If you grew up in the South Texas in the early to mid 90s, it was against the law to not know of Selena Quintanilla. Before the her Grammy win, before her Jennifer Lopez-starring biopic, and before there was a frenzy at local grocery chain HEB over reusable shopping bags with her face on them, Selena was an icon in all of South Texas. The Corpus Christi singer transcended Tejano music and flooded the pop charts before she was murdered by a former employee in 1995. Her birthday, April 16, has become a time to honor the late singer and her legacy. She achieved crossover success with some of her English lyric songs including “I Could Fall in Love With You” and “Dreaming of You,” my favorite has always been her Spanish cover of The Pretenders song “Back on the Chain Gang” retitled “Fotos Y Recuerdos.”
My mom owned Selena’s third solo album Amor Prohibido on cassette and it held a residency in her car for years. I didn’t pay much attention to it, as like most kids I knew, my Spanish was very poor. It wasn’t until I recognized the guitar introduction to “Fotos Y Recuerdos” as the same guitar introduction in “Back on the Chain Gang” by The Pretenders. When I looked up the lyrics to both songs, I realized it didn’t quite match up but ultimately the themes remained consistent. It made me happy to learn that Selena was keen to rock music. This sounds obvious in hindsight, but in 1994, I had perceived her as simply Spanish music. To know that her influences went far beyond Tejano groups, opened me up to what she was all about.
The song maintains the overall reverb sound of the original in the sense that it echoes throughout, but throws in some Cumbia instrumentation including horn synths and what sounds like steel drums with a polka-style bass line that makes the song more dancey. “Back on the Chain Gang” has a sound that for 1983 standards feels ahead of its time. There’s definitely a college rock sound to it that only bands like The Replacements were playing at the time. So for the Quintanilla squad to be able to turn this type of song into a cumbia pop song is impressive on so many levels.
Selena, herself, manages to maintain The Pretenders singer Chrissy Hynde’s articulation – what is ultimately the soul of the original – while still making it sound like a Selena song. Anybody unfamiliar with the original would attest to that. This song ultimately led to her pop chart breakthrough in the years that followed. Selena will forever be a South Texas legend and while so many of her songs are timeless, I will never not smile when I hear “Fotos Y Recuerdos.” She not only brought Mexican American music into the pop culture landscape, but she also transcended how we look and listen to Mexican American music.
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