A brief history of the undisputed queen of Tejano music and why she still matters
By Mario Tarradell
It’s easy to think of Selena Quintanilla Perez as very much alive and with us, especially in Texas. In fact, her vibrant presence hasn’t diminished any since her tragic and untimely death in 1995.
But 2019 has been a milestone year.
There were the usual celebrations on April 16, her birthday, which Texas governor George W. Bush proclaimed as “Selena Day” in 1995. Bush declared that Selena embodied “the essence of South Texas culture.”
Perhaps even more historic is that 30 years ago the masses first heard Selena when her self-titled debut album was released in 1989 on San Antonio-based EMI Latin, the Latin imprint of Capitol-EMI Records.
That record, which showcased a young and promising new female talent in the very male-dominated world of Tejano music, marked the official beginning of a short but meteoric career that crossed over into Latin pop and then, posthumously, Anglo pop.
Selena’s death makes her star burn fervently, there’s no doubt about that. She was only 23. She had just come off her biggest album, the timelessly infectious Amor Prohibido. She had officially been signed to Capitol Records and was recording her first English-language album. She was gaining worldwide momentum. The possibilities were endless.
What could have been? As human beings, we mourn particularly deeply for potential cut short. It wasn’t just that Selena was universally loved; it was that she was poised to take her career, her talent to another level. She was the perfect ambassador to bridge Tejano with pop, Mexico with America, Latin culture with Anglo society.
Yet death wasn’t what catapulted her career. Her legacy was cemented long before that fateful final day in March 1995. She already had a slew of Tejano Music Awards, a Grammy Award, and most tellingly the adoration of men, women, and especially little girls who saw her as the everyday-sweetheart role model.
Amor Prohibido was the clincher. Released March 13, 1994, Amor Prohibido proved to be the artistic and commercial zenith for an immense talent. Sonically, Amor Prohibido took Tejano far beyond its accordion- and keyboards-laced confines. Selena, her brother and record producer A.B. Quintanilla, and her band, Los Dinos, perfected a blend of modern-day Tejano, Latin pop, reggae, old-school Mexican balladry, techno, hard rock, and street corner R&B.
By the close of 1994, Amor Prohibido had sold more than 500,000 copies – only the second Tejano album to ever hit those numbers – thanks to support from both big, Soundscan-reporting retail outlets as well as small, mom-and-pop Latin record shops. Fueled by huge Latin radio hits such as “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” “No Me Queda Más,” “Techno Cumbia,” and the powerful title track, a song about lovers from opposite sides of societal classes, Amor Prohibido remained in the Top 5 of Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart for 53 consecutive weeks.
It was the culmination, merging not only the evolution of her sound but also the amalgamation of her image. Selena was the Tex-Mex Madonna. She had long ago established her fashion sense with the trademark sequined bustiers, the curves-hugging outfits (remember the famed sparkly purple one-piece from the Selena Live album cover and tour?), the carefully placed ruffles, and the sexy mermaid gowns.
Selena personified both purity and sex appeal, freedom and individualism, girl power and wholesomeness. She was a married woman who expertly balanced career demands with private life comforts. Her relationship with husband Chris Perez was, by all accounts, scandal-free. She exemplified the ability to be a Latina and unapologetically fit into American society. These were all qualities young girls wanted to embrace and emulate, and mothers roundly approved.
Those young girls grew up to have baby daughters they named Selena. According to ohbabynames.com, between 1989 and 1995 Selena’s name advanced a whopping 759 positions in the popular girls’ baby names chart. It would eventually sit in the Top 100 list of most favored girl names in America. In Texas, the Selena name ranked the 16th most popular name for 1995. Now that’s the ultimate honor.
Selena’s influence continues today. Her 1997 biopic, Selena, earned $35.5 million at the box office, boasted a soundtrack album that sold 1.6 million copies, and made actress-singer Jennifer Lopez a high-profile celebrity. Singer-actress Selena Gomez, a Texas native, was named after the late Tejano icon.
Selena’s true swan song would be the full-length Dreaming of You, released barely four months after her death. At that time, she’d just finished recording four songs for Dreaming of You, which was intended to be her Anglo pop crossover project. The album gave us a hint of what could have been; sadly, this was the closest we got to that dream. Instead, the13-song disc released by EMI for largely padded with previous Latin and Tejano radio hits.
We were left to wonder. Dreaming of You was a commercial triumph, selling nearly three million copies, but it was merely a peak of what was on the horizon for Selena. Certainly the sales success of the album was fueled by the emotional outpouring after her death, not to mention the curiosity factor of hearing the Tejano music queen on Anglo pop radio crooning the sultry ballads, “I Could Fall in Love” and “Dreaming of You.”
Her fans, and even those first discovering her because of the massive media attention behind her death, wanted to bask in the possibilities. We wanted to believe that Selena could have been a worldwide, Latin to Anglo pop crossover superstar. All arrows certainly pointed her in that direction.
As we look back on what would have been her 48th year, we once again pay homage to her talent, to the effervescent power of her lasting appeal.