses a challenge for anyone whose ears stumble over the track, intentionally or not. The specific aspect of pop that this challenge points to is that everyone, fans and writers alike, knows that pop is a product to be sold. Thus even a minimal critical perspective would have to hold that the stories told, and the sounds heard, cannot be fully trusted. They are designed to capture you, sedate you or do anything that propagates further sales. So goes the gospel. Yet, many of us are captured and emotionally moved. Perhaps even unintentionally, not as some solitary listener hearing a song for the first time, but as enmeshed in the sonic structures and embedded emotions that a ubiquitous presence of pop music makes sure we know, like it or not.
Without dwelling in this too long, pop music can be said to exist in an aesthetical and political space where a desire and capability of becoming captured, becoming emotionally engaged, becoming entertained, hearing something that makes the world look ever so slightly otherwise, seems to override the residual critical insight of the said dangers of giving in to a capitalist delusion. “De Aquí No Sales” inserts the moods and markers of the duende right into this kind of pop almost ostensibly. The narrative of duende in Rosalía, must be exactly this imaginary. Pop music has duende. Pop is yet another narrative of duende. The dark earthly spirits of duende is possible in pop, they speak with pop music too. They become a part of this enmeshment. They too can enter the basic paradox of me offering taking on an emotion brought by a deceptive songwriter. Where does such folding together of pop and duende plunge us? Perhaps it is in a different direction than the way the duende has entered a western pop canon through white acts on a black market, trading in the currency of goth; I’m thinking about Nico, Nick Cave, Diamanda Galàs and David Sylvian.
PERFORMANCE IN THE TRACK/PERFORMANCE IN THE EARPHONES
Maria Fernandez Pello offers another narrative that closes in on Rosalía’s folding of duende and pop music better than the previous examples – performativity. She connects the duende to what performance theory calls an “actual”, for example through Richard Schechner’s work. The actual refers to forms of rituals, musics, arts (and performances in general) that depend on being perceived as real. This stands in opposition to representational paradigms. For example, a pop song can move us because it convincingly represents and conveys a certain feeling, perhaps the feeling of a pain cutting so deep it digs into the soil of a devil. Still the song is not the feeling itself, it depicts, portrays and conveys.
An actual refers to a different set of occasions and premises. It refers to a moment when there is no way to tell whether someone on a stage or similar setting is “just” performing or if such performance participates in reality in the same way as anything else. It is no longer about conveying something, but being that something. In this way, the actual might offer another wiring of time and causality. For any performance to become an actual, it needs its audience present physically or otherwise. Since this audience is a crucial part of what the “actual” form of duende is tapping into, one might even say that it is not the singer that has duende, but the audience, or the spectator in Bojana Cveijc’s wording. The transmission of the art from the song to the listener might not be entirely reversed, but at least it is unsettled. It sounds like pop music indeed, the duende allows us to think with and through pop.
This narrative around the duende is suggestive of a space in which music does not exist before its consumption. The emotional effect of a song in “a listener” becomes the precondition for the possibility and actuality of the cause of this emotional effect. Already from the first note of a pop song or a duende performance, the recipient is implicated. Some kind of code or vernacular of affective comprehension is already in place. Just as the pop song is always already endowed with its listener (and vice versa) through their commercial and intensive entanglement, the duende of performed actuals cannot make come into actuality without its affected recipients. It doesn’t sound like you’re singing your heart out if there is no one there to hear it.
This might be a particularly efficient pop aesthetics. The mood of the duende, its dark spiritual combat is, at least in a western imaginary, properties found within individuality and personal interiority. Yet, both the duende and the way pop songs are shaped like fleeting gods on their quest for licking some attention juice from our brains’ pineal glands; both of them seem to place these spiritual and emotional energies somewhere outside the individual. Maybe somewhere in between. And indeed, it is a very different notion of duende than the shape of enforced essentialism and chrono-political othering given by Franco’s PR department.
“CANNOT BE FAKED”
García Lorca also taps into these narratives: duende “cannot be faked”, he has it. Because it cannot be faked, it cannot be representational, but is somewhat more identical with it itself. Yet, what this itself is does not need to be interior emotions, like those mood-board adjectives. It can look and sound like it, though. Perhaps, García Lorca already conjoined the performative actuals and the duende? They are shared understandings between singer/audience/other that the question of whether it is fake or not is useless. It sounds like a good way to think with pop music as well. The space opening up through such a declaration is eerie and airy.
SCENE 3: MALADICIÓN
On one side, Rosalía’s embellished vocals tell the story of a love that has to end because at least the mad one does not feel the pain of such love. She is accompanied by a walking bass and the snaps of another bulería. On the other side: a warped Arthur Russell-sample, humming gone even hummier. Squashed in-between, cutting them apart, holding them together: the sword from the Legend of Zelda ripping through the track after some quick, precocious groans of Link.
Rosalía tells the Schumannesque stories of that second before madness in a way that makes them easily recognizable, with the duende and all expressive feats of vocalism. The sword of Link unsettles where this story and music take place. It is a sonic logotype from a game-world, a world contrasting to the western imaginary of singer-songwriterly performance as it comes with a claim of ownership of feelings, warranting them through the experience of the performer. But the sword cuts the song apart and makes bankrupt the idea that Rosalía herself is the warrant of the story. The music happens on the same surface as the sword cuts it apart, between worlds. Exactly there, between. Just like the second before madness it trembles between knowing oneself and unknowing oneself.
EFFECTS BEFORE CAUSES
When writing about the protagonist of Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower”, Denise Ferriera Da Silva closes in on something that allows us to parse the conjunction between duende and pop. “When near or in the sight of another person who is experiencing strong emotional or physical sensations, Lauren Olamina cannot but feel exactly what they felt. Now her empathy is such that there is no distinction between real or fake: If someone fake their pain, she feels it; and if someone dies of a physical wound, she can die with them.”
For Ferreria Da Silva, this is about “transversability”, a counter-imaginaries to the spatiotemporal determinism of universal reason. It holds an infinite possibility of going back and forth through time and causality. In Ferreria Da Silva’s writings, this transversability is connected to her insistence on the debt of colonial imperialism to be de facto paid back. In my text here, the same imaginary of transversability speaks by how it precludes the question of the fake. When effects can occur before causes, it makes little sense to put any weight to the question of how real something is.
When what is real and not wanes as the warrant of this musical situation, it seems to be more about how all its emotional and aesthetic energies configure in a social space. Duende in pop. Pop in duende. This intermingling produces an imaginary where things can be undone, that is, changed by the delayed arrival of its previously unknown cause. A cause that has not yet become a cause. It does seem as if the listener determines the actual expression of the song, no matter how much later in time it is heard. Pop exists here, in this ambiguity with duende as well. Rosalía places these two modes up onto the same topological plane. It is like a growing-plants-in-space-experiment: if duende can exist here, in the perennial-fake-form of pop music, then duende was never about the individual performer’s ability to convincingly convey its moods. Yet, we feel it, even in space.
Just as Lauren Olamina’s empathy makes her feel exactly what someone else feels, the strong emotional sensations of duende come into being through them coming into relation. To bring pop and the duende together is an intensification of the insight that expression and feelings in pop and in duende somehow always preexisted themselves. They happen in you, in me, in Rosalía but this does not entirely enclose them. There is always more to the story. Somewhere here resides one autonomous proposition of Rosalía’s music. And the point of all this is not to highlight another spectacle of crumbling truth in the realm of popular culture. Rather the point is to enter into the groove of this music’s rituals, rules and conditions. They are both symptoms and liberations.