A Love Letter to… Selena
Your first brush with Selena may have been the extensive news coverage surrounding her devastating murder. Or maybe you caught the 1997 biopic, Selena, starring Jennifer Lopez. Possibly, even, the first Spanish phrase you ever uttered was Bidi Bidi Bam Bam. Somehow, wherever you were, you most likely heard of Selena – the young, quickly-iconic Mexican-American singer from Texas who gracefully ushered in a new era of Latinx visibility in mainstream music
Selena was always intended for stardom. She was just 10 years old when she began performing with Selena y Los Dinos, a Tejano band started by her father, who sold over 80,000 records in Texas alone. Then, in 1982, after EMI’s label boss advised Selena to become a solo artist – aged 12 – she did exactly that. The career that followed in the next decade was significant, at times tumultuous, and, eventually, cut tragically short, after she was shot and killed by her friend and former business partner, Yolanda Saldivar in 1995.
It didn’t take long for Selena to reach pop star status. Shortly following the release of her self-titled debut album in 1989, she was lauded a sex symbol not only by her devoted fanbase but those around her – and that didn’t come without controversy. She was often refused bookings and scrutinised for being a solo female vocalist in a male-dominated industry. Her teachers used to disapprove of her work, voicing their concerns to her family, claiming that a woman shouldn’t be exposed to the music industry at such a young age, let alone wearing such ‘suggestive outfits’. It seemed like every progressive, self-assured characteristic that made Selena a unique and accessible role model was also the biggest target on her head.
Selena’s staunch rejection of the patriarchal structures that are still present in modern-day Latinx culture wasn’t doused in metaphor, nor was it coy or timid, characteristics expected of women in the predominantly conservative climate of late 80s and 90s Latin America. Her brand of feminism was brazen and in-your-face, using the same fiery passion ignited by Latinx culture to kick back at the societal frameworks that she found herself also being subjected to. Perhaps most importantly, Selena represented the female experience in a kinetic, multi-dimensional way. She wasn’t afraid to feel vulnerability, opening frank dialogues about sexual desire and the heartache that comes with pining after someone’s love and affection, while still maintaining emotional autonomy and unwavering self-worth.
"Selena painted her experience not only through her music but through her spirit"
These themes were explicitly explored in her posthumous record, Dreaming of You, which celebrates its 23rd anniversary this month. The album, which still holds the title of best-selling Latin album of all time, felt like a natural progression for her as an artist; the music proudly and firmly embraced its Hispanic roots, but felt like it was sifted through a hazy, rose-tinted R&B filter, echoing the same sounds we hear in music today. At its most personal, listening to Selena felt like reading pages of your own diary out loud in front of an audience.
Selena bridged the gaps between Western and Latinx pop culture. Still, her music was irrevocably Tejano – a style of music that marries traditional Mexican folk with pop sensibilities, making for a sound that can be as laced with upbeat joy as it is with deep longing and lament. This emotional juxtaposition was the subtle, bubbling undercurrent of her entire aesthetic as an artist: from the soft-focus drapes of chiffon that used to follow her around the stage to the bluntly shoulder-padded, ancestral Mexican accents that framed her live performances.
The way she made pop stardom and Latinx womanhood tangible was paramount to those of us who desperately needed representation in mainstream pop culture, as well as for those who didn’t understand it. She painted her experience not only through her music but through her spirit. In many ways, Selena’s story is incomplete. It’s hard to predict where she might’ve been today had she not been murdered, but one fact remains irrefutably clear: Selena is an icon. She was the embodiment of fearlessness, self-assertion and defiance, singlehandedly paving the road for pop music to follow by being a first-hand example of the beauty of multiculturalism, women’s empowerment and, above all, tenderness.