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 seorita 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 Acua'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 seorita.)
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 seorita 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."
Sometimes Mexico figures less as a place to cheat on your spouse than merely a refuge from their crap. In fact, in "That's Why God Made Mexico," Tim McGraw posits that as the sole reason for the nation's existence -- it was ordained by the creator as a sanctuary "where [haggard husbands and worn-out wives] can lay low / And the Cuervo goes down nice and slow / And the warm wind blows." Nags and chauvinist pigs can and should expect their spouses to jet down to Cozumel, where they can "learn to dance the fandango" and "get used to beans and chili paste."
And last but not least, there's Kenny Chesney, who is to Cancn and Cozumel as Jimmy Buffett was to Key West. In "Another Beer in Mexico," his restless thirtysomething narrator is bewildered by his station in life -- "So many thoughts to sit and ponder about life and love and the lack of and this emptiness in my heart / Too old to be wild and free still / Too young to be over the hill still / Trying to grow up but who knows where to start?"
So what to do? "I'll just sit right here and have another beer in Mexico / do my best to waste another day...Let the warm air melt these blues away."
In "Tequila Loves Me," Chesney's still boozing in Mexico, but drunken sulking replaces midlife angst as the rationale. (Powerful American dollars ensure that "forgettin's cheap" down there.) "There's a worm at the bottom of a bottle / That's well within my reach / And the heart that you broke will soon be a joke / As soon as he and I meet." Slightly confusing his Mexican booze -- mescal has worms, not tequila -- and his Romance languages, Chesney's chorus wails that "Madam Tequila's a fine seorita / All my compadres concur / She won't lie, she won't leave in your hour of need / So we're raising our glasses to her."
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Yep, if you haven't guessed it yet, lushin' it up is the common thread of all these songs and more. In Chalee Tennison's "Me and Mexico," her lovesick protagonist "drank some tequila / said who needs ya / I don't have to do this alone / me and Mexico are letting you go." Brooks & Dunn's "Tequila Town" is something of a throwback to the '70s in that it's set in a border town, and there's an element of death to the proceedings, albeit one of the slow suicide variety. His lovesick protagonist is also drinking solo in a Mexican bar -- where he found "her memory in some mescal haze." He plans to "live it up till I live her down / lost in tequila town." Even the underage (in America at least) Blaine Larsen gets in on the act. In "I've Been in Mexico," he explains away his newfound shoddy work ethic on the fact that he's recently been south of the border -- in the song he grandiloquently dubs it "the land of the Aztec sun." And along the way he throws in the obligatory lines about getting over a heartbreak, Mexi-style: "When she left me for another I was down and out / But there's a little cactus cure I've learned about."
And there's plenty more in that jug of Sauza -- Kevin Fowler sings that "all the tequila in Tijuana won't help me feel any stronger / I know it won't help but I'm gonna try / goin' down to Mexico and drinkin' 'em dry." Terri Clark's "Not Enough Tequila" prates on in a similar vein: "Between the sandy beaches and the margaritas / thought I'd find a way to let you go / but there's not enough tequila in Mexico."
Ay, pero seguramente that is enough tequila references for this article. And it all gets me to thinking. It's often said that there are 11 million illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States. While Minutemen types often tar them as drains on the economy because of their insistence on obtaining "luxuries" like health care and educations for their children, even the staunchest Mexiphobe generally admits than the vast bulk of these people come to this country to work.
Which is much more than can be said for the people in these songs. Mexicans come here to work and hope, but if Cancuntry music is to be believed, Americans go there to drink and forget. Looks like NAFTA's working after all.