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Just Say No Más

In which we examine Cancuntry music

With each passing week, my stack of country-CDs-with-cheesy-songs-about-Mexico-on-them grows ever taller, and another Cinco de Mayo is upon us. What better time than now to examine this strange phenomenon?

Back in the '50s and before, the Mexico of popular American song was a place you went at your peril. The songs were like audio versions of Westerns, and the narrators were sure to either come across a doomed romance with a sweet señorita or end up at the wrong end of some pistolero's Colt .45. Or both -- in the Marty Robbins classic "El Paso," the young cowboy met his doom on the north side of the Rio, all for the love of a Mexican girl.

In the '60s and '70s, there was still a whiff of danger, and the songwriters were still pretty focused on gritty border towns -- and the whoring and smuggling therein. This is Boys Town music, fraught with sex and death: Sir Douglas Quintet's "Nuevo Laredo" begins with a Zona Rosa flirtation with a black-haired beauty and ends with a pell-mell flight back to San Antone; in a Billy Joe Shaver song made famous by Waylon Jennings, a railroaded loser declares from a Matamoros jail that "There Ain't No God in Mexico"; Warren Zevon sang that he was "all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town" in "Carmelita"; and ZZ Top sang the praises of Acuña's "Mexican Blackbird."

But in about 1975, with the advent of cheap air travel to coastal resorts, people quit traveling to border towns, and the music followed. (Today, only real live Mexicans sing about border towns and the drug trade.) Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville," James Taylor's "Oh Mexico" and Eddy Raven's "I Got Mexico" presented us with Mexico as the land of perpetual escape, and today, the Mexico of American song -- mainly country -- is as sanitized for your protection as any Mayan Riviera all-inclusive worth its salt. (And lime and tequila.)

"Margaritaville" and the others marked the advent of what we like to call Cancuntry music (that's pronounced "con-COON-tree" -- get your mind out of the gutter). It sounds like regular mainstream country, but there are usually flourishes of Spanish guitar, odd bits of accordion and the occasional marimba riff. Cancuntry's most obvious trait is the lyrics.

In almost every example, all of Mexico is reduced to a breeze-kissed spit of palm-shaded sand, dotted with thatched bungalows and awash in gallons of tequila, rum, cerveza and the jagged jangling of Spanish guitars, a place devoid of clouds, concrete and demanding bosses on the one hand, and actual Mexicans on the other, save for waiters and bartenders. (And, of course, the occasional exotic and compliant señorita.)

There's a popular bit of armchair Freudianism that goes like this: Canada is the cerebral, conscientious superego of North America, and Mexico the pleasure-seeking id. America is the ego, torn between logic and its Puritan work ethic and animal desires for money, sex and violence. In an interview with NPR correspondent Scott London, Mexican-American intellectual Richard Rodriguez agreed with the idea. "Yes, that's quite accurate," he said. "And isn't it curious how it corresponds to the topography of the body, too? Mexico is sex and Canada is mind."

And apparently the writers of these songs agree too, because today Cancuntry is ubiquitous. The editors of a Web site called Mayanholiday.com even put together a top ten list of Cancuntry tunes, though they didn't use the term. (The Buffett, Taylor and Raven songs were all in the top six.)

Another on the list is Toby Keith. When ol' Toby's not a-sangin' about kickin' the crap out of A-rabs, he loves him some Mexico. In "Good to Go to Mexico," an Okie couple chafes in the bitter winds of November and starts pining for "siestas underneath the sombrero." "It'll be just you and me," Keith croons, "And the moonlight, dancing on the sea / To the Spanish guitar melody of a mariachi band." An actual Mexican person makes a rare cameo appearance -- "We'll find that little man / Who owns that taco stand" -- as do more usual suspects, such as margaritas and sand.

Other Keith songs are a little raunchier than most Cancuntry. In his "Stays in Mexico," "Steve" and "Gina" are very bored and very married middle Americans on vacation sans spouses. They meet at a cantina where they shoot some tequila, dance and then do what comes naturally after that. "Don't bite off more than you can chew / There's things down here the devil himself wouldn't do," Keith advises. "Just remember when you let it all go / What happens in Mexico / Stays in Mexico." And the next day, after a few pangs of guilt -- the phoned-in call to the family, the guilt-ridden shower -- they decide to take those words to heart. "They walked down to the beach and started drinking again / Jumped into the ocean for a dirty swim."

In "Hello," Keith's narrator is just as horny and married but free of regret. This ol' devil's kickin' it in a beachfront bungalow, "doin' that Caribbean thing / I was listenin' to a Spanish guitar, drinkin' margaritas under the stars / With a pretty señorita when the telephone started to ring, guess who?" After a strained conversation and a forgotten deadline for a call-back, "the party was a-rollin' at ten / See, I was workin' on tequila and lime / I guess I never even noticed the time / I was dancin' the iguana when the phone started ringin' again."

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